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Qual Quant (2013) 47:11631171

DOI 10.1007/s11135-011-9615-x

A Bayesian model of religious conversion

Vikas Kumar

Published online: 5 October 2011

Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Abstract The Economics of Religion literature is of two minds on whether conversion is

more likely to occur between close or distant religions. The religious capital model suggests
that conversion should involve sufficiently close religions whereas cognitive considerations
suggest that conversion should involve sufficiently distant religions. We reconcile these seem-
ingly contradictory insights about conversion for the class of non-instrumental, intrinsically
motivated conversions within a Bayesian framework. We show that religious conversion
should involve moderately distant religions.

Keywords Cognitive constraints Conversion Decision Economics of Religion

Religious capital

JEL Classification C44 D80 Z12

1 Introduction

Over the last few decades economists have gradually acquired interest in religion. The is-
sue of religious conversion has received some attention in the growing body of literature
known as the Economics of Religion, mostly in connection with the role of habit in reli-
gious sphere, inter-generational transmission of religious affiliation, and the impact of inter-
religious marriage on religious affiliation (Kumar 2008).
Of all the models that deal with conversion the religious capital model is the best-known.
Religious capital consists of familiarity with a religions doctrines, rituals, traditions, and
members (Iannaccone 1990, p. 299). With regard to denominational mobility this model

The author is Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

V. Kumar (B)
Azim Premji University, Hosur Road, Bangalore 560100, India

1164 V. Kumar

suggests that the likelihood of conversion between particular religious groups should be
greater the more similar the groups, and overall rates of conversion to and from a particular
group should be lower the more nearly unique the group (ibid, p. 300). A convert could
completely forfeit religious capital when converting to a dissimilar religion. For instance,
a pious Muslim or Jew, who accumulated religious capital by abstaining from prohibited
foods, has to forfeit the entire capital when converting to Christianity.
But the reasonable assumption of cognitive limitation goes against the religious capital
argument. In Ferreros spatial model of religious competition there is a continuum of degrees
of behavioural strictness that membership-maximizing religious firms could demand of their
members. People have their ideal locations along this continuum. They subscribe to the
religion closest to their ideal location. However, firm locations are constrained by a mini-
mum critical distance they need to maintain among themselves, which is in turn assumed
to be governed by the the inability for ordinary people to appreciate doctrinal subtleties and
behavioural differences beyond some point (Ferrero 2008, p. 84). In other words, the laity
cannot be expected to distinguish between sufficiently close religions. While Ferrero is not
directly concerned with conversion (which in his framework will be equivalent to a shift in
the ideal location of an individual), his insight regarding cognitive limitations is equally valid
in case of conversion.
In short, the religious capital approach suggests that conversion should take place between
sufficiently close religions whereas cognitive considerations suggest that the religions should
be sufficiently distant. We argue that believers face cognitive constraints because acceptable
standards of proof can limit individual capacity to distinguish among nearby religions. We
then reconcile the seemingly contradictory insights about conversion mentioned above for the
class of non-instrumental, intrinsically motivated conversions by showing that conversions
should involve moderately distant religions. Rest of the discussion is organized as follows. In
Sect. 2 we introduce non-instrumental, intrinsically motivated conversions and other specifics
of the setting in which individuals operate. Section 3 reconciles the two different approaches
discussed above within a decision-theoretic setting. Section 4 provides concluding remarks.

2 The setting

Conversions can be characterized according to the source of motivation (intrinsic vs. extrin-
sic) and nature of motivation (instrumental vs. non-instrumental). We use instrumental in
the narrow materialistic sense. Instrumental conversions are rational in the sense that one
has some material objectives and conversion is undertaken to meet those objectives subject
to constraints. However, the same is not necessarily true of non-instrumental conversions.
We will concern ourselves only with non-instrumental, yet rational conversions. Individuals
want to follow the true religion and convert whenever they learn that their own religion is
not the true one. Even though religion has a material dimension, material gain, if any, from
conversion is superfluous to the problem of choice in our analysis. To keep things simple we
further narrow down our scope by focussing on intrinsically motivated conversions so that
we can work within a decision-theoretic framework. Intrinsically motivated conversion is a
process involving just one individual, in particular, his beliefs and preferences. We intend
to model the process of non-instrumental conversion at this level. We further assume stable
preferences and restrict our focus to beliefs, which are updated with the help of Bayes Rule.
In short, we will engage with non-instrumental, intrinsically motivated conversions.
Further assume that all individuals who believe in some god or the other also believe
that there is no afterlife and that depending on religious practice god dispenses rewards/

