Choice and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice Theory

Choice and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice Theory

Choice and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice Theory

Choice and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice Theory


The orthodox view is that the democracies of the western world have become increasingly secular over the twentieth century. Fewer and fewer people have chosen to believe, and the church has declined markedly as religion has changed from being part of an identity ascribed at birth to being a matter of personal choice. Choice and Religion provides a detailed critique of the 'rational choice' approach to religion to demonstrate that industrialisation has secularised the western world and that diversity, far from making religion more popular by allowing individuals to maximize their returns, undermines it. The claim that diversity and competition promote religion is refuted with evidence from a wide variety of western societies. Bruce examine the Nordic countries and the ex-communist states of eastern Europe to explore the consequences of different sorts of state regulation, and to show that ethnicity is a more powerful determinate of religious change than market structures. Where religion matters, it is not because individuals are maximising their returns, it is because it defines group identity and is heavily implicated in social conflict.


A brief account of why this book was written might also explain its tone. If there are occasional hints of exasperation, it is because the whole project was born out of frustration with the malign influence of a small clique of US sociologists of religion. I know that my country is markedly less religious now than it was in my childhood or the childhood of my father and grandfather. Scottish towns are decorated with redundant and converted churches; within five miles of me there are six churches that have been converted into private houses. There are no new churches. I know enough of the history of my country to have no doubt that most Scots of the seventeenth century attended the religious rituals of the church, prayed, read their Bibles, tried to follow the social teachings of the clergy, gave money to the church, and celebrated the significant events of their lives, their community, and the agricultural year in church to a far greater extent than do my contemporaries. In early 1998 two things brought the extent of secularization home to me. First, I read that, for the first time in its 150-year history, the Free Church of Scotland had no students training for the ministry.

Secondly, I was invited by a group of leading Scottish Methodists to a meeting in Stirling to discuss the Church's future. Fewer than thirty people, most of them elderly, met in a church badly in need of renovation and looked at membership figures that showed, quite unambiguously, that Scottish Methodism would disappear within my lifetime.

Furthermore, it is obvious that the gaps left by the decline of the Christian denominations and sects are not being filled by new religions. It is now thirty years since the Scientologists opened their 'Come in for a free personality' test shop on the Bridges in Edinburgh and they have still failed to recruit a larger following than a junior league football side. The Moonies would have trouble fielding a football team. One Episcopalian church in Inverurie was taken with the Toronto Blessing and through it lost more members than it gained.

Of course there were irreligious people in previous eras just as there are religious people today. What matters is the balance and I have no doubt that Britain is vastly more secular now than it ever has been before.

I am not alone in this view. It is held by almost everyone who has given the matter a moment's thought: people old enough to compare now with some . . .

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