Posted by: Tobias | January 18, 2009

Religion and price theory

Bryan Caplan with an economic insight into religion:

Modern American Catholics reject many Catholic teachings:

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 78 percent of American Catholics support allowing Catholics to use birth control, 63 percent think priests should be able to marry, and 55 percent think women should be ordained as priests. Last week Gallup reported that more Catholics than non-Catholics believe that homosexual behavior, divorce, and stem-cell and human-embryo research are morally acceptable.

Question: Why don’t these Catholics switch to a church that shares their doctrinal views?  For example, why not just go Episcopalian? 

Perhaps this seems like a stupid question.  Many Catholics will object, “We can’t ‘just switch,’ because Catholic is what we are.”  But what exactly does this indignant response mean?  It can’t literally mean that Catholic identification is written in stone; the Church has lost adherents over doctrine before.  Remember the Reformation?

What it means, rather, is that in matters of religion people have both doctrinal preferences and denominational preference.  Even if a new religion came along that exactly agreed with their current religion, most people would still strictly prefer their current religions.  From a slightly different perspective, this means that people will – within some range – stay loyal to one religion even though a competing religion is, in purely doctrinal terms, a better fit.


  1. For me the real interesting part started when the post stopped, why don’t they switch?! And because I don’t really understand what doctrinal and denominational preferences mean I read the article, and sadly the only reference to the ‘why question’ was more or less;

    Catholic critics won’t consider leaving the church. To give it up would be to forfeit a part of their identity.

    I think there is much more to it: habit, fear, faith, etc. A topic more to explore when I have time to do so.

  2. Doctrinal preference means preferences over the actual teachings of the religion: the existence of heaven and hell and who gets to go where, accepting only men as priests, no condoms, no abortions, or 42 virgins when you die as a martyr for that matter. Denominational preferences mean a preference for a certain denomination, independent of its teachings, i.e. being a Catholic “just ’cause”. This preference framework provides a rational choice explanation for observed behavior in the religions people choose, namely that they decide to stay with their denomination despite disagreeing heavily with some or even most of its teachings and would not switch even if a religion came along that exactly replicated the doctrine of the denomination they currently belong to.

    As to why, that isn’t something the theory answers (we economists seldom do =)). But if I had to speculate, I’d name such things as being primed by your upbringing, not wanting to sever your bond with a community or even just laziness (actually changing denominations costs effort).

    The fear and faith explanations you give I don’t get. Fear of what and faith in what?

  3. Thank you for that, very helpful. About those two explanations: fear and faith; I think lots of people ‘believe’ because they are afraid of the unknown of which death (more specifically what will / might happen after that event) is the biggest example. Often when people are afraid they tend to return to their religion (light a candle, say a prayer) and how often don’t people at their deathbed call for a priest? And while in day to day business the subjects like why are we on earth, what is the overall purpose, what is my contribution to all off this aren’t tackled it seems to me that often when people are confronted with these issues they in somehow make (unknowingly) reference to a part of religion / faith. They look for something that reassures them, that has been there for a long time and even claims to have an explanation, hence reasons not to switch.
    Does it make some sense?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: