A religion needs rules…

In a weirdly compelling piece in the Times, Eduardo Porter suggests that a possible explanation for the decline in Catholic membership in the last while has been that they relaxed the rules in the 60’s. Religious groups are clubs that need “strong, believable rules” which reinforce their members’ commitment to the cause:

Larry Iannaccone, an economist at George Mason University who has studied religions, notes that some of the most successful, like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Pentecostal Christians, which have very fervent congregations, have strict requirements. Religions relax the rules at their own peril.

“Religions are in the unusual situation in which it pays to make gratuitously costly demands,” Mr. Iannaccone said. “When they weaken their demands they make on members, they undermine their credibility.”

This argument makes a certain amount of sense. If it’s hard, you ‘earn’ your religion. You buy into it that much more. It can’t be wrong, because if it is, then why did you go though all that bullshit fasting?

This model applies to all sorts of weirdass groups, like fraternities, football teams, the army. These are groups where the goals and purposes are lofty and abstract – brotherhood, victory, togetherness – and the day-to-day grind is anything but – drills, hanging out with drunk loser frat boys, killing and getting killed. But they mean all that much more because they’re difficult.

What’s interesting is that this model of difficult rules doesn’t really apply to other kinds of groups. People who get together to dance, for example – they have a great sense of community but there aren’t any “trials” or tests of worthiness. How about orchestras? Sure, practicing is hard, but the suffering isn’t what makes those groups cohere. It’s not “we’re all in this [shit] together” its that the music makes you collectively effervesce.

But back to Mr. Eduardo Porter. In his piece on religion and rules, he quotes two economists, Gary Becker and Larry Iannaccone. Now, I know that’s mad interdiciplinary of him, but still. I think that with the coming of Freakonomics, the word “social scientist” has been replaced by “economist”.

It’s an interesting idea, though, that by raising the “cost” of religion, you can make it more desirable. Like paying five grand for a thousand dollar call girl. Maybe.

The piece was ostensibly about the Vatican’s much publicized new “deadly sins”. Because the press LOVES lists, that story got a lot of play. But Porter’s piece quickly pivoted from talking about the Catholic church trying to update the rules of the globalized world to talking about how he thinks (how Becker and Iannaccone think) strict rules are what makes or breaks that catholic church.

But even though I find this idea mostly compelling, I think that the Catholic Church was so successful because it wielded political power, and it waned because it lost political power – that shit don’t have too much to do with Lent and how Catholics love to deprive themselves.


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