How Religious Competition Leads to Moderation
Dec 15, 2010

How Religious Competition Leads to Moderation

In way to analyze religions is to consider their role as commodities. This economic parallel lets us apply economic ideas such as competition, barriers to entry and monopolies to the concept of religions. This analysis proves to yield some interesting insights, among them the conclusion that increased religious competition results in increased moderation.

Religions essentially sell memberships to the people that are for the most part mutually excludable. Successful religions manage to acquire large numbers of followers, unsuccessful ones die out. Because one can typically only be a member of a single religion, different religions are in direct competition with each other (and with other equally incompatible cultural belief systems like atheism). Much in the same way competing television stations support each other by increasing peoples general interest in TV yet can only be watched one channel at a time, different sects of, say, Christianity support the general interest in Christianity while most people only attend one or few churches.

Many isolated regions experience monopolies on religion where a specific religion such as Islam or even a specific subsect dominates effectively entirely. Barriers to entry for competing religions can be very high. For a group of people subscribing to one religion, it is hard for a new religion to come in and find people willing to convert or manage to acquire the resource to do so. Historically, religions like Catholicism have enjoyed considerable advantages from states which resulted in their widespread and homogenous following while the relative lack of official state sponsors of specific Protestants sects resulted in an enormous plurality of religious sects.

With our comparison setting religion in economic terms done, let us apply economic heuristics to the religion. In economics a core tenet is that competition is good for consumers and as a corollary that monopolies are bad. It is thus reasonable to expect the same might be true for religions, that increasing competition and preventing monopolies in religions would be beneficial.

When the government puts in place religious freedoms it is essentially creating a market for the trading of religion commodities. As is the situation in most liberal democracies, religions can freely express themselves and compete with one another for the attention of the people. When a government supports one specific religion - as many countries do and have done - it is effectively government subsidization and infringements on a free market. There actually remain a few distortions to a purely free religion market in the west through things like tax empt status for religious groups and the like not enjoyed by secular groups.

Motivated by our economic prediction that we expect religious freedom and competition to be good, we consider how this result matches our normal religious intuitions. It is my contention that indeed an installed system of free religious competition results in a moderation of religious practice that is capable of evolving and progressing.

One advantage of religious freedom is it allows for people to move between sects of different religions to find ones most suited to their viewpoints. If one church takes a position significantly divergent from that of the population, the population can move to a church that is more in line with their beliefs. For example, a gay religious couple might move to the United Church of Canada as it accepts gay marriages. It is in this sense that we can think of competition as moderating aggregate religious practice, as smoothing out the rough edges, if you will. Should a particular religious practice be extreme or particularly deviant of modern morality than it will relatively harm that religion as followers move to more accepting denominations.

This kind of competition pressure is also one of the largest forces for change in any given religion or denomination. Change is often slow and historically has often occurred through schisms of various branches which further divide over conflicts on specific issues. However, it nonetheless occurs and issues like acceptance of scientific claims are far more widely spread than has previously been the case. The desire to attract a following - and hence the need to cater to that following - is a strong motivator for what  change occurs in religion. Religions that are more successful at doing this and attract more followers will gain in relative prominence.

Unfortunately, religion is often very dogmatic and resistive to change even in the best possible circumstances. People will not easily jump from, say, Wahhabism to Jainism because they desire peaceful religions, but they might jump between two denominations in the same religion, especially if both are freely available in a region.  We see that when there is a monopoly or near monopoly power in a region, this moderation pressure is removed and change is resisted in favor of dogma.  There is actually a countervailing force to the one I have described which is that extremeness can actually attract followers. However there are limits to this and the most extreme elements of religion in western societies tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

Our prediction we have argued for that increased religious competition increased moderation in religious practice is supported by considering the empirical situation. Countries like the US historically, and indeed in modern times most of the west, enjoy considerable religious freedoms and unsurprisingly have religious belief which is very moderate compared to many other places around the world. India also enjoys considerable plurality and freedom in religious expression and correspondingly relatively less religious extremism. Of the Christian religions, the Catholic church has experienced the most monopolistic control over many countries and has enormous barriers to entry for other religions in these countries. Correspondingly, it has been one of the sects of Christianity most resistant to change. Many countries in the Islamic world have created the least free religious markets and have constructed enormous barriers to entry for religions outside of their sects of Islam. It is not surprising to see considerable anachronism, resistance to change and extremism remain. Amy Chau's book documents how religious tolerance - a key aspect of freedoms - has been highly relevant throughout history in creating successful civilizations and her examples underscore the empirical evidence of my claimed correspondence between religious competition and aggregate religious moderation.

This comparison we have constructed considering religion in economic terms has proven useful at motivating the intuition that increased religious freedom is beneficial. Leaving the metaphor, we see that an important mechanism for this is that increasing free religious competition increases moderation in religion. In this manner we underscore the common normative claim that we should support religious freedom.

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