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16 Religion and rational choice

Rational choice theory has been encountered quite extensively in discussing secularisation. It is perhaps the most systematic recent attempt to provide a general theory of religion. It shares much in common with several of the theoretical approaches discussed in earlier chapters. In some ways it might be classified as an intellectualist theory, given its emphasis on achieving rewards, while in others it is reminiscent of emotionalist approaches. To some extent it echoes the emphasis on deprivation that is characteristic of Marxist theory. It has certainly sought to integrate the insights of many of these approaches.


The earliest statement of the rational choice approach was set out by Stark and Bainbridge (1980b, 1985, 1987).1 In later work Stark has modified and extended his position somewhat (1999) and others have made, and continue to make, important contributions. Their work has generated intense debate and criticism. To begin, however, with Stark and Bainbridge’s original systematic statement of the approach.2 They present what they consider to be a deductive theory of religion (1980b, 1987) in that it is derived from a general theory, of human nature and action constructed from a small number of basic axioms concerning the fundamental characteristics of individuals and small groups and a larger number of propositions either derived from these axioms or elsewhere. The approach relies very heavily on exchange theory which is based on the principle that all, or nearly all, human interactions can be treated as a form of exchange. This basic and very general theory is then developed further to account for a wide range of specific forms of religion and in particular is applied to the understanding of the emergence and development of sects and cults. And, as we saw in the previous chapter, they also apply their ideas extensively to the understanding of the process of secularisation and what they claim is a process of desecularisation in contemporary Western Christian societies. Space does not permit a detailed presentation of the theory from first principles here. We shall take up the account at the point at which religion enters the picture, referring back to prior propositions as necessary.

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Religion, Stark and Bainbridge argue, is essentially an attempt to gratify desires or, as they put it, secure rewards. Rewards are defined as anything which human beings desire and are willing to incur some cost to obtain. Rewards include very specific and limited things as well as the most general things such as solutions to questions of ultimate meaning and even unreal or non-existent things, conditions or states. Costs are anything that people attempt to avoid. Thus it follows that a cost will be accepted in order to secure a reward if the reward is valued more highly than the cost. Stark and Bainbridge see rewards and costs as complementary. If a reward is foregone, it is equivalent to a cost while if a potential cost is avoided, it is equivalent to a reward.

For Stark and Bainbridge religion is the attempt to secure desired rewards in the absence of alternative means. In discussing their views on secularisation, it was seen that they consider religion to be a universal and inevitable feature of human societies since life by its very nature entails deprivations of various kinds which can never be satisfied by mundane means. This is a fundamental axiom in their system. The rewards to which religious belief and behaviour are addressed are those of a very general kind. In order to obtain rewards, human beings seek and develop what Stark and Bainbridge call explanations, namely, statements about how and why rewards may be obtained and costs incurred. Since explanations tell people how to obtain rewards, they are themselves desirable and also, therefore, rewards in themselves. Religion deals in a particular type of explanation, that which involves supernatural assumptions. By supernatural, Stark and Bainbridge mean forces believed to be beyond or outside nature which are able to overrule natural physical forces.

Religion inevitably tends towards supernaturalism because certain rewards are not easily obtainable, especially since they include things which may not or do not even exist. In the absence of the actual reward, explanations may be accepted which posit attainment of the reward in the distant future or in some other non-verifiable context. Such explanations Stark and Bainbridge call ‘compensators’. These compensators are treated as if they were themselves rewards but are, in fact, hopes for and promises of future rewards. There is a tendency, where rewards are strongly desired yet difficult to obtain, to accept compensators which are not readily susceptible to unambiguous verification. Rival explanations which are easier to verify tend to be found false and are rejected, leaving the field to those which are more difficult to verify and therefore to disprove.

Very general compensators, that is those that promise very general rewards, can only be supported by explanations that make reference to the supernatural. That is to say, religion provides a set of beliefs about how very general rewards can be obtained as well as a set of compensators in the face of the impossibility of attaining such rewards here and now. An example used by Stark and Bainbridge is that of the desire for immortality. The uncertainty of attainment of this aim leads to compensators being invented, the validity of which cannot be determined empirically but which must be accepted on faith.

