What Are The Main Strengths and Weaknesses of The Rational Choice Approach To
Religions Behavior?

One of the pioneers of the rational choice theory has been Gary Becker.
He states that this approach can be applied to all human behaviour, including
religion. This approach has three assumptions. It assumes that people engage in
maximising behaviour. When applying this approach to religion we are not
concerned with money. We are concerned with the maximisation of personal
benefits. When we make a decision we weigh up the costs and benefits and choose
the option which offers the most benefit. Secondly, there are ‘markets that
with varying degrees of efficiency allow the actions of different participants
to function together efficiently.\' Thirdly, prices and other market functions
can affect demand and supply, controlling desires and affecting the actions of
consumers. Becker explains that price is not described in money terms but as a
shadow price. For example, muslims cannot drink alcohol.
This approach involves four theorems. Firstly, a rise in price reduces
the quantity demanded. The example he gives is if people have to put more time
and effort into having children then less people will do so. Secondly, a rise
in price increases the quantity supplied, the example given is women in the
labour market. Thirdly, competitive markets are more efficient then
monopolistic markets and lead to the diversity of a product. Fourthly, a tax on
the output of a market reduces that output eg the punishment of criminals is a
tax on crime.
Finke and Iannaccone have applied this theory to religious behaviour and
understand that the high degree of religion in America is attributed to the
existence of a free market and therefore competition and diversification in
religion. Finke argues that in a free market start up costs are low and this
leads to new ideas and more diversity and therefore more chance of everyone
finding a religion they like. Also in a competitive free market earning a
living acts as an incentive to clergy to work harder and try to tailor their
religion to suit the demands of the consumer. He also suggests that state
monopolies are less efficient in the absence of competition and believes that
state churches would therefore allow high costs.
Bruce highlights some weaknesses of this theory. He states that the
early Christian church had very high startup costs eg persecution and this did
not prevent the recruitment of new followers. On the other hand, according to
the maximisation theory, the benefits must have outweighed the cost of the
threat of persecution or no-one would have joined. Bruce criticises the theorem
that inefficiency exists in the absence of competition by pointing out that the
Roman Catholic Church is a state supported monopoly in many countries and a
hegemony in others yet it has been very efficient. Also, Roman Catholic success
is not a result of a free market as it has done well in Poland and the Republic
of Ireland where there is almost no competition. Bruce also states that as
people moved away from the national church and competition increased in the
middle ages, people became more invloved in religion. This suggests that
competition does lead to religion but the free market model does not explain the
decline in involvement in religion from the start of the century. Maybe this
decline can be best described by the sociological theory of secularisation.
Perhaps people feel that the costs of religion and the restrictions it imposes
on their lifestyles outweigh the benefits or that religion would not benefit
them at all.
Iannaccone believes that economics can explain known facts about
individual decision making with regards to religious behaviour. He believes
economics can explain facts about denominational mobility, typical age of
converts, typical patterns of inter-religious marriage and participation levels
found in different marriages.
The majority of Americans remain in the churches they were raised in and
return to them if they drift away. If they do move it is likely to be to a
similar church. Iannaccone explains these facts with reference to investment ie
people have already spent a great deal of time and effort in their religion and
to move to a new religion requires new investment and initial investment is
wasted. Bruce suggests an alternative explanation would be that beliefs ‘
sediment\', effecting our response to alternatives. He explains that beliefs
which seem more plausible to us are beliefs which accord with residues of
earlier stages of belief.
The human capital model predicts religious switching will occur early in
the life cycle as people search for the best match between their skills and the
context in which they produce religious commodities.