Rodney Stark's Rational Choice Theory of Religion

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
Why do people choose a particular religious group and why do they choose to follow a religion at all? This lesson looks at Rodney Stark, a sociologist, and his view of rational choice theory and how it applies to religion.

Rational Decision-Making

It may be a surprise to some, but humans are basically rational. That means that when it's time to make a decision, the majority will think about what best suits them and make a decision accordingly.

This view of decision-making is the basis of something called rational choice theory, which was first conceived by economists. The theory states that people will base a decision on the options available and then use specific criteria to make their choice. For example, if an individual has a certain amount of money, is it more rational, according to their individual criteria, to spend it on a diamond for their wife or invest it on retirement. Of course, each person thinks about this decision using their own experience and perception, so the outcome, and the reason for the outcome, will be different depending on the individual.

Economists may have constructed the initial theory, but sociologists realized it would be useful to apply to the social groups they study, including people of a religious bent. A sociologist named Rodney Stark applied rational choice theory to his study of religious groups. He wanted to understand how people became involved with religion; on what criteria did they base their decision to take part in a particular religious group?

Religion as a Social Choice

Humans are social creatures who, in general, crave interaction. Thus, it makes sense that choosing a religion would also be social in nature. In an area where there are few Christians but many Buddhists, an individual will most likely choose Buddhism, according to Stark's reasoning. Because other individuals are likely to be Buddhist and there are more Buddhist temples in close proximity than Christian churches, the choice is an easy one to make. Of course, there are outliers who will choose based on other criteria, but most will choose the religion that most of their social circle chooses.

Religious Choice Based on Cost

Sales is an interesting field that applies to everything people do. For example, speakers sell an idea or themselves; mothers try to sell their children on the idea of an unfamiliar food based on taste, popularity, or health consciousness to her family. Sales is also a constant when choosing a religious preference.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam are based on the acquisition of a place in a desired afterlife. These religions 'sell' themselves based on what an individual will receive once they die. Eastern religions rely more on the peace and harmony an individual can have in their corporeal lives, since most do not ascribe to an afterlife. Whichever religious choice an individual makes, Stark argues, there is a specific sales pitch that has made that religion attractive.

Christianity's Rise

In his study on how people choose a religion and why people choose Christianity specifically, Stark makes a few interesting points:

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