Thursday, August 15, 2013

On Sunk Costs and Investments in Religious Doctrine

Christian Cup Results: Are you keeping score? 

When it come to an all-inclusive spirituality, many faith traditions continue to grant special status to men of select ethnic backgrounds associated with the tradition. In Christianity, Jesus was oft depicted as a European man. But changes are on the way.

It is not surprising that the leader of the Roman Catholics created a lot of buzz with his seemingly gay-friendly statement reported worldwide on 29 July, 2013. After all, he is the leader of the largest group of  Christians in the world and the position of the Catholic Church on matters of same-sex marriage is well known.
What makes the comment so noteworthy is that Pope Francis did not just speak about Catholics who are homosexuals. He referred to priests. Also see Ross Douthat at the NY Times for another thoughtful essay.

But, what about women?

The Pope commented on a greater role for women and the need for a better theology. So is the door closed forever? On 30 July, 2013 David Greene of interviewed Rev. Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter. Responding to the Pope’s comments about women, Reese said,
 “Well, the most extraordinary part of that statement was that he confessed that he didn't think we had a very good theology of women in the church. I mean when was the last time you heard a pope say that we didn't have a good theology?

What’s new?

     Perhaps an attitude?

So, here’s a quote from a different Pope—a few years ago.
 Pope Benedict XVI expressed a stronger statement in 2005. The context affirms persons with “Deep-seated homosexual tendencies…”as persons worthy of “respect and sensitivity.” But there is a rule: “…the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called "gay culture"
Change and Faith

How do mere humans change centuries or millennia of teaching considered to be the Word of God or at least what leaders of large religious bodies report they heard from God? Conservatives wouldn’t be conservative if they didn’t conserve old ways. Even so called liberal traditions within protestant denominations have been slow at embracing women as leaders or changing their views on other social-religious issues.

Change happens of course. Saul “saw the light” and stopped killing Christians (Acts 9). Peter saw a vision (big sheet story) and changed his attitude toward non-Jewish Christians (Acts 10). Early Christians gave up old rules about animal sacrifice, the Sabbath, circumcision, and more. Teachers and spiritual leaders pray, read ancient texts, and report their revelations. Nowadays people hold conferences, discuss new ideas about old texts, and find ways to revise old doctrines in the light of new findings, new understandings, new wineskins. I suspect the rules will be different in 500 years.

What might explain the resistance to change?
I shall leave aside that aspect of experience reported by those spiritual leaders who report their visions and revelations for I am not in a position to make a judgment about the validity of those revelations. But from a psychological perspective, much of entrenched behavior can be viewed from the perspective of the principle of sunk costs. The term "sunk costs" often appears in an economic context but it has a wider application in social psychology. When people invest heavily in a business or relationship that is failing, they are more likely to continue investing rather than cut their losses and move on. Businesses end in bankruptcy and marriages end in divorce. Governments continue to fund wars and send young people to fight even when the odds of success seem overwhelming.

Many of the well-known religions of the world have been around for centuries or millennia. Living in the West, I am more familiar with some versions of Christianity, which of course has been around for 2,000 years. Relevant to the discussion, the prohibition against women as leaders is even older since Christians trace their heritage to Judaism. Christian leaders have defined appropriate roles for women and men for millennia. And in western cultures, older citizens were committed to Christian congregations. They trusted their leaders and the truths they taught.

What’s at stake (excuse the pun)? A lot... to name a few: Competence, commitment, and an entire way of life.

Conservative Christians believe the Bible is without error, truths are absolute, and violations of God’s plan result in dire consequences. The competence of those people who originally formed the doctrines about women as derived from the text is at stake along with the competence of hundreds or thousands of faithful leaders who were committed to those truths for centuries. Ways of worship and marriage were guided by doctrines about men and women. It doesn’t cost much to nibble around the edges-- add some love and respect. But to give up a doctrine and confess that “we were wrong” -- that takes a miracle or the social equivalent of bankruptcy and divorce. Reputations are expensive and heavily defended. The cost of change is high.

Progressive Protestants have used reason and research to examine old texts and find new ways to respect old rituals as symbolic rather than mandatory. Or they view old phrases as metaphors rather than literal teachings.  In any event, many have found a path to exit the investment in beliefs limiting the role of women and stand to reap the social rewards of their new investment in egalitarianism. The mainline churches who were open to changing traditional beliefs about women were also losing members to conservatives so, what’s to lose if a few more members leave? The costs of change are lower for progressive Christians.

I think the case of sexual minorities is different from the case of women. Sure the famous biblical texts about the sinfulness of homosexuality have been around for millennia. But the idea that people of the same sex could openly live in committed relationships as loving couples-- that’s new. There is no long history condemning gay marriage. There’s no tradition condemning people for loving each other in a committed relationship. There’s no long-term church tradition assigning religious, social, and family roles to sexual minorities. It was as if sexual minorities did not exist. It is only in recent years that people who identify as part of a sexual minority became known to the rest of society. They found some support and a lot of hostility. Religious groups did establish position papers and began to preach or teach about homosexuality while simultaneously trying to show that they were loving and respectful to all people. Some groups clearly have invested time and money in support of laws limiting the rights of sexual minorities but these efforts are recent—not the result of centuries of teaching. And now there are financial and reputational costs associated with fighting the social trends. Note that I am not saying the church has changed its beliefs about homosexuality. It’s just that the idea of same-sex relationships and marriages wasn’t a long-standing issue. 

But young people, those who have not sunk their lives into a rigid position against women’s roles or against sexual minorities—have no loss of reputation to incur. They can be committed to one of many local progressive faith groups that no longer find the need to limit what women or sexual minorities do in church. And the data show religious conservatives are much less common in each age group of the population.

So I offer the hypothesis of sunk costs as a psychological explanation for why change might be difficult for leaders of religious organizations who are tightly connected to long traditions of faith. In the case of women, Progressive Protestants had already found a way to move on from literal interpretations of biblical texts. They could have their texts and embrace women as well.

In the case of attitudes toward same-sex relationships and acceptance of sexual minorities, Progressive Protestants could use the same path as they used to move away from the literal meaning of biblical texts for the role of women. But it may have been easier because the concept of people living in loving same-sex relationships is relatively new. There has been limited time to build up centuries of investment of time and public proclamations condemning these new marriages and relationships. The principle of sunk costs may explain why the recent changes in favor of rights for sexual minorities appear to have occurred at a quicker pace than was true for the rights of women. But only for Progressive Christians.

The cost of change for conservative Christian groups remains high-- not just because of the investment in teachings about women and sexuality but also because of their commitment to a way of interpreting scripture.

There may be another aspect to understanding sunk costs. Most people are heterosexual. They have little to lose when some prefer to be with their own sex. The personal costs are not the same when a small percentage of humanity want equality compared to the case of women where half of humanity wants to be treated as equals. Thus the principle of sunk costs may explain the rapidity of change on a social level, especially for those not committed to conservative groups.

So, I am still thinking about this principle and invite comments.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: HarperCollins.

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