Posted by: aboutalbion | March 27, 2013

Free riders (2)

Rodney Stark wants to argue that free riders are never far away from organized religion.

In today’s world, he observes that liberal Protestant churches are “plagued” with nominal members whose weekly commitment is limited, but who expect to be able to use the full facilities of the church for family weddings and funerals, etc.  “Even if they do make substantial financial contributions, [free riders] weaken the group’s ability to create collective religious goods because their inactivity … reduces the “average” level of commitment.” (p175)

Stark points to sects and cults as also having commitment problems, even though, of necessity, higher levels of commitment are demanded – and he gives examples from the Shakers and the Moonies.

The problem can be put like this.  Organized religion engages “in the production of collective goods”, and free riders expect to be able to access “social and psychic benefits such as enthusiasm and solidarity no less than … material resources”. (p176)

Stark describes the dilemma facing the officers of an organized religion.  “On the one hand, a congregational structure that relies on the collective action of numerous volunteers is needed to make the religion credible.  On the other hand, that same congregational structure threatens to undermine the level of commitment and contributions needed to make a religious group effective.” (p176)

In the next post, Stark will outline a solution to this dilemma.

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

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