Oppressed Christians, group economics and the price of eternal life

Won and I had been married for only a year, but I was already impressed with her skills at haggling over a sale. She'd developed those skills growing up in South Korea. On one memorable occasion she and I decided to sell some things at the local flea market put on for American military members in Okinawa. My friend Denny tagged along, and gave me a fishing rod with attached reel to sell for him. After I laid things out Won sort of took over and forbid us to actually talk to any of the customers because she felt we obviously didn’t know how to sell anything.

Denny only wanted five dollars for the rod and reel, so he was a little put out when the first customer picked it up and looked at Won. “How much do you want for this?”

Won looked at the guy and said, “I’m not sure, how much do you think it’s worth?” “Five bucks” he answered.

Won sort of sniffed and looked away at another customer. The guy stared at her, shrugged, put down the rod and walked away. “I would have taken five bucks!” said Denny. I pulled him away and distracted him with talk.

Later in the morning, another guy picked up the rod and after examining it said, “I’ll give you ten for this.” “Twenty five” Won replied immediately. I had to shush Denny.

After some hard haggling, the now very happy customer handed over eighteen dollars and walked away with his prize. Denny was astonished, that was very close to what he had paid for the rig when it was new.

“You could have sold it to that guy for ten!” Denny exclaimed, “But you got him for eighteen!” “No no,” Won replied, “he would not have been as happy if he bought it for ten. He bought it for eighteen, but he’ll tell everyone that it was worth twenty-five and he’ll brag about his deal! He is happy.”


I’ve pointed out before the absurdity of Christians screaming oppression by the non-Christian minority. (Others have too, with pie charts!)

I’ve read in Daniel Dennett’s book, “Breaking the Spell” that this sort of perceived oppression is a requirement of belonging to an expensive in-group. And it is the expense, the cost of joining and being a member of a group that makes a group cohesive. The people who join an expensive group are happy with the price they paid, and are still paying, even if part of that price includes xenophobia.

In Chapter 7 section 4 of Dennett’s book, he examines religion from an economic point of view. Dennett adds to the works of Stark, Finke, Bowles and Gintis to point out that the reason why some religions are so much more cohesive is because of their high cost of joining and leaving. I would point out that this can be generalized; any group that is tightly cohesive can have a high cost of joining and leaving. Gang members, for example, must be “jumped in” or “jumped out”; military units have Basic Training and strict laws that make joining and leaving expensive.

It is possible to create a cohesive group by paying the members of the group. Workers in factories, fast food, or corporate boardrooms can form effective teams for mere pay. Still, the people in these groups have little motivation to stay in such a group, and all such paid groups will suffer turnover when there is no cost to join or leave.

A religious group could be a cohesive group if it paid its membership in religious coin, such as in granted wishes or miracles. However, real honest to Pete, scientifically provable, or unexplainable but widely witnessed miracles are pretty darned rare. For every Televangelist who claims to heal the sick, there is a Peter Popoff who is a demonstrable fraud. For every cancer patient who experiences a spontaneous remission after being told to give up her medications, there is another who died from a treatable disease because she followed her preacher’s orders.

Religious leaders just can’t count on miracles to keep their congregation happy. Even offering eternal life to everyone (payable in the next life) is not enough to keep membership from bleeding away. It is too cheap, no purchaser is truly happy with a product that they believe is too cheap or free. As I saw with Won, the key to any good exchange is to make sure the buyer feels he or she is getting value for value.

Dennett shows that religious groups have a cost for joining and for being a member.

“It doesn’t just cost time spent on religious duties and money in the collection plate: belonging can incur a loss of social standing and actually exacerbate – not ameliorate – one’s anxiety and suffering. But you get what you pay for: unlike the heathen, you get saved for eternity.” (P. 194)

“The more you have invested in your religion, the more you will be motivated to protect that investment."


"The high entry and exit costs are as crucial to the survival of such arrangements as the membrane surrounding a cell: self maintenance is costly and is made more efficient by a strict distinction between me and the rest of the world (in the case of a cell) or between us and them (in the case of a community).” (P. 195)
Xenophobia is a required price to have a cohesive religious community. “Us verses Them.”

One of the implications that Dennett examines is that separate groups can in a weird way “work together” and benefit by xenophobia and a high cost of membership even if there is little true competition between them. A religion can instead “exploit and exacerbate social conflict” in order to generate better commitment of their members. Somewhat like the Emo Phillips joke, even two religions that are essentially identical can retain their cohesiveness by applying a “Die heretic scum” attitude toward each other. They label each other “the enemy”. And if an opponent did not exist, it would be necessary for a cohesive group to manufacture one in an Orwellian manner.


There is a lot of conjecture here, which Dr. Dennett freely admits – and his plea that religion is so important that it must be studied in a scientific manner is valid. I am certain, however, that religious adherents will resist.

I would like to know exactly to what degree the creation of a false enemy encourages cohesiveness within groups. I also think that a powerful group that names a class of people as an “enemy” also encourages cohesiveness in the group so named. The obvious example is Atheism – with so many good Christians labeling people like myself as “The Enemy” is it any wonder that like-minded Atheists are banding together and becoming more cohesive?


The price for joining a religious group is higher for the more cohesive groups, and lower for more ‘liberal’ groups. The number of members, and the cohesiveness of those members reflect the price that is paid by the membership.

There are other benefits for being a member of a cohesive group: for example social networking is less expensive within the group, and opportunities for advanced social status within the group are better than outside of the group. The promised reward of eternal life, payable upon death, would seem like deception if offered freely, but the high entry price that must be paid not only makes this reward seem convincing; it also encourages group members to defend their actions in paying that price when confronted from people outside of their group.

It’s no wonder that Christians brag to everyone about their wonderful bargain. They feel they will receive value for the price they are paying.

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