Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Jewish Law, Oaths, and Expensive Religious Rules

Some religions impose costs on their members—shaved heads for Hare Krishnas, keeping kosher for orthodox Jews, fasting in Ramadan for Muslims. Many years ago I heard a talk by Larry Iannacone, an economist who specializes in the economics of religion, exploring the reasons for such requirements. The puzzle he raised was why they survive in an environment like modern day America, where there is a free market in religions. Why isn't a religion that imposes such costs outcompeted by a variant that keeps everything else but leaves out the unnecessary burden?

His (interesting) answer to that puzzle is probably somewhere in his published writings; readers are invited to find it for themselves. What reminded me of that talk was an interesting feature I noticed in my study of Jewish law—the role of oaths.

There are many situations in which, due to the lack of evidence, a legal dispute comes down to "he said/he said." The usual resolution, in Jewish law as described by Maimonides, is by an oath. One of the two parties—which one depends on the details of the case—is asked to swear that his account is true. If he is the plaintiff, he gets to "swear and take." If he is the defendant, he gets to "swear and be quit." Either way, if he swears he wins the case, if he declines to swear he loses it. The nature of the oath he must swear depends on the nature of the case. Pretty clearly, some oaths are considered more serious than others.

Why would someone refuse to swear if the result is that he loses his case? The obvious answer is that the parties to the case are believers who either feel obligated to swear truthfully, fear supernatural punishment if they swear falsely, or both.

A "suspect party" is someone who is not permitted to swear and so, in such a situation, automatically loses. One reason to be suspect is that you have sworn in the past to something that later turned out to be false. Another is that you been observed in the past to violate religious rules—for example by eating food that was not kosher.

This suggests a function for religious rules that impose costs. They act as a filter, a signal, a way of distinguishing people who really believe in the religion from ones who don't. Knowing whether someone really believes in the religion can be valuable information. It tells you, for instance, whether to believe his oaths.


Dan Waxman said...

Have you read Peter Leeson's paper on trial by ordeal? His explanation as to why ordeals were ration is quite similar to the points you raise in your post.

(It's online at http://www.peterleeson.com/Ordeals.pdf)

Dan Waxman said...

Oops that should say "rational"

Kim Mosley said...

I'm not sure that religious people would call their forms "costs." I understand that if you did these things you'd think of it as a hardship. I think they think of them as "privileges." Their forms are opportunities to practice their religion, commune with God, and eat healthy food.

Peter A. Taylor said...

Laurence Iannaccone, "Why Strict Churches Are Strong"


Gary McGath said...

I know some Jews who are essentially non-religious, but observe some of the restrictions. The value they get in return is a sense of connection to their culture. By doing this, they decrease the extent to which observance distinguishes those who "really believe," but belief isn't the point. Cultural identity is.

It's a benign form of tribalism. In its less benign forms it becomes, "Look at THOSE people! They eat pork, or don't wear veils, or don't go to church (etc.). They're the enemy!"

Bruce said...

Two factors that add to group cohesiveness are (1) the "right" people are part of the group, and (2) common shared experiences within the group that are different than the shared experiences with others outside the group. The strict religious rules accomplish these.

Take the traditional strict laws of kosher food. It is difficult to follow these. Not every Jew is willing to do so. But those that are willing to do so realize that the other people who are willing to do so are the "right" kind of people: people who take these rules seriously and have what it take to do that. This fosters a sense of admiration among members of the group. A group that admits everyone is not much of a group.

Also, these sorts of rules tend to provide for common shared experiences: recipes, where to shop, a limited set of restaurants, remembering the time someone dropped the milk spoon in the meat bowl, etc. This too fosters group cohesion.

Anonymous said...

If one is born into and raised in a religious community such as Orthodox Judaism, there are SEVERE costs if one were to, for example, openly violate the kosher laws or Sabbath laws. One risks being ostracized from all of one's relatives, friends, etc. There are anonymous blogs written by Jews whose behavior is strictly observant, yet these bloggers secretly disbelieve in theism. They conform because they don't want to lose their wives, children, etc., and feel trapped.

Anonymous said...

You are a Jew and can't eat pork. Christians eat pork. Are you going to convert to Christianity so you can eat pork? Or you dont understand that for other people their faith is more important than whether they can eat pork?

neil craig said...

People value things they pay for. A religion or philosophy which doesn't cost you anything is, other things being equal going to be less satisfying. As humans we like to have a self image of being something more than a creature that eats & excretes. Therefore we want a religion/philosophy to define ourselves & within limits will only be satisfied with something demanding. This may be a najor problem with current western civilisation.