A Bayesian model of religious conversion 1165

punishments entirely during ones life, in fact, in the current period itself. We will not deal
with religions with positive belief in afterlife because the difficulties faced while modelling
such religions within a rational choice framework are insurmountable. Even a cursory dis-
cussion of the conceptual problems will take us far from our present remit. But three key
problems bear mentioning here: (a) infinite pay-offs associated with afterlife, (b) absolutely
inscrutable character of afterlife, and (c) inapplicability of Bayesian updating to changes in
belief in religion with afterlife because there is no observable outcome on which to base the
updating of beliefs.
Having discussed why we are unable to engage with religions that support a positive belief
in afterlife we will next advance a justification for engaging with religion sans afterlife. Not
only are there religions which have no conception of afterlife but also religions in which
the quality of afterlife is unrelated to actions chosen and beliefs held in the current life. The
Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) provide information regarding the nature of belief about
afterlife in a large number of cultures. According to HRAF, in 37% of the cultures people
believe that either there is no afterlife or it is same for all and does not require any effort or
faith while in 63% of the cultures people believe in an afterlife, whose quality depends on
individual effort and faith (Hull and Bold 1994, pp. 456457).
While it is important to note that modern industrial cultures are not represented in HRAF
(ibid) we should also keep in mind that liberal Christian sects (we can add Reform Judaism)
in the advanced West are de-emphasizing afterlife (Sherkat 2001, pp. 14851486). Also,
historically strict forms of Calvinism posited an entirely unimpressionable, inscrutable God,
whose decision regarding afterlife cannot be influenced by humans. The same is true of Vaish-
navism, a sect of Hinduism (Patnaik 2008). In short, religion sans afterlife or religion with an
afterlife that does not depend on actions taken in this life is not a hypothetical construct and,
actually, has empirical support. Further, if the quality of afterlife is independent of actions
taken in this life then we can say that the afterlife dimension of religion is superfluous as far
as rational choice analysis is considered.
However, like other religions that have a non-trivial afterlife dimension, the aforesaid
religions posit a relationship between material well-being and religious practice in this life.
The material and religious spheres are related as follows. Economic output depends on sec-
ular effort, assumed to be identical across individuals, and religious practice, which varies
across individuals. Believers interpret spatio-temporal variations in material well-being as
divine verdict on righteousness of human conduct. Material setbacks are attributed to divine
punishment for transgressions while gains are treated as rewards for righteousness. In other
words, it is believed that right religious practice, which in turn depends on religious affiliation,
accentuates output and vice versa. We assume that all individuals put in optimal religious
effort in accordance with their religious beliefs since god is believed to be omniscient. We
will, therefore, not concern ourselves with the possibility of shirking in the religious sector.
The substance of our discussion remains unchanged if we assume, alternatively, that the dis-
tribution of shirkers in the population is known. In each period individuals form expectations
about the aggregate output based on their religious beliefs and religious demography (i.e.,
share of different religions in the society). At the end of a period, individuals adjust their
beliefs after observing actual output, which is believed to contain information about the true
state of the world. For the sake of simplicity we assume that individuals update beliefs every
period. However, all our results will go through even if individuals update beliefs once in
many periods, with the frequency being determined by limitations of memory or religious
doctrine. We also assume that religious demography and economic output are known to all.
Before we present the model in the next section, three issues bear elaboration, namely, the

