Chapter 8: The Martyrs: Sacrifice as Rational Choice

Martyrdom: A Biased View

Christian martyrs put up with all sorts of torture. This strengthened the Christian movement and impressed many pagans. Many social scientists explain the Christian martyrs by claiming that they were masochistic and enjoyed pain. Many others wonder why any rational person could endure such pain, and could take actions that would lead to such pain. How could any rational person make sacrifices on behalf of unseen supernatural entities? The answer to this question is that religion is irrational. This argument of irrationality is not limited to martyrdom; it is extended to prayer, observance of moral codes, and contributions of time and wealth.

Social scientists have been engaged in discrediting religion, not understanding it. Until recently, social scientific study of religion was far from scientific. “This becomes clear when it is realized that only in the area of religious belief and behavior have social scientists not based their theories on a rational choice premise. Indeed, my colleagues and I recently showed that antagonism toward all forms of religion and the conviction that it soon must disappear in an enlightened world were articles of faith among the earliest social scientists, and that today social scientists are far less likely to be religious than are scholars in other areas, especially those in the physical and natural sciences.” But the irrationalist approach has declined as new evidence has shown support for rational choice models.

Compensation for promises

Stark argues here that religious sacrifices and stigmas, even acute cases, usually represent rational choices. The more that people sacrifice for their faith, the greater the value of the rewards they gain in return. “Put in conventional economic language, in terms of the ratio of costs to benefits, within limits the more expensive the religion, the better bargain it is.”

Proposition: Religion supplies compensators for rewards that are scarce or unavailable. These “scarce or unavailable” rewards are those like immortality. Compensators provide an explanation of how the desired reward (or an equivalent alternative) actually can be obtained, but propose a method for attaining the reward that is rather elaborate and lengthy: often the actual attainment will be in the distant future or even in another reality, and the truth of the explanation will be very difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain in advance.

Stark writes that different people have very different preferences “to counter critics who claim that by postulating the rationality of religious behavior, I exclude all behavior that is not selfish or hedonistic, and that I thereby dismiss the power of religion to animate those altruists and ascetics who people the community of saints. This is simply wrong and trivializes the very behavior it ostensibly praises. To say that people differ in terms of their preference schedules is simply an uninspired way of saying that Mother Teresa may well be elevated to sainthood one day, not because she avoids rewards and pursues costs, but because of what she finds rewarding. To call Mother Teresa an altruist and thus classify her behavior as nonrational is to deny the finest of human capacities, our ability to love. Thus although rational choice theories restrict behavior to that which is consistent with a person’s definitions of rewards, it has very little to say about the actual content of those rewards. This leaves all the room needed for people to be charitable, brave, unselfish, reverent, and even silly.”

People know that there is risk involved in pursuing a religious compensator. They know that they may not get what they are promised. They cannot calculate what probability there is of getting nothing. So they seek other sources of confidence and information about the compensators they might select.

Proposition: The perceived value of a religious compensator is established through social interactions and exchanges.

Proposition: Individuals perceive a religious compensator as less risky, and hence more valuable, when it is promoted, produced, or consumed collectively.

These two propositions explain why religion is a social phenomenon. A religion will have higher levels of commitment to the extent that it keeps compensators in force, such as by having strong confessional requirements.

Proposition: A religion’s compensators are perceived as less risky, and hence more valuable, when there is credible evidence that participation in the religion generates tangible benefits that are not readily explained in secular terms. Testimonials from members are valuable forms of information.

Proposition: Religious leaders have greater credibility when they receive low levels of material reward in return for their religious services.

Proposition: Martyrs are the most credible exponents of the value of a religion, and this is especially true if there is a voluntary aspect to their martyrdom.

Free riders, and strong commitment

Proposition: Religion involves collective action, and all collective action is potentially subject to exploitation by free riders.

Free riders plague churches – you can easily find “members” of a religion who only rely on the church for weddings, funerals, and some holidays. They provide almost nothing in return. Even if they provide financial contributions, they weaken the group’s ability to create collective religious goods because their inactivity devalues the compensators and reduces the “average” level of commitment.

Sects and cults only survive on high levels of member commitment. There were so-called winter Shakers, for example, who would join Shaker communities in the late fall, obtain food and shelter throughout the winter, and leave when employment opportunities had improved. The Moonies encountered similar difficulties with “exploiters” whose motives for joining conflicted with or undermined the goals of the movement. Some merely attempted to extract some nonreligious benefit from the Moonies, such as inexpensive room and board, money, or sex. Others actually attempted to use participation in the group as a base from which to recruit customers for their own, competing, spiritualist churches. Such free riders diminish enthusiasm and solidarity (as well as the financial resources of the group).

Costly (often non-monetary) demands are made of members, which discourage most free riders. These demands come in the form of stigmas and sacrifices common to sects, cults, and other “deviant” religious groups. Religious stigmas come when the group does something considered abnormal by the world, or prohibits something considered normal. The two often go together, as when unusual dress (stigma) prevents the pursuit of a normal career (sacrifice). Stigma and sacrifices both reflect the tension between the religious group and the rest of society. They distinguish mainstream churches from deviant sects and cults.

Other things remaining equal, these costly demands would make a religion less attractive. But “other things” are not equal. These demands strengthen a religious group by getting rid of free rider problems, which strengthens the group both materially and socially. These demands screen out free riders; they function as non-refundable registration fees that measure the commitment of potential members. But they also increase participation among members. The payoff to involvement has been increased, so members choose to involve themselves more.

Christianity involved high costs. Many pagan norms and practices were prohibited. And many new things were expected: caring for the sick, infirm, and dependent, for example.

How could Christians undergo torture and death? First of all, many early Christians probably could not have, and some are reported to have recanted when faced with torture. Probably those who did undergo were few in number. Those who did go willingly to torture and death had very strong commitments to the religion. Martyrdom often happened in public in front of a large audience, and also often was the culmination of a long period of preparation during which those faced with martyrdom were the object of intense, face-to-face adulation.

For example, Ignatius of Antioch, the bishop of Antioch, was condemned to death. But he was not killed immediately. He was sent to Rome, which meant a long journey during which local Christians came out to meet him all along the way. He was allowed to preach at stops, and to write letters to congregations in the cities he passed (e.g. Ephesus). In his letters, he seems to feel triumphant. He actually feared that well-meaning Christians might gain him pardon, and so he wrote ahead to Rome to ask them not to interfere in his martyrdom. Extraordinary fame and honor attached to martyrdom.

Crises in Christian Confidence

Mark 13:30 says that a generation will not have died before Jesus will come back. (Mark 13:30: "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.") Also, the logistic growth of a very early movement is quite slow and often crushes the confidence of new religious movements. Often when this happens a religious movement will turn inward; it will stop trying to convert new followers and will instead focus on saving its existing members – it claims it is just trying to save the remnant that saw the light. How did Christians avoid this fate?

There were three extraordinary incidents of martyrdom in the 60s (after a generation had died without Jesus returning). These martyrs were James (brother of Jesus), Paul, and Peter (who died during Nero’s persecution). Stark believes that these important martyrs eased the pain of failed prophecy and meager growth.

Christian rewards: Many Christians received full aid (such as was given to the needy), and all could feel greater security against bad times. Because they loved others, they were loved. Women enjoyed a far more secure family life. It seems that Christians had longer life expectancies, too (this is an important measure of quality of life).

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