Contra Iannaccone’s “Sacrifice and Stigma…”

Iannaccone, 1989, Sacrifice and Stigma… runs contra empirical data.

  1. The traditional definition of a sect is a small religious offshoot. On this definition, empirically successful sects do not engage in sacrifice and stigma.
    1. Where success is defined as growth in membership and revenue.
    2. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Adventists aren’t successful and they do have stigma.
    3. Non-denominationals and generic Evangelical Christians have been successful.
    4. Islam is a notable exception. Islam has been successful, but not as successful as Christianity.
    5. Christianity itself was once a sect of Judaism and is obviously very successful now.
  2. Perhaps Iannaccone intends to define a sect as a group of people with sacrifice and stigma.
    1. In this case it runs into an identification problem. Given an upstart group of people, how can we tell whether or not it is a sect? It seems that the answer is that if these people receive a stigma then they are a sect. So it is a retrospective label and a tautology. They are a sect because they have a stigma. This is not useful for prediction.
    2. It is also arbitrary. What constitutes a stigma? It can be argued that Christianity had a stigma early on, and in some circles today. In particular, fundamentalist Christians are given a stigma by the secular culture including the media, but these folks are quite successful in terms of membership and revenue growth.
  3. I propose an alternative theory: Sacrifice and stigma don’t lead to success. Instead, Success = f(happiness, credibility, participation cost)
    1. Religions, and social organizations of any kind for that matter, see demand when they produce happiness. This may seem abstract but the simple fact is that religious folks are empirically happier. Hilariously, Iannaconne himself is featured in the linked Freakonomics podcast which discusses this finding.
    2. People have a bullshit meter. Religions are belief systems and when those belief systems are either internally or externally invalid, people are repulsed.
      1. Evangelical Christianity would gain a comparative advantage along this dimension: If Christian scripture says evangelism is a moral duty then those Christians who practice evangelism gain internal credibility compared to those who don’t, or who even discourage evangelism.
      2. When Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted the specific date of Jesus’ return, they lost external credibility because it didn’t happen. (They lost internal credibility too.)
    3. Participation cost is a basic economic point but it is also born out in logical structure and the data. Consider that two religions both grant eternity in paradise. One you obtain just by believing, the other you have to conduct elaborate rituals and if you mess up you lose out. That’s exactly the argument I make for Christianity over Islam in the Vandivierian Wager, and it is consistent with the empirical finding that more folks are Christian.
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