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Compensators are not, however, necessarily religious in character. Religion is a system of compensators of a high level of generality based upon supernatural assumptions. Certain goals require explanations and compensators of a supernatural kind – they are simply that kind of desire or question. These are the questions of ultimate meaning and purpose in life and the world. In this respect Stark and Bainbridge are close to the meaning theorists discussed in Chapter 14. For this reason they dismiss the idea that their theory is essentially a deprivation theory. Deprivation may play an important role in stimulating religious endeavour but it is by no means the only or the most significant factor. Those who are least deprived still seek answers and solutions to fundamental existential questions; they still seek explanations and compensators of a very high level of generality. Some deprivations such as the inevitability of death are shared by rich and poor alike. Also, as Weber pointed out, religious commitment may be inspired not only by the hope of overcoming deprivation but may also be an expression and justification of privilege.

More specific desires which cannot be fulfilled and for which compensators are devised are, according to Stark and Bainbridge, magical in nature. The distinction between general and specific compensators allows them to distinguish between magic and religion. Magic does not concern itself with the meaning of the universe but with the manipulation of reality for specific ends. Being so concerned with specific goals it is vulnerable to empirical test in a way in which religious claims are not. It tends to flourish, therefore, in circumstances in which people lack effective and economical means for subjecting claims to empirical test. Magical beliefs are distinguished from scientific beliefs on the basis that their claims are held without regard for empirical evidence of their truth ‘and which are found wanting if they are properly evaluated’ (1987, p. 41). Magic offers only compensators, then, because it does not provide real rewards but promises of reward which are false. Magic is not based upon compensators which are supernatural in kind: only religion offers this. Stark and Bainbridge are able to identify, therefore, many contemporary forms of magic flourishing in Western, rational, technological society which are often based upon scientific-sounding ideas but which are not supported by evidence. They include what Stark and Bainbridge call pseudosciences and pseudotherapies which provide compensators for a wide range of specific desires but do not make reference to the supernatural.

In A Theory of Religion Stark and Bainbridge go on to develop the core theory in various ways, including derivations of beliefs in gods and spirits and the emergence of religious specialists and organisations. These are derived from a general theory of social structure and culture. All the details of this need not be set out here but simply that in the process of the development of social structure and culture, according to Stark and Bainbridge, specific cultural specialisations emerge and evolve into cultural systems, one of which is concerned with religion. Similarly, when societies reach a certain size and level of complexity, specific social organisations emerge, including religious organisations.

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Early in the development of religious conceptions the idea of gods emerges. Gods are supernatural beings who share with humans the attributes of having consciousness and desires. In seeking certain rewards, beings such as this are imagined who are able to provide the desired rewards. Since Stark and Bainbridge’s theory is based upon exchange theory, they naturally present the relationship that worshippers have with their gods in terms of an exchange relationship. They postulate that when humans cannot satisfy their desires themselves they will seek to satisfy them by entering into exchange relationships with other human beings. When other human beings are unable to satisfy them, they will tend to invent the compensator that there are supernatural exchange partners who can satisfy these desires. Since humans seek rewards from the gods by exchanging with them, it follows that gods must be like other exchange partners in having desires which humans can satisfy. Thus the gods make demands upon people in return for rewards, either immediate or eventual. Since many rewards are not in any other way attainable, the gods tend to be seen as powerful in relation to humans who are seen to be dependent upon them. However, Stark and Bainbridge point out, perceiving themselves to be following Malinowski, people will only enter into exchanges with gods if no cheaper or more efficient alternative for the satisfaction of their desires exists.

