Rational Choice: The Basic Errors
THE previous two chapters have looked very closely at the recent fate of religion in a wide variety of settings. In addition to considering the British and US data that the supply-siders have themselves advanced to support their rational choice approach, I have tried to test the general claims about the effects of diversity and state regulation on religious vitality by looking at a range of continental European societies clustered so that their salient features could become apparent. With all due recognition of the considerable variation in the quality of the available data, I conclude that the observations made by Stark and his colleagues that are useful are invariably those also made by scholars outside the rational choice perspective. Those ideas particular to the 'new paradigm', as it advertises itself, find little or no support in the evidence presented here.1 I now want to pick up the critical threads from the end of Chapter 2 and pursue them to the point where we can understand in what sort of society the rational choice approach might work and thus come to a clear understanding of why it fails to work in most of the settings described in Chapters 3 and 4.
One general criticism that can be made of the economic approach to religion is that it has little resonance with the understandings of the people whose behaviour it must explain. Sociologists are divided over whether this matters. I take the view that there are no structures that are not created by the behaviour of individuals. While the positivist search for patterns in action is a useful place to start doing social science, the interpretation of such regularities as we find rests in the end on a convincing explanation of why members of this or that group do what they do. It is perfectly sensible for Durkheim to begin his study of suicide by comparing the suicide rates of various groups of people, but for his explanations to be plausible he must provide a reasonable
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Publication information: Book title: Choice and Religion:A Critique of Rational Choice Theory. Contributors: Steve Bruce - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: Oxford. Publication year: 1999. Page number: 121.
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