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Religious Conflicts in Rational Choice Theory Essay


The rational choice theory presupposes that people are often individual actors in their social and economic lives. As its name suggests, the theory argues that human beings are generally rational creatures who often make decisions that best suit their interests (Piquero 2012). Thus, while many people may be faced with different options regarding different issues affecting their lives, the rational choice theory dictates that they would choose the most rational solution that helps them improve their welfare.

Although this theory hails from an economics background, there is evidence that it has been used in sociology (Piquero 2012). Different researchers, including Rodney Stark (as cited in Young 2016) and Oppenheimer (2012), say it has multiple implications in different aspects of life, including solving human conflict, understanding social interactions, and debasing criminal issues.

In this study, the rational choice theory would be used to explain religious conflicts. Such conflicts have manifested in different parts of the world and have often pitted different religious groups, such as Muslims vs. Christians, Hindus vs. Muslim, and Buddhists vs. Christians, against each other. Furthermore, these conflicts have been witnessed in different parts of the world, including India and Pakistan, America and the Middle East, Israel and Palestine and selected African countries.

The rational choice theory will be used in this context to explain such conflicts by demonstrating that religion is divisive in the sense that it creates a “we vs. them” mentality and bestows upon people the task of protecting what they believe in at the expense of others. In the same breadth of analysis, this theory would be used to explain how religion gives people a higher sense of purpose for their existence in a way that would make them sacrifice their existence for the greater good of a faith. This argument is explained below.

A Higher Sense of Existence

Many researchers who have used the rational choice theory to explain people’s religious affiliation have often pointed towards religion being a substitute for people’s problems because it gives them hope for a better future (Davie 2013). However, what is missing in their argument is the higher sense of existence that often influences people’s actions on earth, as opposed to how their actions are attuned to benefit from an afterlife. While the rational choice theory draws our attention to individual actions, as the basis for understanding human behavior, it is important to point out that religious beliefs are also part of the larger framework of human actions that are explained by the theory.

The higher sense of existence mentioned in this context is mostly enshrined in several religious doctrines, which give many people a strong sense of existence that is higher than their need to stay alive (Davie 2013). This explains why some radical religious groups often commit actions that are detrimental to their physical wellbeing. For example, some suicide bombers who commit atrocities in the name of religion fit this description because they believe they have a higher sense of existence beyond their time on earth.

For example, it is a commonly held belief among some sections of Muslims that dying in the name of religion could bring immense benefits in the afterlife in form of virgins or an elevated status of immortality. Such beliefs translate into individual actions where people make conscious decisions to partake in certain conflicts because they are doing it to fulfill a higher sense of existence.

Although no religion advocates for conflict, or war, recently, there have been episodes of religious leaders “looking the other way” when wars are waged. In fact, Basedau and Carlo (2015) say that, in some countries, priests act as part military personnel through the provision of chaplaincy services, while other religious figures ordain certain wars, provided they serve a “higher purpose” of promoting peace and tranquility in the world. In some extraneous circumstances, observers have witnessed cases where religious leaders call on their governments to wage war on others (Basedau and Carlo 2015). Instances where religious leaders advocate for war tend to legitimize them and prevent people from understanding the moral and ethical imperatives that arise when such wars happen.

In connection with the above analogy, Young’s (2016) application of the rational choice theory of religion views it as being a system of compensation for people’s frustration, or their lack of clear roadmap to achieve a specific objective. Therefore, religion plays an instrumental role in their lives by compensating for a physical lack. The similarity between this view and the above-mentioned cause of religious conflict is largely confined to the assumption that people who tend to suffer from an apparent lack of physical need or a frustrated goal tend to be more vulnerable to conflict.

Consequently, they believe in a higher sense of existence because their physical survival is frustrating or dissatisfactory. Therefore, religion gives them a strong sense of purpose, for which they fight. Stated differently, they finally have a strong sense of existence for which they can give meaning to their lives. This is a rational choice for most people who are in such situations because they prefer to give purpose or meaning to their lives through the pursuit of a higher sense of existence. This analysis is at the core of the rational choice theory because it draws our attention to people’s willingness to make choices that are based on what they think or believe is best for them. Based on this analysis, it is possible to see how the rational choice theory could help to explain religious conflicts.

“We vs. Them”

Religion, by its very nature, is divisive. It groups people into different religious outfits defined by what they believe about life and human existence. Thus, it is common to find people with opposing views clashing.

