Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion
University of California Press
Date of Publication:
If you’re not familiar with the sociology of religion or are a newcomer to the literature, this is probably one of the first books most sociologists of religion would recommend. Two of the most well known scholars in the discipline, Rodney Stark (the 800 lb gorilla) and Roger Finke (a 500 lb gorilla), have put together a clear and thorough treatise examining one of the more prominent theoretical approaches to religion in the discipline today. This book formalizes and advocates one particular theoretical approach toward religion – the rational choice/religious economies approach. The rational choice component examines religion at a micro level, looking at the individual choices people make regarding their personal religiosity. The religious economies approach examines religion at the meso and macro levels, exploring trends in religiosity at the national level.
The book goes beyond simply advocating these theories; it is also clearly aimed at undermining what its authors consider to be the major alternative theory within the discipline – secularization. So, what are these three theories and what is the argument the book makes to undermine secularization theory?
Rational choice theory argues that people make calculating, cost/benefit decisions related to their religiosity. The theory is grounded in the assumption, “that people try to select the most beneficial line of action” (p. 36). Formally stated, “Within the limits of their information and understanding, restricted by available options, guided by their preferences and tastes, humans attempt to make rational choices” (p. 38). I’m not going to go into detail here about how “bizarre” this definition of RATIONAL action is, but it should suffice to say that the rational choice approach to individual level religiosity argues that people weigh the costs of membership and the benefits, and within their subjective view of what is beneficial to them, they make decisions regarding their religiosity. The theory also argues that people desperately want religion because, “religion is the only plausible source of certain rewards for which there is a general and inexhaustible demand” (p. 85).
A factor related to this approach is the idea of “religious capital,” which is similar to capital in the economic framework, except it is specific to certain religious denominations, namely those denominations with which the individual is already familiar. Thus, as I was raised in the Mormon religion, I actually have a substantial amount of “religious capital” in the Mormon religion. Because I have that capital, it influences my religious choices. Advocates of the rational choice approach argue that this religious capital results in people choosing to either (1) remain in the religion of their upbringing (safest investment), or (2) invest in similar religions, as the capital will carry over.
The religious economies theory focuses at broader trends in religiosity and attempts to explain why some countries have greater numbers of adherents than other countries and why some religions are growing while other religions are declining. The primary explanation has to do with the amount of tension a religion has with its surrounding society. Building on the classic church/sect typology, the religious economies approach argues that religions that have a certain amount of tension with the surrounding culture will grow faster than other religions. However, the level of tension can’t be too high, as high-tension religions (i.e., religious cults) tend not to do so well. And if the level of tension is nonexistent (i.e., state churches), then those religions will also not do very well. Thus, conservative religions that maintain a degree of tension with the surrounding society (e.g., Mormonism, Pentecostalism, etc.) are more successful than religions that have very little tension with society (e.g., Methodism and Presbyterianism in the U.S.) or those religions that are basically in a state of non-tension (e.g., state churches in Europe). This same explanation is given for why the levels of religious activity in different countries vary – in the U.S. there is a lot of competition, referred to as religious pluralism, which pushes the medium-level tension religions into the fore and allows them to grow but also increases general religious observance. In countries where religious competition and religious tension are not prominent (most of Western Europe), religious affiliations have dropped off significantly and there is very little interest in religion.
These two approaches are contrasted with the secularization approach which argues, in conjunction with Weberian societal rationalization, that as society grows more modernized, people will be less likely to use irrational modes of thought to guide their lives. As a result, religiosity will decline. While the depiction of secularization in this volume is a bit simplistic, the basic description is fairly accurate, though Karel Dobbelaere would insist that secularization is a multi-level phenomenon and that secularization at the national and institutional levels is not called into question, even by the religious economies and rational choice advocates.
