Posted by: aboutalbion | February 13, 2013

Rationality and religion

Having argued that rational choice theory might be an appropriate method with which to study religion, Rodney Stark begins his discussion of rationality and religion with a theoretical proposition:

Religion supplies compensators for rewards that are scarce or unavailable.” (p167)

Since the difference between rewards and compensators is not always obvious, Stark attempts to clarify these two terms in the following way.  “We can distinguish compensators from rewards because the [reward] is the thing wanted, the [compensator is] a proposal about gaining the reward.” (p168)

What Stark assumes is that human beings are reward-seeking creatures, and that the rewards that are most sought after by humans are the rewards that are scarcest.  He sees organized religions as commercial enterprises that “offer alternative means for gaining [scarce rewards]: religious compensators are a sort of substitute for desired rewards.” (p168)

So Stark points to immortality as the reward that most human beings desire and that no one can have.

In Stark’s approach, organized religions are commercial enterprises that exist to provide a compensator for the reward of immortality, the “scarcest of all rewards”. (p168)  “Effective religious organizations” advertise themselves as “divinely inspired institutions” and invite subscribers “to enter into a long-term exchange relationship with the divine” described by a narrative that contains “instructions about how that reward [of immortality] can be achieved over the longer term”. (p168)

As Stark sees it, human beings “will always prefer the reward to the compensator, but they will often have no choice …”. (p168)  When a subscriber joins an organized religion, and allows her/his behaviour to be guided by a set of divinely given instructions, the subscriber becomes a public witness to her/his long-term religious commitment and acts out their part of the compensator contract.

Stark adds that he implies “nothing about the truth or falsity of religious compensators.  My interest is limited to the process of rational choice by which humans value … these compensators.” (p169)

[Stark, Rodney (1997) The Rise of Christianity. New York: HarperOne.]


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