Is competition good for God?

Baruch, something you must read: A big piece in the Wall Street Journal today documents a purported recent rise in Christian religiosity in Europe, and explores a “controversial” explanation: That Europe has long been subject to state monopolies for religion, and that this has made official churches lazy. Now that these monopolies have been dismantled, more charismatic religious movements are gaining ground, goes the theory, and these are more appealing to people, ergo overal religiosity is on the rise.

But what constitutes a state monopoly on religion? Certainly not a legal proscription against other forms of worship — Spinoza himself is early and fine proof of the European tradition of toleration. (Russia and the Orthodox Church, on the other hand, collaborate to legally deter proselytizing, so you could argue that religion indeed does enjoy a form of state monopoly in Russia.)

Instead, by “monopoly” what we really have had in Europe is preferential treatment for a national religious champion via two economic mechanisms: State subsidies, which amount to protectionism against competition by allowing the production of cheaper but lower-quality God products, and the state-sponsored default option for such things as marriage and burial, much in the same way you will likely use Internet Explorer if you use Windows.

The real question, in my mind, is whether the dismantling of subsidies and the removal of the default option for life’s big rituals is just leading to a diminution of the market share for ex-state religions, or to an expansion of the overall market. I can certainly see the reasonableness for a redistribution of religious affiliation among existing credulists, but is it also sufficient to support the claim that overall Christian religiosity is on the rise in Europe?

First off, I’m not sure if the decline of religious belief in Europe has been reversed. But let us assume for the sake of argument that it has.

In classical economic models, if you can make the supply of a good better and cheaper, then even against a static demand curve overall consumption will increase. Is that what is going on here? Can we assume that the demand curve slopes downward to the right when it comes to religion? I.e., if the God product comes to provide better salvation for the money invested (or prayer time, as time = money), will more people buy into it, even if they were previously never in the market for God?

Perhaps they will. The article posits that the rise of religiosity is seen mainly among the young, and it is clear that the minds of children are particularly susceptible to advertising campaigns. In a sense, everyone is potentially in the market for God when they are forming their world view. Those who emerge from this phase as secularists are in the main safe from a late bout of religion, so for older age cohorts the size of the God market is relatively fixed, with competing religions fighting over a fixed-size pie, while in younger age cohorts the size of the pie has not yet been determined.

In other words, these new religious revivalists see as their main competitor not other religious strains but a lack of belief in general. They are not targeting those for whom the default option was sufficient, but those who aren’t enthused by the default option and who previously would have become apatheists.

One wholly ironic aspect to this debate is that the truth or otherwise about the existence of God does not even figure in it. God’s success in Europe (and by implication in the US) all comes down to better marketing, according to God’s own boosters. Perhaps that’s because priests and pastors are really just glorified marketers, and like all marketers they like to pat themselves on the back for their superior marketing skills — though to be fair, believing in your product and using it yourself is bound to make you a better marketer.

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1 thought on “Is competition good for God?”

  1. Well, yes, you make a good point about the cynicism of the article and the religious salespeople. For me it marks the success of the Spinozist project against organised religion that the journalist (possibly a religious person or at least someone who wishes to follow a religious “beat” at the WSJ) cannot claim it is because people are seeing some sort of truth; it all has to be couched, as you say, in some sort of battle of the marketers. He knows, I am sure, that no-one would be able to take him seriously if he did not put in these terms.

    As for whether the great religions are rising again in Europe, the proof he seems to offer is anecdotal, and unnamed “surveys”. As you say, there are always young people who fall temporarily under the sway of a church, I almost did myself at the age of 13, and those organisations have an interest in putting themselves in the vanguard of some larger movement or other. I am not going to sweat it, in fact I think we may be winning.

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