Religious Form Change Case Studies

From ghoulies and ghosties and long-

leggety beasties And things that go bump in the night,

Good Lord, deliver us! —Cornish prayer

An economic interpretation of religious form changes assumes that individuals choose particular forms in a rational manner as a function of economic variables including the full price of membership and a number of shifters. Before turning to an analysis of the form changes introduced by Protestantism, we use four historical episodes—one ancient, two medieval, and one modern—to show how the functioning of economic markets may be used to analyze religious change. These episodes, while quite disparate in time and distinct in character, provide the reader with examples of a common theme—that the economic approach to religion is capable of adding value to previous explanations of key changes in religious forms and doctrines. While distinct, we do not intend our examples to be a "grab bag.'' Each change focuses on a key alteration. The examples we use all revolve around famous episodes: (1) the attempt by the Pharoah Akhenaton (also known as Amenhotep IV) to bring monotheism to Egypt around 1350 BCE; (2) the reduction in information cost to members of society and its impact on religious form initiated by the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century; (3) the change in rules of fasting and abstinence, occurring in 1966, that released Roman Catholics from the necessary obligation of abstaining from meat on Fridays; and (4) the full-price changes in doctrine and ritual created by the medieval Roman Catholic Church that set the stage for the successful entry of Martin Luther and Protestantism in the sixteenth century.1

One of the most important sociological investigations into the emergence, growth, and decline of some of the forms of Christianity, for example, is that of Roger Finke and Rodney Stark in their Churching of America, 1776-1990 and Acts of Faith.2 Thus we begin our investigation of religious change by more fully considering the contrasting and complementary aspects between an econo-sociological theory and a theory based more fundamentally on modern microanalytic principles.

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