Sunday, March 18, 2012

First Day at ASREC: First Session

I think I should start writing up some summaries of the papers we saw at ASREC. The papers were overall very interesting and the people were a delight to talk to. The presentations that Mark and I gave were well attended and it was surreal to present with a Nobel Prize winner in the front row. Chapman University has a gorgeous campus and I hope to be going back there for the ASREC graduate student workshop in June. Without further ado here are some very brief summaries of the papers on the first session I attended.

Entry into Local Religious Markets (did not see an online version): (using late 19th century data from Scotland): attempted to track the likelihood of an additional church entering a geographical region given N existing churches in that region. He calculates the likelihood of entry at various levels of N and has a rich set of controls, down to details such as "Does the congregant speak Gaelic?". One of the interesting things he found was that there was more entry by the Free Church of Scotland because of the cross-subsidization from rich churches in the city to the new rural church plants which lowered the cost of entry. There was an interesting discussion about how greater religious pluralism in an area should make people less religious but that it seems that pluralism actually increases attendance.

Clergy Regulation (did not see an online version): This was an interesting sociological paper where the author Paul Olson was doing semi-structured interviews with pastors from a variety of Christian churches in a small Mid-western town. The regulation referred to an informal regulation among the clergy in this town to not "steal sheep". That is, there was a kind of cartel agreement where pastors could not pursue another pastor's congregants. From an economic perspective we know that cartels are difficult to maintain because there is always an incentive to deviate. Unless, of course, there is some sort of punishment for deviation. The main form of punishment put forth by Olson was social ostracism. (There is a large sociological literature that suggests pastors are lonely people to begin with. In seminary they're often told not to get too attached to their congregations. And, in interviews pastors often claim their ordainment sets them apart, even if they don't necessarily want to feel set apart.). The social ostracism would take the form of excluding people from invitations to the pastor's Bible study. I talked with Olson afterwards and he echoed what I was thinking, this was the central punishment for breaking the cartel. The punishment that all the other pastors raid the deviating pastor's congregation was not the threat because on some level the pastors believed it would be wrong to do that even if that other person did deviate.  

The more subtle question is, "What do you do when a congregant from another church starts coming to your church?". Among the mainline churches there was a strong norm to call the pastor from the other church to inform them that the family had started coming more and more to their church. There was a partial norm among the evangelical churches.

Another interesting point also came out. Targeting a specific person was not kosher, but, doing a mass event where all were invited was fine. This meant that pastors could get people in the door from other congregations then as one of them said (paraphrasing): If the chickens come to the yard of course I'm going to feed them. 

Exporting Christianity ( This was an extremely polished presentation from Gordon Hanson that was looking at which denominations were successful at "exporting Christianity" to countries outside of the denomination's headquarters. The authors used economic modeling techniques from international trade and industrial organization. Think of the denomination headquarters as a franchise and the newly planted church as the franchisee. In these kinds of agreements there are incentive problems. The denomination has a certain way of doing things; however, the pastor of the newly planted church might want to make some tweaks. The authors find that giving the local pastors more authority is correlated (they make a causal argument) with attracting more adherents. The reasoning is that they have more incentive to improve their congregation. Also, the authors find that strict denominations like Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, etc. are more likely to succeed when social service provision in a country is weak. That is, people are more willing to accept the restrictions when they are receiving benefits such as healthcare and disaster relief.   

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Five Things I Don't Know About You.

Urban legends are hard to put to rest, especially when statistics are abused.

The U.S. has abysmal infant mortality statistics? Well, not exactly.

The U.S. health care system leads to life expectancies that trail the rest of the industrialized world? Well, kind of, but not exactly.

Here is a very nice myth-busting article by health care expert Christopher J. Conover of Duke University and AEI.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


This weekend Mark and I will be going out to Chapman University in California to take part in the Association for the Society of Religion, Economics, and Culture. The name is a mouthful so it will be ASREC from now on. The program looks really good. Check it out. If you see a project you're interested in I'll check it out and do a write up on the blog.

You might notice that Mark and I are both on the program. He is presenting our out-of-the press research regarding the Parable of the Yeast and I am presenting our research on the Parable of the Great Banquet (I'll let everyone know when they can get a copy off my website).

The crux of the Great Banquet research is that all of us are modern invitees to a banquet, what would cause us to accept or reject an invitation to the banquet? We believe it comes down to how a person values the banquet. In the lab we manipulate how uncertain they are about the value of the banquet. We also manipulate how much they desire other things besides the banquet. One of these "other things" we can desire is social status. We have a desire for recognition, to be the best, and known as the best. Excellence is a good thing, egoism is not.

I do not know if our readers like rap music but I have embedded a music video of my favorite rapper (and he's a committed follower of Christ) Lecrae's rap song called "Chase That" (lyrics here if you prefer not to listen)

Also, congratulations to my friend Brandon Vogt who will be appearing on NPR's interfaith voices segment. You can check his blog Thin Veil here.