Religious Markets versus Secularization

Author: Buğra Kalkan*

Secularization and socialization theories are the dominant explanations originated in sociology in religious studies. Advocates of secularization comprehend religious behavior as irrational behavior or childish superstitions that will be evaporated as the advancement of science and modernity. It is claimed that once the humanity understands how the nature and the society works through rational analysis of science then people will quit believing the alternative explanations mostly depended on religions. There are many proponents of secularization theory across all kinds of ideological positions such as Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, August Comte, Sigmund Freud, Anthony Wallace, Bryan Willson and so on.

Socialization theories on religious behavior is also a mild version of secularization theories. Religious beliefs are meaningful, according to the theory, as long as they fit to the social norms that is taught through socialization processes. Although, for sure, socialization processes are important for the development of religious behaviors and attitudes, claiming religious beliefs cannot be analyzed as rational choices is quite controversial and requires empirical evidence. As shown in many empirical scientific investigation religious people are aware of the costs of their religious actions, and religious beliefs can vary depending on the available options of religious services.

For more than two hundred years many social scientists –especially sociologist, psychologists and anthropologists- have been waiting for the extinctions of the religions and proposing social policies to restrict the “dangers” of the religion. Well, it is not difficult to see that social policies depended on secularization theories are and would be in contrast with religious freedom and religious pluralism. And the demand to control the religious beliefs and organization through governmental regulations in the name of the advancement of the society and the social peace is and would be the main target of these social policies. But, what if secularizations theories cannot be empirically vindicated, and there are serious flows concerning the theory itself?That would definitely be a great danger for the peaceful co-existence among the members of various religions, and especially the non-believers. 

So, what dos the empirical evidence say about the extinction of the religions? As one might know that United States is a huge “exception” of the secularization theory. Despite the great scientific advancement and the nation-wide higher education, the church attendance has raised from 13% to %60 in the last two centuries. And there is a vivid and plural religious “market” in the US composed of hundreds of different Christian denominations and sects and other different religions such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism etc. There are also many national and international indexes to measure and evaluate the religious participation and religious organizations in societies, such as World Value Survey, International Religious Freedom Report (USA State Department) or ARDA (Association for Religion Data Archives). All these indexes and many other academic surveys shows that religious attendance is not declining or religious organizations are not evaporating. On the contrary, there is a religious awakening across the world. The increase in religious organizations and denominations in the former Soviet Union, the success of Protestant denominations in supposedly Catholic South America, rapidly changing religious demographic in Africa or the fast radicalization in the Middle East cannot be explained by secularization or socialization theories of religious studies.

What is, then, fundamentally wrong about the secularization theory? First of all, adherents of the secularization theory thinks that they can fully understand the role of the religious beliefs and religious organizations in the society from a functionalist point of view. The demand for religious beliefs are extremely complicated and ways back to our very first ancestors. Functionalism is a mere reductionist approach and can be very misguiding if the social scientist does not aware of its limits. As Hayek explains that social scientist can analysis the social institutions retrospectively but one must remind that these social institutions are not product of intelligent design but unintended consequences of human actions. Analyzingthe final form of the social institutions as rational designs according to their observable functions can easily be misleading concerning the social evolution of these institutions. 

Second, and in relation with the first one, secularization theories largely focused on the demand side of the religious beliefs. They see changes in religious beliefs and religious organization as a consequence of change in the religious belief. Therefore, it is easy to see a reverse correlation between religious belief and scientific advancement in their reductionist and positivist explanations of religions. The advancement of scientific knowledge means the decline of religious belief, and the decline of scientific knowledge means the radicalization of the religious beliefs.

However, classical liberal/libertarian rational choice theorists –especially economists- are offering a supply-side explanation for the spread and the increase of religious beliefs, and the changing structural development of the religious groups. According to the rational choice theorists, the demand for religion has always been constant and is not going anywhere as we can see. So, the demand for religions must be accepted as given rather than prophesying the extinction of religions. If there is demand for something there will be supply for that demand that will create its market spontaneously. And regulations of the relevant market will determine the organizational properties of the suppliers.

Therefore, when religious activities and beliefs are comprehended through the laws of the market economy, which means that if we accept the existence of religious markets, the many religious phenomenon that cannot be explained by secularization makes sense. Religious market theorists assert that the more religious markets regulated, the more the number of the believers will decrease. Because of the high number of regulations will monopolize the religious market and change the incentive structure of the people who are responsible for the religious services. And, the fewer religious regulations incentivize to form more different denominations and increase religious specialization of the religious organization. And, institutionalized religious pluralism will support social peace through decreasing religious conflict. Because no religious group will have enough power to seizure the political power in contrast to the monopolization of the religious activity.

In this column, I will explore more the details of the religious markets paradigm and show the inconsistencies of the secularization theories. Hopefully I will able to show you why religious freedom is the best strategy to reduce religious conflicts and support civil liberties in the world, especially in the Middle East.

(*) Dr. Bugra Kalkan is a professor of political science in Katip Celebi University, Izmir. He is also a senior academic fellow in the Association for Liberal Thinking, Turkey.