So, how do Stark and Finke attempt to undermine the secularization approach? Their first aim is to find examples of atheistic thinking in the Enlightenment and draw connections between that thinking and early social scientific thought on religion. The goal is to paint secularization more as an unfounded ideology rather than a well-designed theoretical approach. They also want to illustrate that the early proponents of secularization harbored ill-will toward religion and believed that it was completely irrational. By painting the advocates this way and then using some data to illustrate that religion has not disappeared, Stark and Finke have attempted to illustrate that the proponents of secularization were not only wrong but stupid to think religion was going to disappear.
The book then turns to the “new paradigm” Stark and Finke are heralding. And, in prophetic fashion, Stark and Finke usher in their “new generation” of thought on the sociology of religion, “The new paradigm arrived as predicted, and we offer this book as the awaited “successor volume.” The new paradigm not only rejects each of the elements of the old paradigm outlined above, it proposes the precise opposite of each” (p. 31).
The remainder of the book is spent selectively choosing studies that bolster the claims of the rational choice theory/religious economies model (RCT/REM) along with formalizing the propositions, assumptions, and definitions of the theory. The number of empirical studies cited is impressive and the book does an excellent job laying out the tenets of the RCT/REM (I have linked to a .pdf of the propositions and definitions at the end of this review).
I am actually a firm believer in giving credit where credit is due. This book is an excellent summary on the RCT/REM paradigm. It builds a compelling, if slightly misguided, argument and fortifies the walls of the castle with empirical studies, selectively chosen to bolster the arguments for the RCT/REM paradigm.
I also think the book accurately illustrates that the secularization thesis is flawed on a number of levels. While it may yet be the case that as societies grow more rational they will also grow more secular, the time frame for such changes should not specified and whether that will turn out to be true is something that only repeated data collection over time will tell. With the data we have now, the secularization paradigm is not a sufficient theoretical model for explaining religious change. As the authors put it, “[W]hat is needed is a body of theory to explain religious variation, to tell us when and why various aspects of religiousness rise and fall, or are stable. In that regard, the secularization theory is as useless as a hotel elevator that only goes down” (p. 78). As levels of religiosity seem to have risen and declined in some places over time and different religious groups seem to grow and then decline in locations at different times, it does seem that a better theory of religious variation is in order.
The RCT/REM claims to be that theory. Unfortunately, in choosing their opponent, they have chosen an approach that doesn’t really merit the title of “paradigm.” The secularization thesis, while clearly a long-standing idea in the social scientific study of religion, is really just a small piece of a competing theoretical approach that focuses on aspects of society other than just the level of tension of a religion, the level of pluralism in a society, and the social capital and “rationalistic” behavior of individuals. An outline of the other paradigm is found in a book on church growth and decline published in 1980 and edited by Hoge and Roozen. That book argues that religious growth is dependent on four factors: national contextual factors, national institutional factors, local contextual factors, and local institutional factors. The RCT/REM approach – specifically the REM approach – only takes a couple specific variables in just two of these factors into consideration in examining religious growth. If the RCT/REM were to be cast against this more comprehensive theoretical approach, its shortcomings would be much clearer to the uninformed reader.
And since I just mentioned the shortcomings, let me highlight some of the significant ones in these approaches. I’ll begin with the rational choice micro level component. To begin with, the rational choice approach has now been watered down, as the quote above illustrated, such that it should really now be called “subjective whim theory.” The definition given of “rational” behavior argues that behavior is rational inasmuch as it falls within the preferences and tastes of the actor, as well as the beliefs and values of the broader culture. In other words, if I think it is personally beneficial to me to pull out my hair for no other reason than I like doing it (i.e., trichotillomania), the RCT would claim this is rational. I have a simple question for the advocates of RCT: Can you give me an example of irrational behavior? Given the expansive definition used by RCT, it doesn’t seem like such behavior exists. If that is the case, then all behavior is rational and there is no way to distinguish between rational and irrational, making the classification of behavior into these two camps pointless.
