A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion

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The Dynamics of Religious Economies
Roger Finke and Rodney Stark

An immense intellectual shift is taking place in the social scientific study of religion. During the past few years many of its most venerated theoretical positions faithfully passed down from the famous founders of the field have been overturned. The changes have become so dramatic and far-reaching that R. Stephen Warner identified them “as a paradigm shift in progress” (1993:1044), an assessment that since then “has been spectacularly fulfilled, according to Andrew Greeley (1996: 1).

This chapter reviews a small portion of this major paradigm shift: the dynamics of religious economies. Elsewhere (Stark and Finke 2000) we offer a more complete theoretical model, developing propositions explaining individual religious behavior, the dynamics of religious groups, and a more comprehensive examination of religious economies. Here our goals are far more modest. First, we will briefly contrast the new paradigm with the inherited model. Next, we offer a few of the foundational propositions for understanding religious economies. Finally, we use recent research to illustrate the dynamics of religious economies.


The Old Paradigm

Since the founding of the social sciences, the study of religion has been dominated by a paradigm where religion is explained as an epiphenomenon, serving as a salve for social ills, and relying on the unchallenged religious authority of a monopoly to make religious beliefs plausible. As an epiphenomenon, Durkheim (1912/1976) and others viewed religion as an elaborate reflection of more basic realities. Marx and Engels (1878/1964: 16) explained, “All religion is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men's minds of those external forces which control their daily lives.” As a salve for social ills, religion was a painkiller for frustration, deprivation, and suffering. Proponents of this paradigm viewed religion as serving to appease the lower classes, legitimate existing political power, and impede effective rational thought. Finally, the plausibility of the religious beliefs, they argued, relied on the support of a religious monopoly. Using the memorable imagery of Peter Berger, a “sacred canopy” encompassing all social institutions and suffusing all social processes provides religion with


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A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion
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