1166 V. Kumar

nature of our explanation of conversion, the objective of individuals in the religious sphere,
and the relationship between the states of world and religions.
First note that we are not following the Marxist approach, which treats changes in the
religious sphere as manifestations of deeper material changes. In our framework, output
depends on the true state of the world which in turn is governed by the true religion. Recall
that by assumption secular effort is fixed across individuals irrespective of religious affili-
ation. So, when individuals change religion by observing output they are not switching to
a new brand of opium due to deeper material changes. Rather they are correcting their
beliefs in accordance with revelation, conveyed in material terms. For instance, consider a
society consisting of two religions A and B, with a and b adherents, respectively. According
to religion A(B) the aggregate output will suffer because of the wrong religious practices of
the followers of religion B(A), which will attract the displeasure of god. The followers of
religion A expect the overall output in a society with a + b population to be A after taking
into account the fact that b individuals do not worship properly: each follower of religion
A obtains x/a while each follower of religion B obtains y/b(< x/a) because of wrong
religious practice, where a (x/a) + b(y/b) = A. Likewise the followers of religion B expect
that the output would be B. If observed aggregate output, say, C is sufficiently close to A(B)
then the followers of B(A) re-think the validity of their original belief and consider convert-
ing to religion A(B). (Note that in the current setting, religious practice of followers of a
religion does not generate negative externalities for followers of other religions. But such a
possibility can be easily incorporated in the model without affecting the key results.) In rest
of the discussion we will deal with aggregate output as a medium of revelation of the true
state of world that is governed by the true religion.
Further note that our individuals are not after optimal decision a la Knightian or Bayesian
decision-makers driven by cost-benefit analysis, who try to minimize expected loss (Greene
2003, p. 434) or trade-off the cost of data collection and loss from not knowing the truth
(Cyert and De Groot 1987; Iversen 1984). Our individuals are not instrumentalist because
they do not convert to achieve material gains rather they want to ascertain the truth content
of various beliefs and switch to the right one. Inference about the true state of the world is
an end in itself.
Last but not the least note that the application of the states of world approach for nor-
mative purpose requires that the states should be (a) mutually exclusive, (b) exhaustive, and
(c) should represent natures exogenous uncertainty that cannot be affected by individuals
choice of action (Machina 2003). In our discussion, the states of nature (corresponding to
different possible true religions) are assumed to be mutually exclusive and exhaustive and
the society is assumed to be sufficiently large so that given the choices of all others an indi-
viduals choice insignificantly affects aggregate output, the medium of revelation regarding
the state of the world. Note that the set of religions to which our analysis applies trivially
includes atheism, the belief that output is not influenced by god-like agencies. Also, note
that the assumption of mutually exclusive states of nature does not restrict our discussion
to exclusivist religions. It can be argued that if followers of different religions can worship
several gods (some of them potentially common), one can infer nothing from the observed
states of the world. To see why this is not the case consider a society with two religions, A
(worship god u) and B (worship gods u and v). According to religion A (B), if one worships
more or less than one (two) god(s) then ones efforts are misguided and that negatively affects
ones material well-being. In other words, it is sufficient for us that the states of nature and
associated religions are mutually exclusive in terms of expected output. The last claim will
not hold if polytheistic pantheons have redundancy, i.e., gods of a polytheistic religion are
not mutually complementary, which has not to my knowledge been shown.

A Bayesian model of religious conversion 1167

3 Conversion

Since we are concerned with conversions in which belief is at stake let us begin with a stylized
summary of the most comprehensive religious doctrine (D):

D1 There is a (are) true god(s) with certain attributes,

D2 with certain verifiable manifestations, and
D3 contrary manifestations, if any, are either temptations (offered by a testing god or a
satan) or false perceptions due to lack of faith.
Note that the stylized summary does not say anything about the content of beliefs, for instance,
who is the true god and what exactly are his manifestations. Rather it specifies the structure
of beliefs. We will refer to individuals who adhere to D1 through D3 as D individuals and
those who adhere to only D1 and D2 as D\D3 individuals. The following result identifies
the limits on the ability of D individuals to convert.

Proposition 1 D individuals are inconvertible, i.e., irrespective of empirical evidence,

D individuals do not convert out of their religion.

Proof Consider an individual ir , who is a believer in religion r and subscribes to D1 through

D3. Let m r denote the set of verifiable manifestations for religion r . Assume x is observed
by ir . If x m r then the manifestations indicated by the doctrine of religion r are confirmed
(because as discussed above the sets of verifiable manifestations for different religions are
mutually exclusive and exhaustive) and ir has no reason to convert. If, however, x / mr
then following his belief ir knows that god is testing his patience or the devil is trying to
tempt him so that he has to patiently adhere to his religion and wait for the true manifestation
rather than go astray due to a momentary distraction. However, if ir is unwilling to accept
that the contrary manifestation (x / m r ) is due to a testing god or satan (and decides to
convert) then according to his own belief he is not able perceive the true manifestations (and
instead observes contrary manifestations) because he does not believe in religion r . This in
turn contradicts our assumption that ir is a believer in religion r . So, whether x m r or
x m r , D individuals do not convert out of their religion. 

