I recently read the academic article “Why Strict Churches Are Strong” [UChicago], which explains the phenomena of why stricter religions and denominations – eg, Orthodox Judaism, or Mormonism, or Sikhism – tend to have more active members and more growth, at least in recent generations.
The article is fascinating and widely cited, and largely uses rational choice theory to explain the outcome. My very basic understanding of rational choice theory is, “assume that people generally make choices out of rational self-interest”. Yes, I’m sure there’s a lot more to it.
The article’s conclusion:
The strength of strict churches is neither a historical coincidence nor a statistical artifact. Strictness makes organizations stronger and more attractive because it reduces free riding. It screens out members who lack commitment and stimulates participation among those who remain
Some highlights and excerpts:
Statistical studies have confirmed that denominational growth rates correlate strongly with “strictness” and its concomitants, and new historical research has revealed that the mainline’s share of the churchgoing population has been declining since the American Revolution
I shall argue that strict demands “strengthen”a church in three ways: they raise overall levels of commitment, they increase average rates of participation, and they enhance the net benefits of membership
The Mormon church has distinctive behavioral requirements and makes heavy demands on members’ time and money, yet is the fastest growing religion of the modern era
“Perhaps the gravest [peril] of all lies in the fact that these colonies are threatened as much by success as by failure…If they attain prosperity they attract a crowd of members who lack the enthusiasm and faith of the earlier ones and are attracted only by self-interest.” This perverse dynamic threatens all groups engaged in the production of collective goods, and it applies to enthusiasm, solidarity, and other social benefits no less than to material resources.
Instead of subsidizing participation, churches can penalize or prohibit alternative activities that compete for members’ resources. In mixed populations, such penalties and prohibitions tend to screen out the less committed members. They act like entry fees and thus discourage anyone not seriously interested in “buying” the product. Only those willing to pay the price remain.
Commenting on his religion’s distinctive dress and grooming requirements, a Sikh put it thus: “The Guru wanted to raise a body of men who would not be able to deny their faith when questioned, but whose external appearance would invite persecution and breed the courage to resist it“
Relative to their more mainstream counterparts, members of sectarian groups – both Christian and Jewish – attend more religious services, contribute more money, and (in the Jewish case, at least) choose more of their closest friends from within their religion. They are also less involved in competing activities. They hold fewer memberships in outside groups, contribute less to outside causes, and have fewer outside friends.
Simply put, those most likely to join are those with the least to lose. Losses grow in proportion to both the quantity and the quality of one’s ties to the outside world. You are therefore less likely to join (or remain active in) an exclusive sect if you have an extensive set of social ties to friends and family outside the sect. You are more likely to join if you lack many such ties and are still more likely to join if you have friends or family in the sect.
Stark and Bainbridge (1985, p. 134) arrived at a conclusion that fits the rational choice model perfectly: “Many sects fail to grow (and are never transformed into churches) because their initial level of tension is so high as to cause their early social encapsulation. Once encapsulated, a sect may persist for centuries, depending on fertility and the ability to minimize defection, but it will rarely be able to recruit an outsider.”
They conclude that “particularly in dynamic social environments churches must engage in a continuing balancing act, trading off between religious traditions and social norms…A certain amount of tension with secular society is essential to success-the trick is finding, and maintaining, the right amount.”
Finally a very interesting chart:
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