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Abstract Consumption choices assist in solving the problem of how to convey and recognize religious identities. In the communication of an identity. individuals use the knowledge embedded in consumption norms, which restrict the range of choices to a smaller set and abbreviate the required knowledge for encoding and decoding messages. Using this knowledge as a shared framework for understanding, individuals with religious beliefs can choose consumption to express the intensity of their commitment to these beliefs. Because individuals and societies have different beliefs, norms, commitments, and expressive needs, consumption choice can help to express these differences. Our explanation contrasts with incentive-based approaches that view religious consumption norms as solutions to free-rider problem inherent in clubs.
Keywords: religion, consumption, norms, identity, commitment, communication, knowledge
Religious beliefs and institutions have become important topics of inquiry in economics, receiving increasing attention by even prominent mainstream economists. (1) Whereas until recently religious phenomena were typically considered outside of the domain of economics, it has now become popular to provide explanations of these phenomena grounded in standard economic theory. These explanations typically apply economic concepts and models by viewing believers as rational consumers and religious organizations as clubs or firms that collectively constitute a religious market.
Some of these studies have sought to explain the distinct and sometimes seemingly strange patterns of consumption behavior that most religions prescribe. Among the wellknown consumption prescriptions are dietary guidelines such as the Catholics being asked to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent, vegetarianism for Hindus, and Muslims and Jews abstaining from pork altogether. There are similarly well-known prescriptions in clothing, grooming, art, music, charity, chastity, thriftiness, and so on, that believers are asked to observe. The traditional approach to these prescriptions had been to view them as being outside of the realm of economic inquiry, belonging in the same black box that includes tastes and preferences. A recent and influential approach, however, has sought to explain these religious prescriptions by applying standard incentive theory and viewing them as solutions to potential free-rider problems (Iannaccone 1992).
In this exploration, we offer an alternative explanation based on the communicative role of consumption. We view general consumption guidelines as social institutions and argue that these institutions serve the essential function of storing the knowledge required for communication. Once an individual makes a religious commitment (to a principle, individual, or group), he or she acquires a religious identity. (2) For many, this identity then needs to be expressed. Consumption institutions assist in the communication of religious identities to others.
CONSUMPTION, INCENTIVES, AND COORDINATION
In an influential article that contributed significantly to the acceptance of the "Economics of Religion" as a legitimate field of inquiry, Iannaccone (1992) extended standard microeconomic analysis to the study of religious behavior. (3) Rather than presuppose special motives for religious activities, he modeled religion as a club good that brought positive returns to "participatory crowding" and noted that the collective character of religious activity can lead to free-rider problems that cannot be easily overcome by explicit monitoring. Borrowing insights from incentive-based theories, he showed how the free-rider problem could be solved (at least theoretically) by seemingly strange and unproductive religious requirements. Applying this approach to consumption, an incentive-based analysis of religious prescriptions of consumption would thus seek to explain these restrictions by examining how they make it possible for religious groups to identify committed members and screen out free-riding imitators.
Although studying incentives might help to understand other phenomena in economics or religion, we believe that consumption patterns and routines attributed to religion have less to do with incentives and free-riding and more to do with imperfect knowledge and communication. In a complex and uncertain world where individuals have only imperfect knowledge about each other, religious consumption norms can serve as communicative devices that facilitate the expression of religious identity. They often indicate the intensity of commitment, and perhaps even reinforce that commitment and help others respect that commitment as …