The disadvantages of the religious marketplace

I’ve recently been trying to get to grips with some current academic work on sociology of religion; it’s full of interesting insights, but there are times I start feeling slightly like I’m a bird reading a book on ornithology. One of the most interesting bits has been reading some stuff on rational choice theory (RCT) of religion, which I hadn’t known much about before. This is one of those theories that is like a Swiss Army knife – at first it seems to provide an answer to everything, then you start realising all the situations it doesn’t really work for. RCT is a theory that works pretty effectively for the US, where it was developed, and far less well for many other areas of the world.

What really interests me, though, is how its supporters tend to use RCT not only as a descriptive frame (there is a marketplace in religions), but as a normative view: that this is what a society should aim to have. In particular, they seem to take as axiomatic three propositions:

1) That there should be multiple religions, all competing for adherents
2) That a person’s religion should be chosen by them and not determined by birth.
3) That there should be no state religion.

All these three propositions come historically from a particular strain of non-conformist Protestantism, most prevalent in the US, but they also have sound liberal arguments for them, as well as fitting well with contemporary capitalism. Who could be against freedom of religion and religious choice in this way? Yet what hasn’t been considered so carefully is some of the disadvantages such a religious marketplace creates. We need to be more aware of these problems, even if we still conclude that the free religious marketplace is better than more regulated alternatives.

1) Religious competition
Views on the effects of multiple religions (or sects/denominations) competing with each other have been mixed. There is a long history of religious conflicts leading to particularly bloody wars. Adam Smith, however, argued that once you had societies divided into hundreds or thousands of different sects, they would be small enough to have to be pacific and moderate, and this is a view that still has many adherents today. (See the quote from Smith in this paper by Laurence Iannaccone.

Neither the argument that the multiplication of sects/religions necessarily leads to more extremism/violence or necessarily leads to moderation holds up from empirical evidence. More realistically, what a religious marketplace tends to create is more homogenous religious groups, both theologically and socially. If it is normal for religions and churches to split, there is less incentive for anyone to stay and protest if someone is taking a movement in a direction you don’t like. Instead, you leave it and found your own church, with other like-minded people.

If you spend all your time with like-minded people, there is less likely to be any challenge to your beliefs and prejudices: instead, you are likely to reinforce each others’ views. This process therefore creates a strong sense of an in-group and an out-group: other Christians (or other Muslims or other Wiccans) are no longer You, they are a different Other. You are likely to feel less sense of community and solidarity with them, which is itself a social loss.

Market place religion thus produces a greater diversity of religious groups and less diversity within them. You end up with niche theologies of wildly different kinds. It’s easier to develop racist theology in a church which has only one race represented in it. It’s easier to decide that women priests are OK if most of the misogynists in the congregation have decided to go elsewhere, rather than engage in thirty years of negotiation with them in the hope that they’ll come round. But it’s also easier for those who have a religious outlook based on hate to gravitate together into a shared sect based on hate. And modern technology gives such a sect the ability to carry out terrible atrocities.

The politicizing of religion is also more likely in a religious marketplace. The language of politics, business and religion inevitably tend to merge when both are trying to win over ‘floating voters’. But religious-based marketing of politics is also made much easier once churches/sects have become homogeneous and identifiable social segments. It’s much easier to create policies/political marketing that will appeal to most Southern Baptists, rather than most Protestants, let alone most Christians.

2) Religion as choice, not inheritance
Last year the Atheist Billboard Campaign had a campaign under the slogan Please Don’t Label Me, which complained about the practice of calling children Catholic, Muslim, Protestant etc. I felt like pointing out that this wasn’t now what happened, that you heard the expression ‘Christian child’, for example, only in nineteenth century hymns. Then I looked at a booklet on admission criteria for Hertfordshire schools that I had at the time, and realised I was wrong. The Church of England schools might be giving preference to children from Anglican or Christian families, but the Catholic and Jewish ones were happily talking about Catholic and Jewish children.

