Are Religious Organizations Like Firms?

I initially published this post on March 21, 2012, on on the Black, White and Gray blog hosted by Patheos.

“Can ideas from economics, such as that monopolies are lazy and that competition leads to better products, be applied to understand religion? Every year I teach my students–both those in my class on economic sociology and those in my class on sociology of religion–about the economistic or the rational choice perspective on religion…

One path-breaking book which applies the rational choice perspective to American religion is Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, which won the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Given that the U.S. has never a state-established religion, religious groups here have always had to win over adherents. To explain which religious groups thrive under these conditions of an open market for religion, Finke and Stark use vocabulary about markets, calling established churches lazy monopolies and describing tent revivals as an important part of competition between religious firms. Because of the American constitutional protections of religious freedom, the U.S. has always had an open religious market, and in that market, upstart, preaching, fiery sects win more followers, both historically and today. How does this happen? The free market gets rid of weak religious firms and rewards the ones that work hard to get people to join.”

Read the full post on Black, White and Gray.

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