Understanding Contemporary Developments in Forms of Christianity

A demand curve for some particular form of religion may be expressed as a function of the full price of that form, the price of substitutes, income, and risk preference as explained in chapter 3. Full price of participation in any religion is composed of the money costs of membership and the time costs associated with a particular religion and its rituals. Risk preference is a positive function of such variables as an individual's stock of education, the level of government stability, and one's health; it is a negative function of an individual's age. Studies consistently show an increase in religious participation with age (up to a point, due, ostensibly, to increasing infirmity). In addition to these determinants, forms of religion change through time given political constraints on the freedom to develop religion. When new or alternative forms of religion develop within a monopoly structure—such as Gnosticism or Albigensianism in the Middle Ages—they may be repulsed or driven underground as "heresies." Other competitive tactics were used. When confronted with the ideas of Saints Francis and Dominic—particularly the idea that the Roman Catholic Church should be less concerned with wealth acquisi tion and more concerned with ministering to the poor, an idea that was treated as heresy by some popes of the Middle Ages—the papacy sought to bring in church orders devoted to such pursuits. The Church, under competitive pressures at certain times, saw these orders as weapons in their confrontation with heretics such as the Gnostics who held similar beliefs. Importantly, after being "bought out'' by an apparent change in Roman Catholic Church policy, both Franciscans and Dominicans evolved into less extreme adherents of a life of poverty than their respective founders. Such doctrinal divisions and their repair by Protestant sects undoubtedly took place in other cases over the history of Protestantism.

Sustained entry in the religion market finally occurred in the sixteenth century when Protestantism emerged under political and military constraints that were amenable to believers of that general variant of Christianity. But the chief doctrinal innovation of Protestantism— establishment of a general belief that only Christ and Scripture stood between man and God—was the central element that permitted Christian forms of religion to develop into the thousands of forms that exist today. These new and emerging forms began as soon as biblical interpretation was thrown open to competitive interpretation. Even under Protestantism, however, some of the emerging sects espousing socialism or anarchy—that is, those most at variance with existing political structures—were crushed or became nomadic. Others such as Baptists or Puritans, some of whom arrived in North America after some intermediate migrations in the Netherlands, were, after initial periods of suppression and relocation, quite successful.

Two points must be emphasized. First, it was the ability to produce a credible claim to a "true interpretation'' of Scripture that was necessary but not sufficient to the Roman Catholic monopoly of religious form in the Middle Ages. Sufficiency required the power, either religious or civil, to crush would-be opponents. Once this doctrinal monopoly met successful challenge, the door was forever opened to competitive forms of religion, each claiming to be the true variation on Holy Scripture. Second, it is critical to note that the process of Christianity is preference-driven, as ritual and interpretive variations are fashioned and re-fashioned by demanders when underlying factors and conditions, including full prices, change. Generally speaking, as argued in preceding chapters, lower risk preference will produce more conservative, ritualistic, and rule-driven forms of Christianity.

Religions laden with time-consuming ritual and dogmatic performance standards act as partial but incomplete substitutes for scientific knowledge, education, stable politics, and rational-empirical thought systems, such as those promulgated in the Enlightenment. Other things equal, higher and higher full prices, created by rising wages or incomes, ultimately create tipping points where individuals move to other forms or develop new and generally accepted forms of Christianity. Forms may also change when factors other than full price are altered. Greater political or social instability, or new forms of science and scientific explanation of phenomena will, other things equal, produce a demand for new or different forms of religious belief. Politics allowing, religious forms will morph into those demanded, maximizing the utility of believer-participants. Individuals may sometimes become both suppliers and demanders of some of these forms and call themselves Christian. We believe that self-created Christianity was operative in the early and high Middle Ages—as the Roman church crushed heretics and as Protestants finally entered the market—and that it is even routine today under the nonestablishment clauses that operate in most countries of the world.

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