Rationality and the "Religious Mind."

By Iannaccone, Laurence; Stark, Rodney et al. | Economic Inquiry, July 1998 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Rationality and the "Religious Mind."

Iannaccone, Laurence, Stark, Rodney, Finke, Roger, Economic Inquiry


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Rationality and the "Religious Mind."


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?