May 31, 2005


The Power of the Mustard Seed: Why strict churches are strong. (Judith Shulevitz, May 12, 2005, Slate)

You wouldn't expect an economist to do a better job than the religious at explaining religion. But one has, using the amoral language of rational choice theory, which reduces people to "rational agents" who "maximize utility," that is, act out of self-interest. (Economists assume that people are rational for methodological reasons, not because they believe it.) In his 1994 essay "Why Strict Churches Are Strong," which has become quite influential in the sociology of religion, economist Laurence Iannacone makes the counterintuitive case that people choose to be strictly religious because of the quantifiable benefits their piety affords them, not just in the afterlife but in the here and now.

Iannacone starts by asking why people join strict churches, given that doing so exacts such a high price. Eccentric customs invite ridicule and persecution; membership in a marginal church may limit chances for social and economic advancement; rules of observance bar access to apparently innocent pleasures; the entire undertaking squanders time that could have been spent amusing or improving oneself.

According to Iannacone, the devout person pays the high social price because it buys a better religious product. The rules discourage free riders, the people who undermine group efforts by taking more than they give back. The strict church is one in which members with weak commitments have been weeded out. Raising fees for membership doesn't work nearly as well as raising the opportunity cost of joining, because fees drive away the poor, who have the least to lose when they volunteer their time, and who also have the most incentive to pray. Fees also encourage the rich to substitute money for piety.

What does the pious person get in return for all of his or her time and effort? A church full of passionate members; a community of people deeply involved in one another's lives and more willing than most to come to one another's aid; a peer group of knowledgeable souls who speak the same language (or languages), are moved by the same texts, and cherish the same dreams. Religion is a " 'commodity' that people produce collectively," says Iannacone. "My religious satisfaction thus depends both on my 'inputs' and those of others." If a rich and textured spiritual experience is what you seek, then a storefront Holy Roller church or an Orthodox shtiebl is a better fit than a suburban church made up of distracted, ambitious people who can barely manage to find a morning free for Sunday services, let alone several evenings a week for text study and volunteer work.

The new Pope seems to grasp this dynamic.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 31, 2005 4:29 PM

You could also say that Jesus grasped this dynamic, and the new Pope has decided to follow Jesus's teachings.

Posted by: pj at May 31, 2005 5:03 PM

What does a mustard seed symbolize? Is it a "mighty oaks from little acorns grow" thing, or something else?

Posted by: PapayaSF at May 31, 2005 5:59 PM

The mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, and the smallest thing sold in the markets of Jerusalem 2000 years ago.

Posted by: pj at May 31, 2005 6:08 PM

Mustard is an invasive plant. Plant one and it will take over your garden.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at May 31, 2005 8:08 PM

The Church of LDS, Mormons, would seem to be the prime example of this.
I'll leave it to others to comment on their credo/dogma, but there is no denying they epitomize the article's thesis.

Posted by: Mike Daley at May 31, 2005 10:08 PM

The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a few centuries, by Rodney Stark

Stark is a sociologist who started out by studying Moonies. He then applied his theories to the rise of christianity. One theory is that religions strengthen themselves by asking members to make sacrifices, and accept stigmas. These he argues produce higher levels of commitment and participation.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 1, 2005 1:00 AM


Like fraternities and military training, perhaps?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 1, 2005 7:40 AM


Yes, that's why the church is so strong in the military.

Posted by: oj at June 1, 2005 10:43 AM

I failed to properly format the link for the stark book, so here it is:

The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a few centuries, by Rodney Stark.

I should have read the Shulevitz article before I commented. I beleive that the socioligist cited by her is the same who Stark cites, although Stark has a larger theoretical frame work and a facinating historical model.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 1, 2005 12:44 PM

May be this will work.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 1, 2005 12:55 PM

OJ: the first two tries at a link did not work. Was it because the text was too long?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 1, 2005 12:57 PM