With the growth in size and complexity of society, religious specialists tend to emerge. In order to understand how and why this is so, Stark and Bainbridge utilise a further basic postulate of their system, namely, that explanations as to how rewards can be obtained and of the value of compensators must be evaluated before they can be accepted. Explanations vary with respect to how easy or difficult it is to evaluate them and the costs involved in doing so. Very general explanations and compensators which offer very general rewards, and this includes religious explanations and compensators, are the most difficult to evaluate. It becomes impossible for any individual to evaluate all the explanations on offer. People come to rely upon those they trust to carry out such evaluation and will accept explanations evaluated by them. Some come to specialise in certain areas and religion is one area where such specialisation is particularly likely. This is because in most other areas of life explanations and compensators are much more subject to the possibility of empirical testing and assessment. The propositions of religion are very often not so susceptible. In other areas, then, specialisation cannot emerge until sound empirical knowledge has been established. For example, mining and metalworking are fields where specialisation is impossible until sound knowledge and technique have been developed. Religion as a specialisation is not constrained in this way. For this reason, Stark and Bainbridge argue, religion will be one of the first specialisms to emerge in human society.

Once such specialists emerge, they will tend to combine in organisations which will seek a religious monopoly. This is because the authority of explanations will be greater to the extent that there are no competing explanations and disagreements about such things. Competition tends to undermine the value of explanations. Such a monopoly generally requires the dominant religious organisation to establish a close alliance with the state,

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since it is the state in such societies that wields sufficient power to enforce a monopoly. At this point Stark and Bainbridge explore relationships between Church and state.

Since Stark and Bainbridge base their approach on exchange theory, they speak of religious specialists and organisations as exchanging rewards, explanations and compensators with others. Religious specialists, or priests, claim to mediate between human beings and the gods, communicating to people what it is the gods require of them in return for the rewards and compensators the gods offer. In this way priests and religious organisations come to have considerable power in society and influence over norms and standards of behaviour. Since the rewards of religion are often things which can only be achieved in the long term, even after death, the relationship between priests and religious organisations, on the one hand, and worshippers, on the other, tends to be a permanent and enduring one. Consequently, religious organisations tend to be enduring and relatively permanent. The relationship that worshippers have with them tends to take the form of commitment, and usually lifelong commitment, rather than periodic patronage for specific ends as they arise. This makes religious specialists and organisations especially influential, powerful and able to control and set standards for behaviour. They come to play a very central and important social role.

Stark and Bainbridge postulate that the more complex a society becomes, the greater the scope of the explanations which make up its culture. This applies to its religious explanations also and it follows from this that gods come to have greater scope, the more complex are the society and culture. They come to govern more and more aspects of life and to offer greater rewards and compensators. An aspect of the development of complexity is systematisation. Higher-order explanations are developed which subsume and account for lower-order explanations. Explanations of more general scope emerge. This, again, applies to religious explanations with the consequence that the gods come to govern wider aspects of reality and life. The result is that increasingly fewer gods of increasingly greater scope are worshipped.

Magic, in contrast to religion, does not tend to throw up specialist organisations because it offers very specific rather than very general compensators like religion. Specific compensators are highly susceptible to disconfirmation and for this reason long-term exchange relationships between magical specialists and clients cannot develop. If long-term, relatively stable exchange relationships cannot develop, then an organisation will not develop. Durkheim was right to characterise religion as having no church. Magic involves individual practitioners, each with a fluctuating clientele with whom they exchange for very limited and specific purposes and this differentiates magic from religion.

While early on magic and religion tend to be closely associated, as society becomes more complex, they tend to become increasingly differentiated in terms of specialists and organisation. Religion does usually offer specific rewards to some extent but to offer too much of this kind risks religion being discredited through disconfirmation of its specific explanations and compensators. Over time

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religious specialists will tend to reduce the amount of magic they supply, leaving others to specialise in the provision of this type of compensator. The roles of magician and priest, then, tend to become increasingly differentiated, as do religious and magical cultures generally.

Nevertheless, a variety of relationships between magical and religious cultures is possible and in many societies and religious traditions there is a degree of overlap between them. Where religion continues to provide supernaturally based specific compensators, it will tend to oppose supernaturally based magic outside its own system. On the other hand, if religion has more or less relinquished the provision of supernaturally based specific compensators, it will tolerate their provision by specialists outside its own organisation. The first situation is characteristic of Catholicism and the second of orthodox Buddhism and Taoism.