Additionally, the theory is completely non-predictive. By predictive I mean it should be able to predict what someone will do when put in a specific religious situation. However, the only way to know what is “rational” to that specific individual is to see what they do. Then, once you see how they respond you can determine how they “rationalized” their behavior, i.e., post hoc theorizing. In short, you can never really know how someone will behave as the only way to determine whether it is rational is to see what they do. Before critics claim I am misrepresenting this approach, let me draw on the actual text, “As summed up by Raymond Boudon (1993), subjective rationality applies to all human actions that are based on what appear to the actor to be “good reasons,” reasons being “good” to the extent to which they “rest upon plausible conjectures.” But, whatever the good reasons for making choices, the imputation of rationality always assumes the presence of subjective efforts to weigh the anticipated rewards against the anticipated costs, although these efforts usually are inexact and somewhat casual. The subjective approach to rationality is entirely consistent with the axiom of symbolic interactionism that in order to understand behavior, we must know how an actor defines the situation… for only from “inside” can we assess the rationality-that is, the reasonableness-of a choice” (p. 37). In other words, all behavior is rational because the only criteria of rationality that counts is the perspective of the actor. Ergo, there is no such thing as irrational behavior.
So, if irrational behavior can be illustrated, this should highlight a major shortcoming of the RCT. The problem here, however, is that, as the quote above illustrates – and the RCT concurs with the quote, everyone thinks their behavior is rational. But if you actually use the definition of “rational” that was originally proposed when introduced into sociology, namely the definition used by Max Weber, you arrive at a term that actually makes sense. Weber’s idea of rationality is understood to be the general tendency within societies and institutions to be transformed by action that is effective in achieving the ends it is intended to achieve. In short, action that is more efficient and efficacious at achieving desired ends is more rational. Using this definition, behavior can be categorized as falling along a continuum of rationality – from more to less rational. Let me give some examples of irrational behavior under Weber’s definition: Is it rational, in light of modern conveniences, for people to still plow their fields using horses? And, is it rational to spend hundreds of dollars on a pair of designer jeans that are ripped and torn when you could by the same jeans for $20 and do the tearing yourself? By Weber’s definition, no. By the RCT definition, yes. So, going with Weber’s definition, why do people act irrationally? In the first case, the Amish adhere to a particular worldview that advocates such behavior and then socialize their children to follow into their footsteps. They basically teach irrationality, perpetuating it from generation to generation. In the second example, people buy expensive clothes because culture provides specific, non-concrete rewards for wearing $500 jeans in certain social circles, despite the fact that an individual could present a near identical experience for much less money. But, in true irrational form, it isn’t the look that matters, its the label.
By making all behavior rational, the RCT has lost the utility of the original concept. By showing that people can behave irrationally, the entire RCT approach to understanding religious behavior is undermined. If people behave irrationally, but the RCT says they do not because it is rational from their own perspective, then there is no reason to use the word “rational” to describe the theory; you should, in effect, call it “subjective whim theory.” As presently constituted, the theory basically says, “people do what they want to do for whatever reasons they happen to have.” This gets us no closer to predicting human behavior than simply guessing at what people might do.
As far as the REM goes, it is also fundamentally flawed at a number of levels. First, the idea of religious tension doesn’t make much sense, because it is, for some unknown reason, limited only to conservative tension. For example, the United Church of Christ recently aired a commercial claiming its doors were open to gays and lesbians, unlike the doors of many other Christian churches in the U.S. The commercial was pulled by TV networks because it was too controversial. Is the United Church of Christ growing, given its level of tension with its surrounding society? No. It’s a mainline religion with stagnant growth. If tension is the key to growth, why isn’t it growing? The REM can’t explain this.
