Thursday, June 5, 2008

What Are the Types of Religious Customers?

It's often useful to examine religion from the same standpoint you would look at other kinds of social institutions. Looking at religions as corporations yields interesting insights. They're really not that different (Hail Mary, the board is with thee. Sorry, couldn't resist.) A corporation is a social entity with the function of producing material betterment for its owners, which it often does by favoring its own preservation over the well-being of its employees, at least in the short term, to ensure its continued existence (and wealth-production) in the long-term. An organized religion is a social entity with the function of producing some kind of advantage for its controllers, material, behavioral, or otherwise; really the only difference is that the corporation's ends are (if legitimate) transparent, and the religion's are not. But both still have customers, and those customers have different combinations of reasons for patronizing the institutions. I hold that religion's customers can be analyzed demographically.

And why do religions have customers? If you hold the classic overoptimistic Enlightenment position that humans are even to a first approximation rationally self-interested, you have some explaining to do.Religions don't always result in the perceived material betterment of their adherents - in fact, they usually do the opposite. Yet despite this, the institution of religion isn't going anywhere. Then again, there are businesses who exist solely to serve irrational customer behavior that is in fact directly counter to those customers' material well-being. An excellent example is the gambling industry, and that's not going anywhere either.

There are a number of informative parallels in the behavior of religion and casino customers - willful ignorance of the facts of the institution's functioning, and superstitious behavior to name two (how many stock traders expect crosses or rabbit's feet to impact their trades, or explain to their bosses that they bought shares because they just "had a feeling in their hearts"?) And even though I admittedly just don't "get" gambling, clearly people are getting something out of it. And that's actually not so opaque - they're getting that little adrenaline shot from a possible win every time they pull that slot or play a hand. Couple that with some buggy risk-reward heuristics like the sunk-cost effect and a very occasional win to reinforce the apparent proximity of the reward - even if it's from someone else nearby - and you start to understand it.

Clearly not all religious people walk around miserable, fearing hell every second. So just as with the casino, there must be positives that religions' customers experience - or at least perceived positives. We atheists should have as our goal an intuitive understanding of these motivations, so we can intercede to offer alternatives or at least disrupt the link between organized religion and these rewards:

1) Social identity
2) A sense of purpose (even if it's just propagation of the sense of purpose to others)
3) Community
4) For the indigent, material security
5) The sense that there's a plan to the world
6) Hope that life (or afterlife) will be better
7) Punishment for people who wrong you

This list of customer motivations isn't exhaustive and I welcome your additions to it.

No comments: