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Salvation supply and demand

by
11 December 2015

Bernice Martin finds assumptions behind new essays disturbing

Religions as Brands: New perspectives on the marketization of religion and spirituality
Jean-Claude Usunier and Jörg Stolz, editors
Ashgate £95
(978-1-4094-6755-7)
Church Times Bookshop £85.50 (use code CT143)

  

RODNEY STARK, with collaborators, including Roger Finke, who contributes to this volume, is the doyen of the Rational Choice perspective on competition between religious groups. Rational Choice (RC) applies economic analysis to the "market" for religion and spirituality, in which "consumers" "maximise their utility" by making rational choices.

RC’s proponents assume a uniformity of "demand" among human populations for what is here termed "salvation goods". They promote a counter-intuitive claim that the popularity of religion is limited not by secularising processes, but by blockages to the supply chain, such as the monopoly of Established Churches or restrictive state laws. If supply were deregulated, the "free market" would flourish; the more diverse the population, the more pluralistic the pattern. They also hold that "niche marketing" maximises take-up — a recipe for turning churches (or mosques) into ghettoes.

Enthusiasm for the theory is substantial in the United States, where it looks like a triumphant justification of American pluralism. But the social sciences and officials monitoring religion in China have also embraced it, perhaps in the hope that control of the "supply side" might limit effective demand, contrary to all the Chinese evidence of an enormous demand that grew despite the paucity and illegality of the "supply chain" under an aggressively atheist regime.

This book reports research funded by the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme. Its editors are a sociologist of religion and an economist of marketing. All but one of the chapters apply some version of RC, though several contributors note ways in which the perspective fails fully to encompass the nature of religion.

The one exception is the penultimate chapter by Steve Bruce, who has been a consistent critic of RC. Readers of the Church Times might like to start with Bruce’s critique before plunging into accounts of the International Christian Fellowship (Oliver Favre), "Hillsong Sound" (Markus Hero), "Justly balanced Islam" (Jason Dean), an Islamic healing rite (Hanifa Touag), religious brand loyalty (Haytham Siala), the effect of religious affiliation on consumer behaviour (the more "religious" are less committed to "sustainability") (Elizabeth Stickel-Minton), and the "business model" of ancient Jewish monotheism.

It is a pity that Bruce was not given the opportunity to comment on the chapter by Roger Finke and Christopher P. Scheitle "Revisiting Religious Pluralism", which employs definitions of diversity, pluralism, supply, and demand which form a definitional circle rather than truly independent variables.

The most chilling exposure of the underlying assumptions is in the chapters by the editors, not least the claim by Jean-Claude Usunier that the brakes on the "marketization" of religion are impediments to full "commoditization", notably "identity" and "ethnicity". In short, the cultural embeddedness that makes people fully human slows their transformation into atomised units of hedonistic consumer choice.

With luck, this book may alert the proponents of market-orientated managerialism in the Church to some of its more appalling downsides.

 

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of London.

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