A theory of liberal churches

From Michael Makowsky:

There is a counterintuitive gap in the club theory of religion. While it elegantly accounts for the success of strict sectarian religious groups in recruiting members and maintaining commitment, it is less satisfactory when attempting to account for groups requiring neither extreme nor zero sacrifice. Moderate groups are always a suboptimal choice for rational, utility maximizing agents within the original representative agent model. The corner solutions of zero and absolute sacrifice, however, are rarely observed empirically compared to the moderate intermediate. In this paper, we extend the original model to operate within an agent-based computational context, with a distribution of heterogeneous agents occupying coordinates in a two dimensional lattice, making repeated decisions over time. Our model offers the possibility of successful moderate groups, including outcomes wherein the population is dominated by moderate groups. The viability of moderate groups is dependent on extending the model to accommodate agent heterogeneity, not just within the population of agents drawn from, but heterogeneity within groups. Moderate sacrifice rates mitigate member free riding and serve as a weak screening device that permits a range of agent types into the group. Within-group heterogeneity allows agents to benefit from the differing comparative advantages of their fellow members.

Also via Kevin Lewis, here is an interesting Dan Ariely paper on who benefits from religion.  And here is a rational choice model of papal infallibility.


Using a lattice sounds like overkill. Liberal churches will exist because if a church has assets, the leaders benefit from there being fewer members, not more. Scare off all the episcopalian rank and file, and the clergy are left with big endowments, only nice old ladies to monitor them, and no time-consuming counselling or admonishing.

I think that theory can explain a lot.

Religion and politics simply can't go well together. You have to believe in one and defy the other. Serving two masters at a time is still nearly unreasonable.

There are liberal church. Their religions are socialism and communism

Makowsky's paper seems to be solving a problem with the model he critiques that doesn't exist.

The model that he critiques suggests that moderate religion is suboptimal relative to both very demanding religious denominations and lack of religion. There is a great deal of empirical evidence to support that this is indeed the case. The principal trends we see in the religious affiliation data over the last few decades have been growth in the ranks of the most demanding denominations and growth in the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated, at the expense of the moderates.

Moreover, the growth of the extremes at the expense of the mean has been particularly intense among young adults who are free of parental constraints on their choices.

The simple device of modeling religious affiliation as a decision made mostly in one's youth and then remaining more stable as time passes (e.g. as a "sunk cost") is more than sufficient to explain why moderate religious denominations are more successful than the theory which he critiques would predict, and also to explain their upside down age pyramid of mainstream religious denomination membership. The typical mainstream denomination church that expects little of its members has pews that are full of white hair.

Some of the variation within denominations can be traced, upon closer examination, to some congregations being more demanding than others within the same denomination.

Throw in the strength of immigrant churches which typically provide benefits of links to the homeland found in no other domestic institutions, and you are quite close to the mark.

Another factor that argues against heterogenity as a driving mechanism from which moderate churches benefit relative to more demanding churches is that moderate churches are not, in reality, more heterogenous than the more demanding peers. Indeed, if anything, the opposite is true. Ethnographically, moderate churches are extremely homogeneous by almost every measure compared to their more demanding peers. Higher rates of defection in moderate churches disproportionately impact those who are a "poor fit" to the mode leading to lower levels of variation.

t that happens to everything, doesn't it?

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