The rational choice theory helps us to make sense of this outcome because it makes us understand how a “we vs. them” mentality is fostered in such an environment. More importantly, the theory helps us to understand that when people are put in such divisive environments, they often gravitate towards standing with their people, or those they share similar views with. By doing so, they create an unfavorable environment for cohesion. Thus, conflict is rife. In this argument, it is important to point out that theories of identity have often been used to explain such phenomena because people tend to align with those they deem close to or that share similar attributes with them (Inkina 2017). By doing so, they alienate others and create conflict.

The choice to align with people of similar beliefs is easily explained by the rational choice theory because people often support actions that are beneficial to them (Inkina 2017). Therefore, those who share the same values believe that their collective actions would be beneficial to their interests. Thus, it makes no sense for people who have contrary views to support those who would not cater to their best interests. This analogy shows that religious conflicts are often defined by boundaries drawn in terms of religious differences because people often want to protect their lifestyles, beliefs and values (Piquero 2012). Regrettably, this often happens through armed conflict or aggravated tensions, as seen in the case of Israel and Palestine conflict where the two protagonists chose sides based on religious inclinations.

On one side of the conflict are the Jews who believe they are under threat from a predominantly “dangerous” Muslim population and on the other side are Palestinians who do not believe in the right of Jews to live in the Middle East. Tensions are likely to brew in such an environment because people have chosen different sides, based on religious differences. The cohesive force that pits these different groups of people together is a strong sense of belonging, which could easily be explained by the rational choice theory.

Opposing sides believe that their chosen defenses are justifiable, based on what they believe would be in their best interest. A cost-benefit dichotomy arises in this example because whichever side of a religious conflict one chooses to analyze it from, evidently, people make rational choices based on what they believe would be most beneficial to them (Piquero 2012).

Using the above example, we find that the Israelis believe that their government is justifiably an aggressor because it protects their interests, while the Palestinians believe that the actions of their government and other militant groups, like the Hamas, are justifiable because they are protecting what they believe in. Stated differently, the cost and benefit of supporting either side are justifiable based on what the people believe to be rational. Thus, the rational choice theory emerges as a plausible explanation for such conflicts.


The rational choice theory has been highlighted in this paper as the premise for understanding people’s behaviors, relative to their religious choices. The arguments espoused in this paper have been specifically designed to explain religious conflict as a measure of understanding how the rational choice theory could help explain people’s religious lives and beliefs. The arguments highlighted in this paper outline two points of view, which hinge on the same theory.

+The first point of view argues that religion gives people a higher sense of existence, which makes them partake in religious conflicts, regardless of whether they would be detrimental to them, or not. This view is partly confined in the assumption that most people who are physically lacking or are unable to meet their life goals are more vulnerable to such conflicts because it is relatively easy for them to support conflicts of this nature.

The second point of view is the “we vs. them” mentality, which naturally comes from the divisive nature of religion. This view largely stems from the fact that most people coalesce around common beliefs and attitudes, which create common religious blocks that alienate others. These divisions create room for conflict. However, as demonstrated through some of the arguments in this study, many people choose to maintain these divisions because they are personally beneficial to them.

In other words, people prefer to support groups that would cater to their personal interests, as opposed to the interest of others. This view is largely explained by the rational choice theory, which espouses the cost vs. benefits dichotomy. Stated differently, people make individual choices to support causes that are beneficial and not costly to them. Comprehensively, the “we vs. them” mentality and the higher sense of existence analogy, which is characteristic of different faiths, are two arguments that show how the theory could explain religious conflicts.


Basedau, Matthias, and Carlo Koos. 2015. “When Do Religious Leaders Support Faith-Based Violence? Evidence from a Survey Poll in South Sudan.” Political Research Quarterly 68 (4):760-772.

Davie, Grace. 2013. The Sociology of Religion: A Critical Agenda. London, UK: SAGE.

Stephen, Hunt. Religion and Everyday Life. London, UK: Routledge.

Inkina, Svetlana. 2017. Rational Choice, Game Theory and Institutional Design. An Analysis of the Nested Game Model. New York, NY: GRIN Verlag.

Oppenheimer, Joe. 2012. Principles of Politics: A Rational Choice Theory Guide to Politics and Social Justice. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Piquero, Alex. 2012. Rational Choice and Criminal Behavior: Recent Research and Future Challenges. London, UK: Routledge.

Young, Lawrence. 2016. Rational Choice Theory and Religion: Summary and Assessment. London, UK: Routledge.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Religious Conflicts in Rational Choice Theory." December 25, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/religious-conflicts-in-rational-choice-theory/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Religious Conflicts in Rational Choice Theory'. 25 December.

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