Are Religious Organizations Like Firms?

Can ideas from economics, such as that monopolies are lazy and that competition leads to better products, be applied to understand religion? Every year I teach my students–both those in my class on economic sociology and those in my class on sociology of religion–about the economistic or the rational choice perspective on religion.

Most people think individual religious behaviors and religious organizations are driven by emotions, theology, and/or tradition. But rational choice theories of religion are modeled are assumptions about human behavior now current in mainstream economics: humans are rational, self-interested beings who seek to maximize rewards and minimize their costs. What makes religion so powerful in motivating  human behavior is that most religions promise rewards or punishment in another life.

One path-breaking book which applies the rational choice perspective to American religion is Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s “The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy,” which won the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Given that the U.S. has never a state-established religion, religious groups here have always had to win over adherents.┬áTo explain which religious groups thrive under these conditions of an open market for religion, [Read more...]


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