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The “Status Inconsistency” Theory: Further Comments

March 1, 2016

I indicated yesterday some doubts about the theory that certain people of social aspirations may have become Christians to cope with their experience of “status inconsistency.”  That is, they were frustrated in their aspirations of upward social mobility/acceptance, and so turned to early church-groups as a venue in which they could satisfy their desire for affirmation.

One commenter opined this as an explanation/defence of the notion:  “Because they derive their sense of self-worth with reference to other members of the new group they join rather than society at large where they find it harder to compete. It’s a case of preferring to be a big fish in a small pond.”  Yes, this is essentially what the theory poses.  But I wonder if it’s soundly based or sufficiently thought through.

For one thing we’ve learned over the last several decades of renewed interest in the many “voluntary associations” of the Roman era is that there were many, many opportunities for “status inconsistency” individuals to achieve this sort of “big fish in a small pond” success.  There were other religious groups, such as Mithraism, and a whole raft of other kinds of groups too, in which one could aim for obtaining respect, prominence, etc.

And here’s the crucial bit:  None of the other groups had any great negative side-effects or demands on your other social or religious activities and associations.  You could freely maintain all your previous associations and activities, without suffering the suspicion, negative rumors, hostility, and potential ostracism that often accrued to early Christians/Christianity.

So, I repeat:  Why on earth would you choose to become a Christian in particular, if what you were concerned about was your social standing?  Why make yourself subject to the social consequences/costs of doing so, when it could all be avoided by joining any of a number of other groups?

It’s this failure to take a “360” look at the matter, the failure to consider the social costs involved in becoming a Christian in the first three centuries, that I try to address and correct in my Marquette Lecture (10 April).  For those interested, Marquette University Press are aiming to publish the 28K-word essay from which I will distill my 10 April lecture, producing a small booklet in the Marquette Lecture series.  They hope to have it printed in time for the lecture event.


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  1. Bee D. permalink

    Technically your point is true: there would be little to gain in social status, conventionally conceived. But of course, if Christianity was low-status in “this world,” it next offered high status in heaven, and the world to come.

    I guess you are partly right; “if” Christians wanted status in this world, then Christianity was at the time, a bad choice. Though it is interesting to see how Christians tried to change the game. By promising a different kind of status. In another world.

    And interestingly? Eventually, being Christian, being say the pope, gave one a great deal of status. Even here on earth.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Why would people choose to join a group that is looked down upon by society at large? Simply because that’s the way religious growth works and always has done! It’s a well documented phenomenon, as explored by social theorists such as Stark and Iannaccone. There has to be some “cost” to joining a group in order to make the endeavour appear worthwhile. It’s true that many people may think: “that looks difficult to become a Christian so I won’t bother”. But some others will think: “it’s difficult to become a Christian, therefore it must be a worthwhile thing to do”. And having made sacrifices to join, people who make the move are more likely to remain committed because of the costs involved. Far from being a drawback, a degree of tension with society at large is actually essential for any fledgling religion to get off the ground. Please see “Why strict churches are strong” by Iannaccone and “Why religious movements succeed or fail” by Stark.

    • Donald: Yet again, over-simplification, and a failure to take account of historical specifics. I’m well aware of the work of Stark et alia on conversion to this or that group in modern and western societies, in which making such a move costs little. Behavioral demands aren’t the same thing at all. E.g., having to give up smoking doesn’t compare with exposing yourself to hostility, ostracism, and being denounced to the authorities.
      Yes, groups that make demands (albeit of reasonable levels) seem to fare better than those that allow lots of what Stark calls “free-riders.” But, again, historical realities, please. In the Roman world various religious options were available (and some successful) that made little demand on “ethics” but other sorts of demands (financial, cultic, etc.). The issue isn’t whether a group makes demands, but the consequences of joining it. Stay focused please.

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