I’ve been reviewing a book* for an economic history journal that claims to explain, using rational choice theory, how Christianity developed over the first thousand years of its existence into a religious monopoly: in the marketplace of ideas, it undercut and outmanoeuvred its rivals through product development, cartelisation, vertical integration and ruthless price-cutting, so that it became the rational choice for religious consumers seeking to maximise their utility. Given the nature of the journal, my actual review will be short and limited in scope – roughly summarised, ‘the only economic history you’re going to find here is the assertion that the Christianisation of the Roman Empire must have ‘crowded out’ crime and immorality, so reduced enforcement costs and promoted economic growth’ – so I wanted to take the opportunity here to engage with some of the other problems I see with its approach to the history of religion. Where do we start..?
Let’s get the obvious historical quibbles out of the way at the start: the authors are not specialists in late antiquity or Christian history and so have relied entirely on secondary material: not too out of date on Christian history (though inevitably they spend a lot of time engaging with the work of Rodney Stark as it’s not so far away from their own approach as other historical and theological accounts), terrible on traditional Greco-Roman religion (no Beard North & Price, no Scheid, no Ruepke, to name just some obvious general introductions) and a tendency to revert to very old-fashioned accounts (e.g. Rostovtzeff) for the general context. To their credit, they do occasionally engage with primary material, though I doubt that their readings will be very persuasive to specialists. Overall, there aren’t any obvious errors in the factual content; the major complaints are that they iron out almost all uncertainty and ambiguity – this is offered as a new interpretation of a known and stable past, and it’s clear that getting involved in debates about the detail of that past would impede the theorising – and of course the interpretation itself…
Human Nature All human beings are rational maximisers of utility (presumably, though I don’t recall this being mentioned, in possession of perfect information). All behaviour can thus be analysed in microeconomic terms through rational choice theory. The same appears to go for institutions, treated as agents; most obviously the Church (incidentally, ‘Roman Christianity’ refers to the Church of Rome, the authors’ main obsession and model for all religions) as it set about cornering the market. These assumptions are all too familiar from many areas of social science; the more sophisticated analysts are conscious that they’re constructing abstract, simplified models of reality in order to identify the operation of key variables (the old spherical cow routine) and that reality is rather messier, the less sophisticated analysts give the impression that this is an accurate description of reality. You can guess which camp this book falls into.
Product If the world of ideas and beliefs is a marketplace, what’s the product? The obvious answer, I think, would be that it’s the religions themselves, and in fact various historical accounts do, albeit implicitly, make use of some sort of rational choice model in discussing the relative advantages of Christianity as opposed to traditional religion – track record in social work and enlightened attitude to women versus communal solidarity and the classical cultural tradition, you know the sort of thing. That doesn’t work here, because the authors want to present religions as the firms that are refining and selling their products; they therefore define the ‘product’ as what otherwise might be characterised as the ‘features’ of ‘religion as product’, namely a world view, the promise of eternal life, enlightened social attitudes, belief system and so forth. This leads them straight into the old trap of teleological thinking: because Christianity won, its distinctive features must have been what persuaded customers to switch from their old supplier, and so this is all about the superior Christian version of guaranteed eternal life, coherent theological system and so forth, contrasted with pagan doctrinal fuzziness, lack of interest in heaven and failure to promote martyrdom. It’s long been recognised that this involves a basic misunderstanding of the nature of traditional Roman religion and begs the question as to whether people were actually attracted to Christianity by what the Christians claimed to be offering – but that’s the sort of messy theoretical issue discussed by the sorts of books about traditional Roman religion that these authors didn’t read. Even in their own terms, however, the definition of ‘product’ is a mess: sometimes it appears to be the whole set of features produced by the religious firm, sometimes specific ones like the promise of eternity or the system of theological dogma. There’s a recognition, I think, that actually people might convert for a whole load of different reasons, but that would be harder to model in these terms than the notion that at a particular moment (and I think this means ‘moment in the text’ rather than ‘moment in history’) the choice of religion is determined by price comparisons between two versions of a promise of eternal life or two versions of a world view or however the product is defined at that point.
As it happens I think you could refine the metaphor, making this a choice not between two firms offering competing products but between two coffee shops, where you might make your choice on the basis of the coffee or the ambience or a hatred of high-street chains or whatever but you get the whole package as a result. Not sure how you fit in the fact that, in religious terms, there are rather more sanctions incurred if you try to alternate between providers as the mood takes you than if you simply drop into Starbucks occasionally because it’s convenient. Maybe a computing metaphor: you start off with Mac or PC for all sorts of different reasons, including the possibility than your employer won’t support one system, and you find you’re stuck with the whole package – you get Internet Explorer constantly pushed at you even though you only wanted Word – unless you invest enormous amounts of time developing custom-made solutions, probably invalidating your warranty in the process.
I’m not convinced that this helps…
Price The definition of ‘price’ is even fuzzier, because it has to encompass everything: not just the actual monetary cost of joining one religion rather than another (though they do make the suggestion that Christianity must have been cheaper because you have to worship just the one god rather than offering sacrifices to lots and lots of different ones) but also the intangible personal satisfactions to be gained from being a member of a religion that is nicer to women, the pleasure of being in the same club as lots of other people balanced against the opportunity costs of being excluded from conventional society (actually they don’t have much to say about that consequence of conversion; at least Stark offers a sociological argument about the attractions for some people of being part of an oppressed minority), and the transaction costs of ascertaining the quality of the product (which, of course, in the case of a promise of eternal life is impossible; apparently this is called a meta-credence good). You can even express the MacMullen thesis, that many people converted as a result of state coercion and intimidation, in these terms: the ‘full price’ of Christianity is reduced by the degree to which it frees individuals from the disutility of being oppressed for their religious practices.
The question is why you would want to describe it in these terms. It’s not as if this yields new understanding of the history of Christianity, or helps resolves disputes about the process; it is striking that when the authors explicitly recognise the existence of a historical debate, the conflicting interpretations of fourth-century conversion offered by MacMullen and Stark, they decline to choose between them on the basis that their rational choice theory is compatible with either. Rather, the redescription itself seems to be the point: if the rise of Christianity can be presented in these terms, it both establishes that rational choice theory is indeed the eternal principle of human nature that they’ve assumed it to be, and – more importantly, I suspect – underpins their analysis of contemporary religion in terms of market conflict between the Roman Catholic church and its less vertically-integrated competitors.
It’s tempting to take up their implicit challenge, that all human behaviour can be analysed in neoclassical economic terms. Like religion, in their model, rational-choice theory strives for monopoly, offering the market the meta-credence good of absolute and transhistorical understanding at a reduced full price by stripping out all that costly complexity, ambiguity and sensitivity to historical context…
*Robert B. Ekelund Jr. and Robert D. Tollison, Economic origins of Roman Christianity. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011)