Rationality and the "Religious Mind."

Article excerpt


Since the mid-1800s, religion has been a subject of sustained research within every social science except economics.(1) In the past two decades, however, widespread evidence of religion's durability, including numerous instances for religiously motivated political activism and ethnic conflict, has broadened scholarly interest in religion while also shattering the traditional scholarly consensus concerning religion's nature and future. Researchers are moving toward a new paradigm for the study of religion, which leans heavily upon the assumptions of rational choice and (religious) market equilibrium. (Warner [1993] and Young [1997] review the transition within sociology.) Though fueled by new, economic models of religious behavior, this shift finds its origins in a growing body of empirical findings that challenge traditional social-scientific views about religion.

For nearly two centuries, political philosophers and social scientists approached religion as a dying vestige of our primitive, prescientific past. Religious commitment was seen as independent of, and largely antithetical to, the rational calculus. A cost-benefit approach to religious behavior made little sense, because socialization reduced most religious calculations to tautological decisions to choose what one was trained to choose. Indeed, Freud and many other influential scholars argued that intense religious commitment sprang from nothing less than neurosis and psychopathology.

Although contemporary research has shed the overt, anti-religious rhetoric that characterized earlier work, it has tended to retain the antirational assumption - not because it has proved fruitful but rather because its origins are forgotten, its status unexamined, and its presence unnoticed. Traditional theories of religious behavior have accorded privileged status to the assumption of non-rationality. The assumption has, in turn, hobbled research, promoted public misconceptions, and, at times, distorted law and politics.(2)

The distorting force of the received wisdom is underscored by the body of stylized facts that it has spawned. For example: that religion must inevitably decline as science and technology advance; that individuals become less religious and more skeptical of faith-based claims as they acquire more education, particularly more familiarity with science; and that membership in deviant religious "cults" is usually the consequence of indoctrination (leading to aberrant values) or abnormal psychology (due to trauma, neurosis, or unmet needs). Most people know these statements to be true, even though decades of research have proved them false (Hadden [1987], Stark and Bainbridge [1985], and Greeley [1989]).

We argue below that the traditional view of religion as nonrational, not to mention irrational, emerged from a 19th century scholarly tradition largely devoid of empirical support and tainted by prejudice, ignorance, and antireligious sentiment. The relevant data suggest that most religious behavior is, in fact, associated with good mental health, is sensitive to perceived costs and benefits, and is compatible with scientific training.

The data on religion and science are particularly striking. Despite continuing talk about the secularizing effects of education and academia, our analysis of data from the 1972 through 1996 General Social Surveys find that most highly educated Americans, including most professors and scientists, are as religious as other Americans. Moreover, the college faculty most acquainted with "hard" scientific knowledge - physicists, chemists, biologists, and mathematicians - are by every measure substantially more religious than their counterparts in the social sciences and humanities. It is only among anthropologists and non-clinical psychologists that we observe very high rates of disbelief and anti-religious sentiment.

Before turning to these data, we will review the origins of the traditional view of religion, summarize the research on religion and mental health, and then examine some recent findings concerning the beliefs, values, and behavior of the members of deviant religious groups. …