These latter instances are extreme developments, Stark and Bainbridge argue, in which God has become infinite in scope and one in number and therefore loses all interest in this world. An impersonal principle such as the Tao cannot provide rewards and compensators and cannot act as an exchange partner. People, however, require an active God who can provide compensators for intense desires. Consequently, if a religion evolves to the point where it has only one god of infinite scope and is unable to provide specific supernatural compensators, it will have little to offer most people. It can no longer render evil meaningful in human terms. Evil becomes simply a natural feature of the world which people must bear the burden of attempting to vanquish on their own. The depersonalisation and desacralisation of evil in contemporary liberal Protestantism are, significantly, accompanied by a dramatic fall in support.

The greater part of Stark and Bainbridge’s A Theory of Religion is devoted to a discussion of the way in which religious organisations and traditions tend to divide, that is, religious schism, and to the way in which new rival and alternative religions rise up in opposition to established ones. In short, it is devoted to the study of sectarian and cult movements. This is more familiar territory for Stark and Bainbridge since much of their previous work has been devoted to these topics. This work, and its formal systematisation in A Theory of Religion, will be examined in the next chapter, along with other relevant contributions to the study of sects and cults. To conclude this chapter their general theoretical approach will be discussed and assessed.


Stark and Bainbridge’s attempt to set out an extensive, systematic, deductive theory of religion which explains all of its fundamental characteristics and general development is sufficiently ambitious (there are a total of 344 empirical propositions and 104 definitions of concepts) that it is bound, as they themselves fully acknowledge, to contain flaws, inconsistencies and gaps. There are, indeed, many aspects which appear problematic such as the fundamental assumption that all humans by nature desire answers to existential and ultimate issues. This

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overlooks the fact that such desires may not be the product of human nature but socially determined and culturally variable (Bibby and Weaver, 1985). Another example is the proposition that the most general compensators can be supported only by supernatural explanations which Stark and Bainbridge say is self-evidently true. They go on to say that since to seek the purpose of life is to presuppose that it has a purpose and since this implies the existence of intentions and motives and therefore a consciousness, then the necessary conclusion is that some conscious agent is at work to which intentions, motives and purposes will be attributed. This is by no means self-evident. To say that people seek a purpose in life or the purpose of life may imply no more than that they seek meaning in it and, in doing, so they may well arrive at conclusions which do not suppose the existence of some supernatural realm, divinity or principle (Bibby and Weaver, 1985). Some religious traditions, notably Buddhism, do not place the supernatural at the centre of their systems. It is debatable whether conceptions of the supernatural are part of orthodox Buddhism at all.

This raises the question of Stark and Bainbridge’s equation of religion with belief in the supernatural. They say very little in justification of their use of such a definition and simply brush aside the issues, claiming that the problems, especially in relation to Buddhism, have been adequately dealt with by Spiro (1966). However, this will not do as the discussion of the problems with such a definition in Chapter 1 demonstrated. In any case, Spiro, as indicated in that discussion, is careful not to define religion in terms of the supernatural, preferring the term superhuman, which is, in any case, not without its own difficulties.

A second example of breakdown in deductive logic concerns the proposition that human beings will tend to conceptualise supernatural sources of rewards and costs as gods (Stark and Bainbridge, 1987, p. 82). This may or may not be true but it is a notion not derived in any clear way by Stark and Bainbridge from their axioms and other propositions but merely asserted. Seeking great and difficult rewards, human beings, Stark and Bainbridge assert, simply imagine supernatural exchange partners who can deliver these rewards with no account of why this should be so. The underlying assumption seems to lie in the commitment to the use of the approach of exchange theory. Since all human interaction is some form of exchange, rewards can only be obtained through entering into exchange relationships. If one can enter into exchange relationships with certain beings to obtain rewards of a general type, then these beings must have a will and purposes like those of human beings and must, therefore, have the characteristics of gods. None of this is, however, clearly stated. And in any case, while such reasoning might explain why belief in supernatural sources of reward will tend to take the form of gods, it still fails to account for why people come to think that they can get the rewards they desire from supernatural sources in the first place. As Guthrie puts it, it fails to ‘explain how wishful fantasies become plausible enough to satisfy us’ (1996, p. 413). Guthrie also point out that it fails to explain why religious belief postulates not just gods but fearful aspects such as demons, devils and hells that threaten rather than reward. One might add that gods themselves are not always benevolent but often punitive.