Now let us take a concrete example. Consider a D individual who is a Christian and
believes among other things that god created man in a particular way. In the pre-Darwinian
era he was a happy believer. Then all of a sudden he is confronted by Darwinians. Will he
change his belief? He will not because god could have inserted all those fossils the day before
the Darwinians were born to check if humans are stupid enough to believe in something con-
trary to the revealed scripture. Alternatively, if it is the devils doing then he is trying to entice
Christians away from the true path. A corollary to Proposition 1 follows.

Corollary 1 D\D3 individuals are not inconvertible.

The intuition behind the corollary is as follows. An individual who does not adhere to D3
can entertain the possibility that a contrary manifestation could be attributed to the true state
of the world being closer to the description provided by another religion. And if the evidence
is sufficiently strong he converts. Rest of the discussion is concerned with D\D3 individuals
endowed with full Bayesian rationality, i.e., individuals who update beliefs using Bayes
Rule. For a given religious demography, individuals form expectations about the economic
output of the society as a whole according to their religious belief, which informs them how
believers will be rewarded and non-believers punished. In period t = t  an individual who

1168 V. Kumar

follows the kth religion believes that output follows a normal distribution with mean tk and

variance k2t , the priors for his religion. Individuals decipher the true state of the world by
observing actual output. Individuals have access to information from a number of comparable
societies, where output is believed to be generated by an identical process. At the end of the
period actual output in these societies is found to be normally distributed as per mean y and
variance 2 /n. Posterior mean and variance can be expressed as follows:
t  +1 1 t 1 2t  +1 2t  +1 1 1
k =  k + y k , where k =  + (1)
k2t 2 /n k2t 2 /n

because normal priors with normally distributed data lead to normal posteriors, with posterior
mean being a weighted average of prior and observed means (Iversen 1984, pp. 3638; Cyert
and De Groot 1987, pp.
 1619). Individuals belonging to religion k construct a confidence
interval tk +1 Z k 2 k2t +1 , where Z k depends on the degree of error aversion. Z k can be
seen as capturing cognitive constraints faced by individuals. Higher values of Z k relate to
higher Type I error aversion. Since the likelihood of Type II errors increases as the likelihood
of Type I error decreases we can say that Z k captures both aversion to Type I and II errors.
An individual cannot distinguish among religions whose prior falls within his confidence
Now let Ck denote the set of religions whose prior falls within the posterior confidence
interval of individuals belonging to religion k.
   t  +1  t  +1
Ck = k  tk  kt +1 Z k k2 , tk +1 + Z k k2
2 2

Before we can state our key result we need to make two assumptions. The first of the fol-
lowing assumptions captures status quo bias with regard to conversion whereas the second
ensures the society has sufficient religious diversity.

Assumption 1 (Status quo bias) Individuals belonging to religion k do not change affiliation
if (a) Ck = (none of the religions, including ks, prior falls in the posterior confidence
interval of k), (b) |Ck | > 1 (more than one religions prior falls in the posterior confidence
interval of k), or (c) k Ck (prior for religion k falls in the posterior confidence interval
of k).

Note that Ck = in Assumption 1(a) does not imply acceptance of atheism by the follow-
ers of religion k because in this case even the prior for atheists does not fall in the posterior
confidence interval for religion k.

Assumption 2 (Sufficient religious diversity in society) There exists at least one religion k
for which there exists another religion q  = k that satisfies the following condition:



kq| qt tk kt +1 tk > 0 (3)

which is equivalent to

, t if y < tk

t k
kq| q
t , if y > tk


A Bayesian model of religious conversion 1169

Note that assumption of sufficient religious diversity is not equivalent to assuming a con-
tinuum of religions. A continuum of religions implies but is not implied by our assumption
of sufficient religious diversity. While spatial models based on a continuum of religions are
not uncommon in the Economics of Religion we do not work with a continuum because
there can only be a countable number of religious doctrines (Kumar 2008, pp. 2223, 44).
Also, note that Assumption 2 is equivalent to the following: even though no religion might
correspond precisely to the true state of the world nevertheless the true state does not lie
outside the state space marked by all the known religions put together. Now we are ready to
establish the main result that reconciles the religious capital approach, which suggests that
conversion takes place between sufficiently close religions, with cognitive considerations,
which suggest the contrary.
Proposition 2 D\D3 individuals endowed with full Bayesian rationality and status quo bias
in a sufficiently diverse society. Intrinsically motivated, non-instrumental religious conver-
sion involves two moderately distant religions.
Proof First note that if the society is not sufficiently diverse, i.e., Assumption 2 is not fulfilled,
then there is no question of conversion because:



