May 14, 2005

Strict Churches

Very interesting essay in Slate: "Why Strict Churches are Strong," by Judith Shulevitz. The basic question is this: If people are in fact self-interested when it comes to faith—and that's a dubious assumption, but let's roll with it—why do so many submit to burdensome religious laws? Shulevitz, channeling economist Laurence Iannacone, has a clever thesis:
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.
Well, now. I haven't read Iannacone's paper, but it seems like strictness can't possibly be the only determinant of strength. Four strict churches that come to mind are: the Catholic Church, the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Amish, and Jehovah's Witnesses. All strong churches, yes, but only the first two are truly muscle-bound in the sense that they're far more likely to last for centuries to come. (Obviously I can't test this.) Is that because of contingent historical factors, or because of particular rules that are more advantageous to certain religions? After all, some strict sects might be strong simply because, like Mormonism and Catholicism, they encourage their followers to have many, many babies. That would, um, play a big role.

Also, how are we measuring strength here? Yes, most likely an Orthodox shtiebl has a high average level of commitment. But obviously there are going to be a lot of very committed people in a Reform congregation too. So if there are 200 committed and 10 "free-riding" Orthodox Jews, alongside 200 committed and 100 "free-riding" Reform Jews, obviously the former will look like the "stronger" congregation, but the latter church is obviously just as strong by any sensible measure. You could certainly a decent number of passionate, committed, pious peers in a Reform congregation or mainline Protestant church as you could with, say, the Holy Rollers. The benefits don't seem all that different.

So why do some people nevertheless put up with stricter churches? Some other theory is needed, it seems. It strains the imagination to think that devout people who join a strict church are joining because of the lack of free-riders. (How would a prospective new member even know whether the church has free riders or not?) And it doesn't seem likely that people are leaving mainline churches because they're frustrated with all the free riders, either. Indeed, this helpful article, which goes through data on church membership, argues that the growth of conservative evangelical movements in America—alongside the decline of mainline churches—can be almost entirely explained through changing demographics, rather than mass bouts of church-switching. But I would assume Iannacone factored all this in, so maybe I should read the damn paper (but it's not anywhere on the internet!).
-- Brad Plumer 12:22 AM || ||