Risk preference and religiosity
- Published on 08 March 2010
- Written by Derek Michaud
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In most western societies the choice not to belong to a religious community, if even in a minimal way, comes with considerable risk. In cultures dominated by the Abrahamic monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) non-affiliation and nonparticipation are obviously “risky” both in terms of interpersonal relationships here and now and in terms of the ultimate destination of the soul. Not belonging to a religious tradition and community makes one an “outsider” and thus not easily associated with or in many cases not easily trusted. Add to this the perceived threat of eternal damnation and the risk can seem to outweigh the benefits of religious participation greatly. In other words, as Pascal famously argued, religion is a good bet. As plausible as it might seem that the irreligious are generally more inclined to take risks, an important question is whether this pattern is a universal human trait or if instead it is simply an aspect of the culturally specific western religious traditions and the cultures they form such an important part. In other words, is it similarly “risky” to avoid religion in a culture where the dominate traditions are less concerned with exclusivity of belief, practice, or community identity?
In a recent article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, researcher Eric Y. Liu (Baylor University) tested the “risk-preference” thesis as developed by Alan S. Miller by searching for a correlation between risk-taking and religious participation in Taiwan. The dominate religions in Taiwan, Buddhism, Taoism, and various Chinese popular cults, have been identified by Miller and others as “low-risk” since “they do not emphasize doctrines and do not impose strict requirements on group membership, denominational loyalty, or collective participation in religious activities on a regular basis”. In fact, Miller has found “a statistically significant association between risk preference and . . . religiosity measures . . . for the United States, Italy, and Turkey, but not for Japan and India.”
Based on the similarities between the Asian religions studied by Miller, Liu sought to replicate these results by drawing on the 2007 Taiwan Social Change Survey (TSCS). The “TSCS includes the core ISSP [International Social Survey Programme] questions [as well as specific] topics for Taiwan.” Religious affiliation and frequency of participation were the dependent variables with subject’s risk preference scores as the independent variable. After controlling for age, gender, education, and family income, following Miller’s original procedure, as well as for marital status, Liu found that “greater risk-taking” subjects were “not more likely than others to report a religious affiliation.” This finding seems to be consistent with risk-preference theory in societies with low-risk religions.
However, where Miller found no relationship between risk-preference and frequency of participation in other low-risk contexts (India and Japan) Liu found a statistically significant negative relationship between risk-taking and frequency of participation. “Taiwanese persons who like to take a risk . . . participate less frequently in religious activities.” Thus, “Miller’s claim is in error if it means that there is no correlation between risk-taking and individual religiosity in Eastern societies.” Liu adds that his study “suggests that the general ‘risk-preference’ thesis has broader application—it may transcend cultures and societies as long as irreligiousness is defined by the larger society as a form of risk-taking behavior, even though the size of the risk-preference effect may vary across religious traditions.”
Eric Y. Liu, 2010, “Are risk-taking persons less religious? Risk preference, religious affiliation, and religious participation in Taiwan,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49(1): 172-8. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01499.x