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There are many other examples of gaps in the chain of reasoning in Stark and Bainbridge’s account. Those mentioned here might have been chosen at random. To be fair to Stark and Bainbridge, they do not pretend that their theory is any way near complete and acknowledge that there will be gaps which they invite others to fill. However, those mentioned here do concern rather central aspects of the theory and have been focused upon for that reason.

Aside from its lacunae, the approach has attracted criticism for its very reliance on exchange theory per se. This is not the place to undertake a general critique of this theoretical approach. In terms of its application to religion, however, we might question whether the activities that constitute religion can successfully and completely be described solely in terms of the language of exchange and rational choice. In discussing secularisation, it was observed that many critics consider that the rational choice approach neglects social, political and historical factors. The focus is on individual decision-making outside of any social and cultural context (Ellison, 1995). Bruce (1993) stresses the essential difference between religion and consumer products. One does not change one’s religion according to what is on offer in the market like one changes the make of car one drives. In fact, religion is often the sort of thing one ideally does not change at all since a central aspect of it is precisely commitment.

Chavez (1995) points out that the apparently systematic, deductive structure of rational choice theory is highly deceptive. Very little can be deduced from its basic axioms and it has to introduce a wealth of substantive propositions and assumptions, upon the adequacy of which it will crucially depend. In claiming that their theory seeks to incorporate the insights of earlier theoretical approaches, Stark and Bainbridge are acknowledging precisely this fact. Sherkat (1997) shares the view that social and cultural factors are important. Markets are always embedded in social relations and religious markets particularly so. They are not comprised of freely choosing independent actors or competitive firms. Also, Sherkat reminds us, preferences are not the same as choices. Whatever our preferences might be, our choices, including our religious choices, are shaped by the actions of those around us and do not match what we would prefer to do.

Perhaps one of the chief difficulties, however, with Stark and Bainbridge’s approach, as Wallis and Bruce have pointed out (Wallis and Bruce, 1984; Wallis, 1984, pp. 62–3), concerns the central notion of a compensator. It is not at all clear why many religious beliefs should constitute compensation of some kind. In what sense is belief in immortality a compensation for anything? Such a belief may give comfort in the face of the threat of meaninglessness that death seems to hold for us but this is not the same thing as a compensation for the fact of mortality but a denial of it or of the significance it might otherwise have. Use of the notion of compensation betrays on the part of Stark and Bainbridge, according to Wallis, an assumption that real rewards can only be material and immediate. Non-material and long-term goals become simply compensators for what cannot be attained now rather than things desired for their own sake. This is to imply that what religion offers is essentially unsatisfactory and only acceptable in the face of an inability to obtain what is really desired. The approach illegitimately introduces

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a substantive atheism into the analysis of religion rather than methodological atheism.

This claim, however, does something of a disservice to Stark and Bainbridge, who do not quite say what Wallis accuses them of. What they do say is that such things as the belief that one can achieve immortality stem from desires which cannot be satisfied in the way everyday and mundane desires can. In this sense immortality is a kind of reward. A reward for Stark and Bainbridge is simply anything which is desired and which something will be sacrificed to obtain. Stark and Bainbridge define a compensator as the postulate of a reward according to explanations which are not readily susceptible to unambiguous evaluation. A compensator is resorted to when a desire cannot be fulfilled. ‘Compensator’ is, perhaps, an unfortunate choice of term since it tends to be interpreted in the sense of a substitute for what people really want but cannot get. It carries the connotation of consolation prize. Stark and Bainbridge do not, however, use the term in quite this way. They are careful to point out that a compensator is a promise of the reward and not a substitute of something else for it. As with a promise, one cannot be sure that it will be kept. Evaluation of it is necessary and not always easy. Religion promises, among other things, very general rewards, one might say of the transcendental kind and these are, of course, extremely difficult to evaluate with any certainty precisely because they are not of a material or mundane nature.

