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Summary by Ted, Ashley and Kari:

Rational Choice theory religion as consumer products that individuals and religious groups acts rationally to play the role of consumer and supplier.

Main ideas

  • Distinctive features
    • The theory is originated, and largely based on the situation in the U.S.
    • It assumes that most people are naturally religious, and thus there exists a solid need for religion.
    • It claims that individuals chooses religion rationally to believe in the one that can satisfy their needs to the best extent. Thus religion is seemed as a consumer product fulfilling the need of individuals only.
    • Viewing believer and religion as a consumer-supplier relationship, it suggests that the success of religion as a whole also depends on the success of the "supply side".
    • It rejects the view that religion is declining.
  • Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge: Religion as compensators
    • They believes Religion meets universal human need.
      • Humans naturally incline to choose things good for themselves. But many of those desired things, such as wealth and status, are scarce and cannot be obtained by everybody; and thus people turn to religion which uses distant reward such as eternal life to compensate those who do not gain the immediate reward.
      • Sometimes people want rewards that are so great that the possibility of gaining them can only be contemplated alongside a belief in the supernatural.
      • They deny that there are many people who lack any religious or supernatural beliefs. They argue that "The majority of people who say they have no religious affiliation express considerable belief in the mystical and supernatural." Where agnosticism or atheism existed in one generation, it tended not to be passed down to succeeding generations.
    • American society has become characterized by increasing religious pluralism, because people have sought new sources of compensators.
      • This understanding is also applicable to European countries.
      • The close connection between the church and state and the lack of competition mean that the limited range of existing organizations is not fulfilling the demand for religion. For example, in Norway and Sweden, central religion has low church attendance. On the other hand, in Netherlands where religion is not regulated, religion participation is much higher.

Criticism

  • Bruce (2011)
    • Secularization is indeed taking place, which would suggest that the demand for religion can decline over time.
    • Rational choice theory are being self-conflicting. Towns in the United States that has high extent of religion pluralism has low church attendance (not high attendance, as expected by rational choice theory), and that generally more homogeneous Catholic an Orthodox societies such as Spain and Italy are more religious that the diverse Protestant ones such as Britain.
    • Individual may not act in the same way choosing religion comparing to buying consumer products; religion is bound up with other social identities and cultures, and there is significant cost in altering religious belief in many countries.
  • Grace Davie (2007) - supportive
    • In both Europe and North America, religious belief and practice have begun to shift from "Obligation to consumption", as social pressure to conform to the same religious belief as your parents has declined.
  • Malcolm Hamilton (2009)
    • Rational Choice theory ignores structural variables and social constraints.

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