Posted by: aboutalbion | February 26, 2013

The mimetic basis of religious risk analysis (1)

Let me return to my reading of Rodney Stark’s book.

A criticism of rational choice theory (linked as it is to notions of individualism) is that (in practice) individuals do not make rational choices in isolation.  Rather, human beings are herd animals and, as such, act according to ‘their feel for the game’ [as I believe Pierre Bourdieu has written].  In other words, a decision is always made with some awareness of what other human beings are deciding to do.  That is, there is a mimetic dimension to individuals making rational choices in society.

Rodney Stark is aware of this criticism and proposes five propositions to explain the mimetic basis by which individuals make a risk analysis of the offer of a compensator from an organized religion.  These five propositions explain how humans can “estimate the risk of investing in [religious compensators] … [when] the value of religious compensators cannot be known with certainty in this world …”. (p172)

[It is worth remembering that Stark distinguishes between rewards and compensators.  Stark’s approach is captured in his proposition:  “Religion supplies compensators for rewards that are scarce or unavailable.” (p167)  He then continues that “[w]e can distinguish compensators from rewards because the [reward] is the thing wanted, the [compensator is] a proposal about gaining the reward.” (p168)  (See post on 13 February.)]

This post and the next four posts will cover Stark’s five propositions about the mimetic grounds which influence individuals about whether or not to join an organized religion.

His first proposition is the ‘social proposition’.

The perceived value of a religious compensator is established through social interactions and exchanges.” (p172)

He points out that a person who attempts to practise her/his religion in solitude lacks the resources to evaluate their religion.  “For them to [unilaterally] place a high value on religious compensators would at least border on the irrational.” (p172)

By contrast, “… those who practise a religion within a group have a natural basis for estimating the value of their religious compensators.” (p172)  And he goes on to begin to explain the dynamics of religious groups (see the next post).

For myself, I find that Stark has not fully explored his reference to a religious reward in his proposition (above).  All are likely to agree with him that immortality is a reward that is unavailable in the present reality.  However, I am of the opinion that religious experiences are rewards (though scarce) which are available to all human beings.  I would go further and say that ‘to be human is to be religious, and to be religious is to be human’.

Here, I want to be clear in my approach to a religious experience.  My current definition of a religious experience is “any unplanned experience of having one’s central nervous system overwhelmed by a single feeling for a certain length of time (short or long)”.  For me, a religious experience is an unplanned overwhelming emotional experience centred on a single feeling.  In my view, other feelings are just not available during a religious experience.

The closest analogy I can think of at the moment is with ‘screen lock’ on a PC.  However, a religious experience does evaporate with time, and ‘normal’ emotional functioning does return.  There is no need to power off and re-boot.

I remind myself that a keyword in my definition of a religious experience is ‘unplanned’.  A religious experience is a random event that occurs here in one human, and then there in another human.  In other words, an intention to timetable an overwhelming emotional experience would move such an action towards the heading of an addiction and away from that of a ‘religious experience’.

If genuine personal (but scarce) religious experiences are a reward, and humans are reward-seeking creatures, then commercial religious organizations have a rational vested interest in discounting (my category of) religious experiences because of their potential to reduce demand for organized timetabled religious compensators.  It would be misleading for religious organizations to hint that (my category of) religious experiences are more likely to occur to subscribing members.

With my approach, which asserts that a religious experience can only be experienced as a (random) scarce reward alone, I conclude that it is rational for a person who has such a religious encounter to unilaterally give it a suitably high value, and on a different scale to any benefits which may be available from compensators produced by a religious organization.

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

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