It is significant, then, that in his later and extended formulation (1999), Stark drops the term compensator entirely with no substantial consequences for the approach. In an earlier account of the origins and long gestation of the theory he and Bainbridge ultimately published in A Theory of Religion (1987), Stark reveals that they never much liked the term because of its negative connotations but simply could not come up with a better one. In his 1999 formulation Stark is able to dispense with any special term for religious rewards. The relevant proposition now becomes ‘to the degree that rewards are scarce, or are not directly available at all, humans will tend to formulate and accept explanations for obtaining the reward in the distant future or in some other non-verifiable context’ (ibid., p. 268). For the most part, religious rewards are actually, if not exclusively, otherworldly in the sense that they can be obtained only in a non-empirical and usually posthumous context.

The real problem, then, is not that Stark and Bainbridge’s theory sees religion as offering compensation for something that cannot be obtained but why it is that explanations which cannot be unambiguously evaluated, or evaluated at all, will be accepted. It is the problem of why people will accept explanations which promise rewards only in another world and posthumously. Contrast Stark and Bainbridge’s approach with that of a meaning theorist such as Weber, with whom, in claiming that their approach is not a deprivation theory, Stark and Bainbridge consider that they agree. In the face of gross injustice, of suffering, of inevitable death, life threatens to appear without meaning. Religion places these aspects of life in a context where they make sense. The force of a belief in immortality, for example, is that it makes physical death appear to be

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part of a world which is not senseless. Another belief which may have such force is that of reincarnation or the extinction of the self in a state of nirvana. Of course, the idea of immortality in a heaven or paradise or of nirvana may well be thought by believers to be a highly desirable thing, but the real force of such ideas may be their capacity to make sense of an otherwise apparendy meaningless reality. The language of reward and cost simply does not do justice to these conceptions. For this reason, it is difficult to see why such ideas will be accepted as promises of reward, as compensations. It is difficult to see why people should simply imagine the existence of powerful exchange partners who can, if the terms are right, satisfy all desires. It is easier to see why this belief might come about as a means of making sense of things rather than simply as a means of concretely securing something, although it may well be seen in both ways at the same time. It is because its primary role is to make sense of things and not to secure rewards that it does not matter too much, if at all, if it is difficult to evaluate unambiguously in the way that accounts of how to achieve mundane goals can be evaluated.

There is a certain slipperiness in Stark and Bainbridge’s use of the concept of reward. Not only is everlasting life in paradise a reward but so is the explanation of how it can be attained and the sense of meaning it can give to life. Explanations and meaning are in a sense rewards but they are not rewards in quite the same way that paradise is. An explanation of how it can be attained is a means to an end and the meaning that this explanation gives to life is not a posthumous reward but one that is enjoyed in this life, here and now. This has important implications for how we understand religion. In making sense of things, religion, as Weber stresses (Collins, 1997), confronts the problem of evil and of ethics. The rational choice approach has little to say about this aspect of religion. Ethics and moral sentiments are about community and solidarity, as Durkheim taught us. Again, rational choice theory neglects this whole dimension of religion. Religion is thus about punishment as well as reward. This is why it postulates threatening entities such as devils, as Guthrie (1996) points out, and why its gods are often as punitive as they are benevolent.

It is in relation to this question of evaluation of religious promises that Wallis and Bruce (1984) offer a rather more telling criticism of Stark and Bainbridge. They are guilty of what Wallis and Bruce call explanatory dualism. In distinguishing the rewards that religion offers, as opposed to those of mundane techniques or science, Stark and Bainbridge say they are not readily susceptible to unambiguous evaluation. This basis for making such a distinction Wallis and Bruce find problematic. It does not accord with contemporary philosophy of science, which holds that conclusive verification of scientific claims is not possible. Even unequivocal falsification of scientific propositions is questionable according to Wallis and Bruce’s understanding of the philosophy of science. In any case, many scientific propositions, whether or not they are verifiable or falsifiable in principle, are not so in practice. This does not make them religious propositions. Conversely, there are many religious claims that may be in principle as verifiable as scientific ones.

