What Are the Main Strengths and Weaknesses of the Rational Choice Appr

Topics: Religion, Rational choice theory, Economics Pages: 6 (1768 words) Published: October 8, 1999
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...

Bibliography: 1) G. Becker, 1986, ‘The economic approach to human behaviour ', pp. 108-22 in J.
Elster (ed.), Rational Choice. Oxford: Blackwell.
2) L. Iannaccone, 1990, ‘Religious practice: a human capital approach ', Journal
for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29: 297-314.
3) S. Bruce, ‘Religion and rational choice: a critique of economic explanations
of religious behaviour ', Sociology of Religion, 54: 193-205.
4) H. Bredemeier, 1978, ‘Exchange theory ', pp. 420-56 in T. Bottomore and R.
Nisbet (eds), A History of Sociological Thought. New York: Basic Books.
5) Lecture Notes.
6) J. Sloman, 1996, Economics. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
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