If qt tk kt +1 tk < 0 q  = k then k
/ Ck q
/ Ck (5)

which in turn implies that the distribution of religions in society is such that there is no
religion for which status quo can be surmounted, where Ck is defined in Eq. 2. In other
words, violation of Assumption 2 implies that whenever Ck  = then k Ck also holds,
which according to Assumption 1(c) supports status quo. So, Assumption 2 is necessary for
any conversion to take place. But for conversion to actually take place there should exist
an option, say, religion j, for which individuals belonging to religion k can surmount status
quo: (k / Ck ) ( j Ck ) (|Ck | = 1). In other words, conversion of an individual from
religion k to religion j is possible if there exists just one religion j, the prior for which falls
in the posterior confidence interval for religion k:
t t  +1 2t  +1 t  +1 2t  +1
j k Z k k , k + Z k k
2 2

By subtracting tk from both sides of Eq. 6 we obtain the following:
2 t  +1 2 t  +1
d k j d0 Z k k , d 0 + Z k k
2 2 (7)

where dk j = |tj tk | is the distance between religions kand j and d0 = |tk +1 tk |.
Now the proposition follows in a straightforward manner because, according to Eq. 7, the
distance between religions k and j is bounded from both above and below. 

Figure 1 plots the distance between religions k and j against Type I error aversion, where
the conversion behaviour of followers of religion k is under
 consideration. Note that if the
degree of Type I Error Aversion exceeds a threshold Z k then religion k necessarily falls in
the confidence interval of followers of religion k, which in turn precludes conversion due to
Assumption 1(c). Corollaries to Proposition 2 follow:
Corollary 2 Conversions to and from atheism should involve moderate religions (e.g., Evan-
gelical Lutheranism) rather than too conservative (e.g., Mormonism) or very liberal (e.g.,
Unitarianism) religions.

1170 V. Kumar

Fig. 1 Error aversion, inter-religious distance, and conversion

Corollary 3 Religions do not face threat of poaching from doctrinally similar religions or
religions with radically different doctrines.

Corollary 4 A conversion cannot involve the religions at the two extremes of the doctrinal
spectrum. Conversion of an individual from one extreme (e.g., Mormonism) to the other
(e.g., Atheism) has to materialize in at least two steps (from Mormonism to, say, Evangelical
Lutheranism and from the latter to Atheism).

Note a few things before we conclude. First, our claims do not change if we switch to
a multi-period setting. Second, our claims remain unchanged even if drop Assumption 1(b)
and allow |Ck | > 1 to support agnosticism rather than status quo. Third, new religious firms
in Ferrero (2008) will avoid landing in the no-conversion zones in Fig. 1.

4 Concluding remarks

In this paper, we address the problem whether conversion is more likely to occur between
close or distant religionsa problem on which the Economics of Religion literature is of two
minds. For the class of non-instrumental, intrinsically motivated conversions we reconcile
within a Bayesian framework the seemingly contradictory insights about conversion based
on the religious capital model, which suggests conversion should take place between suffi-
ciently close religions, and cognitive considerations, which suggest conversion should take
place between sufficiently distant religions. We provide a lower bound for predictions based
on religious capital approach and an upper bound for predictions based on cognitive con-
siderations. In other words, we show that conversion involves moderately distant religions.
We will end with the observation that our basic insights should hold for a variety of other

A Bayesian model of religious conversion 1171

settings. For instance, our discussion would suggest that political parties on both extremes
stand to gain or lose members to the relatively centrist parties rather than to nearby extremist

Acknowledgments I am grateful to P. G. Babu, Mario Ferrero, Manfred J. Holler, and Philipp Schliffke for
comments on earlier drafts, to Ankush Agarwal, Poonam Mehra, and Pierre Salmon for useful discussions.
The usual disclaimer applies.


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