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The difference between science and religion lies not in the ease or difficulty of the empirical verifiability of their respective propositions, according to Wallis and Bruce (ibid.), but in the fact that science, at least as a social practice and at the institutional level, encourages empirical testing and disconfirmation while religion seeks to protect its claims from disconfirmation. One might add the point here that many religious claims are, in any case, not the kind of claims for which empirical verification is appropriate. In so far as religious statements are expressions of the meaning of things, the question of empirical verification is irrelevant.

Stark and Bainbridge, then, treat scientific propositions as if they were unproblematic with regard to verification and the reasons people have for believing them are similarly seen as unproblematic. They are believed because they are true. Religious beliefs are those which are problematic in this respect and, if people espouse them, there must be some special reason for this which it is the task of the sociologist to uncover. Because the beliefs do not accord with the sociological observer’s view of the world, there must be some pathology behind them or some sociological or psychological factor which has impaired the normal propensity to accept only what is clearly true. But it is simply not relevant to an understanding of the beliefs of, say, the Trobriand Islanders or the Azande that they do not accord with those of a Western observer. To place our own disagreement with them at the centre of our analysis, as Stark and Bainbridge do, is likely to lead to misunderstanding and distorted accounts of religious systems.

Also, Stark and Bainbridge’s discussion of magic and how it differs from religion is very unsatisfactory. Magic deals in specific rather than general compensators seeking to secure concrete rewards (although it too may be bound up with the attempt to see the world in terms which are meaningful and we should not overlook this aspect of it). However, precisely to the extent that it does seek concrete rewards, the notion of compensation is misapplied to it. Unlike religion, magic does not really offer the reward eventually at some deferred time but offers it now. Those who practise magic do so because they believe that it delivers concrete benefits immediately. They are not in their own minds accepting compensators in the face of a lack of techniques for securing what is desired but using special techniques to actually secure those desires.

The reason that Stark and Bainbridge believe that magic deals in compensators is because they think of magic as false technique. Magic, they say, refers to specific compensators that promise to provide desired rewards without regard for evidence concerning the designated means. Here the criticism that Wallis and Bruce make of their explanatory dualism is equally if not even more pertinent. From the point of view of the practitioners of magic, as was made clear in Chapter 3, there is very good evidence that it actually secures and not simply promises rewards. One might not share their view about the evidence but that is hardly relevant. The relevant questions are not why do the practitioners of magic use it in the face of our awareness of an absence of any evidence that it works but on what basis do they believe that there is evidence that it works and what processes underlie their conviction that the magical beliefs are acceptable? Evans-Pritchard’s classic study

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of the Azande is addressed very much to this question. Even then, all this, of course, assumes that magic is best conceived as consisting of empirical techniques which are not based upon evidence. If one accepts a position like that of the symbolists discussed in Chapter 3, then Stark and Bainbridge’s understanding of magic is even more off the mark. Certainly, their account fails to do justice to, even to mention, the crucial symbolic dimension of magical behaviour. They seem unaware of the relevant anthropological literature and to have a shaky picture of tribal religion in general.

Finally, on a number of points of evidence, Stark and Bainbridge’s generalisations seem to be wanting. One example relates again to tribal religion, with respect to which they claim that in the simpler cultures the gods are minute and very numerous such that nearly every rock, tree, stream or plant is thought to be inhabited by a supernatural being of limited and local power. This completely ignores or is entirely ignorant of the fact that, in some of the simplest societies, the Congo pygmies, for example, religious ideas are little developed at all and they are far from the animists that Stark and Bainbridge’s proposition would lead us to expect them to be.

At the other end of the scale, their claim that the impersonal principle of divinity of Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, which is incapable of entering into exchanges with humans, leads to only a few having any real interest in these religions seems very wide of the mark, especially in the case of Buddhism. Certainly, Buddhism tends to leave magic to magicians, as Stark and Bainbridge rightly point out. Perhaps one could say the same of philosophical Taoism, although the magicians concerned here are very much Taoist magicians. However, the prediction that would follow from Stark and Bainbridge’s claim is that Buddhism should by now be one of the world’s weakest and most rapidly declining religions, which it clearly is not.


