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  • On “Translating” History:A Rejoinder to Ramsay MacMullen
  • Robert B. Ekelund Jr. (bio) and Robert D. Tollison (bio)

Our respect for the scholarly achievements of Ramsay MacMullen is undiminished, but we believe that his assessment of our (and others) work on the “economics of religion” is far off the mark.1 His impatience with assumptions of “rational behavior” has apparently led him to misinterpret portions of our book.2 Moreover, in addition to locating so-called “factual errors” in our work, he recommends the Kahneman-Tversky attempt to inject psychology (and neuroscience) into market behavior as a kind of “new economics” that challenges the “rational-agent model” and thus supposedly has value in religious history and the social sciences as well. He is incorrect as regards both methods and facts.3

First, consider method. MacMullen looks with extreme disdain on us and those like us (he cites sociologist Rodney Stark and economist Laurence Iannacone, but many others qualify) who use rational-choice theory to study religion and its history. His impatience appears to stem from the extension of traditional areas of inquiry into the realm of implicit markets, full price, and “goods” under the rubric of utility production.4 So be it. But such applications [End Page 245] have helped economists to understand facets of markets for art, marriage, politics, anthropology, and … religion.5 But MacMullen also makes the erroneous observation that analysis based on nonrational behavior—exemplified by the interesting insights of Kahneman and Tversky—has replaced the modern approach that we use with respect to religion. Yet, in a recent assessment of Kahneman’s nonrational “prospect theory,” based on its influence during the last thirty years, Barberis concluded, “Even prospect theory’s most ardent fan would concede that economic analysis based on this theory is unlikely to replace the analysis that we currently present in our introductory textbooks.”6 Studies using Kahneman’s ideas have been limited principally to risk and insurance and especially to laboratory experiments, not to “real world” or historical testing. Psychology appears to have given far less to economics than economics has given to the other social sciences.

We are even more perplexed by MacMullen’s charge that a multitude of the conclusions that we drew from historical sources (including his own) are “wrong.” MacMullen appears to have randomly selected or cherry-picked a rosary of statements from our Origins in these assessments. Consider only a few of these “charges”:

MacMullen claims that our story about the growth of Church [End Page 246] membership is not true to “the facts” (notwithstanding his excusing us for not being privy to his latest work at the time of publication). As we point out, however, sufficient for our analysis is the fact that a multiplicity of Christianities punctuated the first three centuries of the church—a period of rapid, steady growth. Another of MacMullen’s charges is our failure to understand the importance of the afterlife in pagan religions and to notice that this “benefit” receives “little or no mention … in [Christian] conversion accounts” (“Translation,” 292). But MacMullen is incorrect on this point, too; pagan afterlife beliefs are clearly treated in our book (Origins, 49 et passim). Examining them in each of the many pagan belief systems, however, would be completely unnecessary for our purposes; such a task would itself be book length. Furthermore, if “death and resurrection” is not the afterlife center of Christianity, both before and after the “Apostle’s Creed,” what is? Faith, created and buttressed by credence building (“Translation,” 294), is a marketing tool amenable to interpretation as rational behavior. Nowhere in our work, contrary to MacMullen, do we dismiss “faith” as a basis for behavior.

MacMullen also argues that we consider Christian practice only in terms of the “security” that it was supposed to deliver to believers (actually quoting him in Origins, 48) without mentioning the countervailing persecutions that Christians endured. He appears to have neglected our multiple discussions of the Christian persecutions that occurred before Constantine (Origins, 68–69, 89–90, et al.).

We could cite many other misinterpretations by MacMullen—for example, our discussion of “theocracy” refers to the medieval church, not to pre-Constantine Christianity (Origins, 39). Yet none...


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