Posted by: aboutalbion | February 15, 2013

Risk analysis and the rationality of religion

Rodney Stark continues to lay the foundation for his explanation of the rise of Christianity by discussing the compensators that organized religions produce and bring to the market in place of the unavailability of the reward that most human beings desire, namely, immortality.  (see post 13 February)

On the one hand, the two advantages of a religious compensator are (i) that the narrative accompanying the compensator speaks of opportunities for divine communion on the pilgrimage towards the reward, and (ii) that the reward itself (whether “eternal life, reunion with the departed, a perfected soul, or unending bliss”) is priceless. (p169)

On the other hand, the disadvantage of a religious compensator is that it has to be located “in another reality” because of the “persistence of death, war, sin, and human misery” on earth.  This means that “religious compensators are beyond the possibility of evaluation”.  And this means that religious compensators “are inherently risky”. (p169)

Stark is interested in how humans behave when they have to perform a risk analysis and subsequently to choose a course of action.  Since rational choice theory states that humans choose actions so as to maximize net [gains – costs] benefits, Stark asks why is it that humans “do not all act alike” in relation to religious compensators. (p170)

Stark points to the “considerable literature in the sociology of religion to demonstrate that people have decidedly different tastes in things religious …” as evidence for the validity of what he calls ‘the preference axiom’:

People differ greatly in their relative evaluations of specific rewards or benefits.” (p170)

In other words, each person makes a personal risk assessment in response to the offer of a religious compensator.  “[S]ome people will evaluate any given reward or benefit more highly than will some other people.”  Stark suggests that rational choice theory describes each person’s behaviour in relation to that person’s risk analysis of the reward.  “[I]t has very little to say about the actual content of those rewards.” (p171)

To end this section, Stark notes that people avoid the pain of disappointment just as much as they seek the pleasure of reward.  In making a decision about membership of a religious organization, individuals “must somehow weigh the costs of a compensator against the value of the rewards to be received, allowing for the risk of getting nothing, or at least much less than was promised”. (p172)

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

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