A number of theorists who have been attracted to the rational choice approach, in particular Finke and lannaccone, have worked with Stark in recent years in developing and applying it to a wide range of religious phenomena. The last chapter examined their work relating to the secularisation thesis and religious mobilisation. In the next chapter we shall examine their work on religious organisations, sects and cults. In terms of the general approach, lannaccone (1997) has sought to extend it, drawing particularly upon the work of the economist Becker (1976). This acknowledges that many religious goods are not commodities distributed through markets but what are termed in economic theory ‘household commodities’. These are things produced by people themselves for their own consumption, such as meals, entertainment, recreation, cleaning, and so on. They require the use of scarce resources and time and are therefore subject to the same cost-benefit calculations that any behaviour that seeks to maximise outcomes is subject to. Many religious goods are often of this kind; they can be produced by

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consumers themselves as in the case of praying, Bible study, charity work, volunteering for church duties, and so on, or they can be obtained from suppliers in return for donations and material and financial support. Just as better-off families will tend to spend more on eating out than less well-off families, so, Iannaccone predicts, better-off families will obtain their religious satisfactions less by direct participation and more through making donations. Survey data support this contention (Iannaccone, 1990).

Another idea introduced by Iannaccone is that of religious capital. This is the accumulated stock of religious knowledge, skills, sensitivities, investments in relationships, and anything that is enhanced by experience gained through participation in religion. The greater this stock of capital, Iannaccone suggests, the greater will be the satisfaction an individual derives from subsequent religious activity. One gets more out of certain things the more experience and knowledge one has of them. This yields such predictions that converts to a religious group will more often be from younger age groups than older ones since the young have little religious capital that would be lost by converting. Also, the old will tend to participate more in their religious group than the young. These predictions are also supported by empirical data (ibid.).

Developing Stark and Bainbridge’s point about the inherent uncertainty of religious rewards, Iannaccone applies the economic theory of risky commodities to religion (1992a). This allows a number of testable predictions relating to religious groups such as sects. Also on the subject of sects and religious movements, Finke and Iannaccone (1993) have argued that a supply-side economic model allows us to understand many of their features. In general the rational choice theorists tend to emphasise the supply side rather than the demand side. Contrary to the common assumption that religion changes in response to changes in the desires and needs of religious consumers, according to Finke and Iannaccone it changes as a result of developments in the supply of religious commodities. Rational choice economic models take preferences as relatively fixed and given. Human beings generally want the same things: security, comfort, material well-being, entertainment, and so on. They tend to ignore how preferences are determined, since in their eyes this is largely down to biology and universal aspects of human nature. In the case of religion in particular, as noted in discussing Stark and Bainbridge’s original formulation, it is assumed that there is a universal need for some system of beliefs which offers otherwise unobtainable rewards. This emphasis on the supply side has been noted in discussing the work of the rational choice theorists on pluralism and religious vitality in the last chapter. It also underlies their approach to the understanding of aspects of sects, for example, their relative strictness of observance, social isolation, and so on. Since the next chapter is devoted to the study of sects, cults and religious movements, this topic will be taken up there. To conclude here this discussion of rational choice theory, the objections to it mentioned above in discussing Stark and Bainbridge’s formulation apply equally, of course, to the extensions to it that Iannaccone offers and particularly the way it ignores social, political and historical factors. In a defence against

228 Religion and rational choice

such critics Iannaccone (1995) acknowledges that it may indeed be, in a sense, unrealistic and oversimplifying but justifies it as at least systematic, rigorous and testable and likely, therefore, to lead to a better understanding. This is rarely true, in his view, of any alternative approach.

The debate about the application of rational choice and economic theory to spheres of human activity outside that of economic behaviour strictly understood is, of course, a broad and continuing one and by no means confined to the area of the sociology of religion. If it proves successful in other fields, its appeal will be enhanced in the sociology of religion and we can expect to see more of it. On the other hand, it may well be that a degree of success in the field of the study of religion will do more than anything to enhance its power and prestige in the social sciences generally, should, of course, it enjoy such success.

There is much more that could be said about Stark and Bainbridge’s rich and extensive contribution to the general theory of religion but it is their work on sectarian and cult movements to which the next chapter turns.

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