Posted by: aboutalbion | March 29, 2013

Free riders (4)

Rodney Stark moves on to discuss how a religion’s costly demands affect a religion’s attractiveness.

Costly demands act as an entry checkpoint into membership of a religion, and particularly target free riders.  “The costs act as non-refundable registration fees that, as in [other] markets, measure the seriousness of interest in the product.  Only those will to pay the price qualify.” (p177)  Stark’s proposition for this is:

Sacrifice and stigma mitigate the free rider problems faced by religious groups.” (p177)

With costly demands used to filter out free riders, the potencies of stigma and sacrifice have been researched by his colleague, Laurence R Iannaccone, and Stark quotes two of his concluding propositions with approval:

By demanding higher levels of stigma and sacrifice, religious groups induce higher average levels of member commitment and participation.”

By demanding higher levels of stigma and sacrifice, religious groups are able to generate greater material, social and religious benefits for their members.” (p177)

These two propositions theorize that “high costs tend to increase participation among those who join”.  After joining a religious organization, group members “find that the temptation to free ride is weaker, not because their human nature has somehow been transformed, but rather because the opportunities to free ride have been reduced …”. (p177)

And this is the heart of the paradox.  As a religion’s costly demands increase, so does the religion’s attractiveness.

This state of affairs is in marked contrast to the ‘law’ of economics which states that when the cost of a good rises its attractiveness to purchasers falls, other things being equal.  However, it is Stark’s case that other things are not equal in the case of organized religion.  When the costly demands increase, the role of members as ‘players in a team’ is increasingly emphasized.

The result is that, “for a religious group, as with any organization, commitment is energy.  That is, when commitment levels are high, groups can undertake all manner of collective actions …  …  Thus as each member pays the costs of membership, each gains from higher levels of production of collective goods.”. (p178)

Stark cites the Mormon church to evidence this point.  “… because Mormons are asked to contribute not only 10 per cent of their incomes, but also 10 per cent of their time to the church, they are thereby enabled to lavish social services upon one another …”. (p178)

In the next post, Stark will again discuss the rationality of this outcome.

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


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