That was when I realised I was committing the religious fallacy of thinking like a Protestant (and so were the atheists who had planned the campaign). It’s a particularly Protestant understanding of religion to see it as involving assent to particular doctrines, an assent that can only properly be given by reasoning adults. If you instead imagine religion as more about a cultural/social inheritance than specific dogmas, then it’s no more unreasonable to bring up a child to be a Jew than it is to bring them up to be Welsh-speaking or a classical music lover, or someone who supports Luton Town football club.

The assumption that the only proper religion is that chosen by adults tends to weaken the religious landscape in several ways. Firstly, by losing the vital resource of such figures as secular Jews, cradle Catholics etc. These are often people deeply committed to a religion and its ethos, but not necessarily to its current manifestations, and thus more able to challenge the religion’s leaders. The challenge offered by unorthodox intellectuals such as Andrew Sullivan or Tariq Ramadan to their respective religions would be greatly weakened if they could not rightfully claim Catholicism and Islam as their respective inheritances. It would also be weakened if they left their faith communities, as a religious marketplace would suggest: ex-believers do not have much influence in most congregations. In contrast, converts are rarely critical of their new religion, and where they are (such as Tony Blair on Catholicism and homosexuality) tend to be told to shut up fairly fiercely. Even those who are brought up in a religion, but who abandon it as adults, can bring some of its better values into a wider world. How much of current western intellectual thought, for example, comes from the contribution of secularised Jews?

3) Established religion
Opponents of established/state churches are often working with an implicit model of an established church based on eighteenth century England or fifteenth century Spain. Yet as Grace Davie points out in ‘The sociology of religion’ (pp. 172-3):

the crucial point lies in appreciating the difference between an historically strong state church, which almost by definition, becomes excluding and exclusive, and its modern somewhat weaker alternative. A weakened state church is in a different position, frequently using its still considerable influence to include, rather than exclude, becoming de facto the umbrella body of all faith communities in Britain.

A state religion that is therefore tied to a political elite looks very different in a democracy with religious pluralism than in an absolutist/aristocrat state. A pluralist democracy means that the representatives of state religion cannot be too politically partisan or out of step with public mood: they must be willing to co-operate with an elected government of any type. At the same time, however, representatives of an established religion have a legitimate claim to speak independently on political matters and to be listened to. The result is that the Church of England has normally worked as a moderating political influence in the recent past. For example, it ended up being one of the most prominent opponents of some of the more extreme forms of Thatcherism in the 1980s (at a time when the Labour party was in disarray). Such a moderating influence may not always be ideal: some non-established churches have been able to oppose warfare more consistently than state churches, for example. But it can act as some kind of check on governments, in a politically strong state, such as the UK.

As Grace Davey suggests, a state religion can also, paradoxically, provide a way of protecting religious minorities. Certainly, the French treatment of minority faiths is substantially more unfavourable to them than Britain is: here, ideas about ‘laicite’ have been used to justify considerable discrimination against Muslims, for example. Not all formally secular states are hostile to religion, but the US separation of state and church also seems to have a negative effect on education, resulting in the polarization of a private system of religious schools without any effective checks, opposed to a public school system where religion is barely taught. I suspect I learnt considerably more about Sikhism or Islam in my Church of England school than I would have done in most parts of the US system.

Established churches, then, however, reprehensible in theory, in modern practice can potentially act as a way of including the religious moderate within the mainstream of society, without threatening the liberty of the non-religious. When I was an evangelical Anglican back in the 1980s I wanted a disestablished church, one which rejected the privileges of a relationship with the state, but also wanted to escape the constraints this brought. Nowadays I am less sure that a Church of England which lost its theological and pastoral constraints in that way would necessarily be a positive development.

As I said at the start, all these disadvantages of the religious marketplace don’t necessarily invalidate it as a vision for society: it may, like democracy and capitalism, be the worst system apart from all the other ones. But I think we do need to be more aware of the potential paradox that a situation which is undoubtedly better for most individuals may nevertheless end up with less good outcomes for society as a whole. But perhaps that’s typical for an ideal such as the religious marketplace so strongly marked by capitalist ideology.

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