Additionally, a number of studies have shown that, despite the claims of the REM, new religious movements (a.k.a. cults) are not growing rapidly in Western Europe, where the state religions stand empty. This is a direct claim made by the REM, but in fact the most rapid growth of NRMs in Europe is taking place in the former communist countries with more pluralistic religious economies. Basically, with every assertion the REM has made it has been shown to be wrong. What’s more, by attributing growth to pluralism, the REM is doing the same thing it criticized the secularization thesis for – it is attributing a trend to some unknown force without actually explaining why that force leads to growth. To invert the earlier quote, “the religious economies model is as useless as a hotel elevator that only goes up.” It doesn’t provide for the possibility that religiosity will decline over time, just like secularization doesn’t provide for the possibility that religiosity might increase over time. They have replaced a flawed approach with another flawed approach.
I think a better explanation for why religiosity has remained high in the U.S. is actually illustrated by a quote included in the book. Stark and Finke talk about how driven U.S. pastors are in trying to build their churches, “Clergymen in America [are] like other businessmen; they must meet competition and build up a trade, and it is their own fault if their income is not large enough. Now it is clear why heaven and hell are moved to drive the people to the churches, and why attendance is more common here than anywhere else in the world” (quoting Karl T. Griesinger from 1850; p. 220). I believe religious pluralism, combined with capitalism, has resulted in religious entrepreneurs who depend on religious growth for their livelihood. Like any entrepreneur, company growth results in larger profits. Given the lack of religious regulation in the U.S. and the number of subsidies religions receive, it is no wonder religiosity remains as high as it is (which is overstated, but still high) – millions of people in the U.S. have an economic interest in maintaining high levels of religiosity. If I had no moral compunction, wanted lots of money, and didn’t mind promising people a product but never actually delivering it, I’d start a church too!
It is also worth noting that this book belies a subtle, pro-religion bias. While I think the authors’ point that social science has had an anti-religion bias for most of its past is valid, I don’t think that justifies their subtle barbs at irreligious scholars, “Competent social scientists, let alone real historians, would have nothing to do with such preening silliness as the “Jesus Seminar”" (p. 14). As noted above, the book seems to project only religious growth, the inverse of the secularization approach. And where possible, the book seems to recommend actions to religions that will result in growth. For instance, in the following quote the authors clearly spin one of their propositions to illustrate where their loyalties lie, “Fortunately for the future of the denomination, a return from liberalism does not require liberal clergy to recant, merely that they not be replaced by like-minded heirs” (p. 261). I don’t mind editorializing nor biases, as long as they are openly stated and admitted. This book doesn’t admits to its biases, at least not openly.
Finally, there is something about this book and the way that it is written, that is remarkable. It occurred to me as I made my way through the book that the REM/RCT advocates have manipulated the debates in the sociology of religion in order to be taken seriously. They have made bold assertions, like the following, that are really unfounded, “But there is nothing illusory about a basic paradigm shift in the social scientific study of religion. A mountain of fact bars any return to the simple certitudes of the past” (p. 41). They have done what the Bush Administration and the Republican spin machine regularly do: they have asserted that something is true when it is not. In responding to their assertions, opponents of the paradigm have given it legitimacy, allowing it to become a powerful force in the sociology of religion when it doesn’t merit such notoriety. Advocates of the REM/RCT have socially constructed a Kuhnian “paradigm shift,” and in the process tied up the last 15 to 20 years of research in the sociology of religion in debates about whether their fundamentally flawed theory is accurate or not. I don’t necessarily consider the time “wasted,” as their efforts have illustrated that there are some problems with the secularization thesis and have forced people to formulate alternative approaches. But this approach to academic legitimacy is really quite brilliant (i.e., skip logic, just jump at the assertion of a new paradigm). Stark and Finke are really kind of casting themselves and this book in the same light in which the authors of the Bible cast Jesus – the fulfillment of the old and the ushering in of the new, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). No wonder it has such appeal for so many scholars of religion (many of whom are personally religious) – it mirrors Christian thought in its efforts to throw off an “outmoded” past and introduce a “new way” of doing things. I do recommend reading the book, but realize that it is flawed at many levels.