Posted by: aboutalbion | March 30, 2013

Free riders (5)

Rodney Stark has argued the paradoxical thesis that as a religion’s costly demands increase, so does the religion’s attractiveness.

He concludes his all-important understanding like this.  “Membership in an expensive religion is, for many people, a ‘good bargain’.” (p178)

This result occurs because “members of strict religious organizations have substantial reason to believe that their information about compensators is sufficient and thus their behaviour fulfils the rational choice proposition”. (p178)

Recall that Stark distinguishes between 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)

What Stark is pointing out is that, if a member accepts a religion’s proposal [the compensator] about how s/he will eventually obtain the desired reward [a divine encounter], then it rational behaviour to join that religion by paying the high religious costs, namely, the imposition of stigmas and sacrifices.

So Stark paints a sociological picture of energetic religious organizations as costly gated communities for players only – gated in such a way to keep uncommitted spectating free riders on the outside.

He maintains that his rational choice explanation is a paradigm shift from previous explanations which assumed that it was irrational (or was an expression of ignorance) to pay high religious costs.

Now that Stark has identified the potencies of stigma and sacrifice, he will review what is known about early Christianity from this perspective.  That will be for a future series of posts.

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



  1. Stark’s approach does seem to be a step in the right direction.

    I would argue that nearly any theory that requires assuming that a large group of others are behaving “irrationally” isn’t much of a theory–especially if it only gets that far and then stops.

    Someone “being irrational” means that we can’t understand their thinking. Maybe they’re not tracking. Or maybe we can’t follow the process for whatever reason. But “irrationality” isn’t much of an explanatory model.

    Many of the atheistic arguments making the rounds only get this far and stop, or follow it with some paternalistic “I know better than every religious person ever” speech.

    Such arguments have a place in the public sphere, but there is little place for such faulty thinking in actual research and science.

  2. I forget who said it, but it went something like “People laugh more if they paid to see the comedian.”

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