Religion is Not a Preference

12 Pages Posted: 11 Dec 2007

See all articles by Joshua Mitchell

Joshua Mitchell

Harvard University - Department of Economics


The resurgence of religion around the globe poses a challenge for both empirical and normative social scientists. For the former, the question is whether the terms at their disposal are adequate to comprehend religious self-understanding and, therefore, human motivation and conduct. For the latter, the question is whether those terms confuse or clarify the way in which religion may be brought into public dialog without violating the tenets of pluralism or toleration. How, then, do social scientists of both persuasions currently understand religion? I begin by distinguishing religious experience from other sorts of experience, with a view to demonstrating, first, that the two preeminent terms adopted by social scientists today preference and choice cannot comprehend religious experience. To do this, I provide a brief exposition of what I call the fable of liberalism, in order to explain why the terms preference and choice have achieved the currency that they have and what problems their invocation was intended to address. Second, I consider two other terms social scientists often invoke value and identity and suggest that these terms also are inadequate for understanding religious experience. The first set of terms arises in the eighteenth century, out of the Anglo-American tradition; the second set of terms arises in the nineteenth century, out of the German tradition. None of these terms are able to comprehend religious experience, which antedates these sets of terms by centuries. I end by suggesting, first, that empirical social scientists would do well to reconsider whether terms that arose during specific historical moments in order to circumvent or to supersede religious experience can help them understand human motivation, let alone predict human conduct, whenever or wherever religion is involved; and, second, that the attempt by well-meaning normative social scientists to bring religion into the public sphere by treating it in terms of preference, choice, value, or identity distorts religious experience, and cannot succeed as a strategy for reintroducing religion into public dialog, since religion is not what they wish to render it in terms of.

Suggested Citation

Mitchell, Joshua, Religion is Not a Preference. Journal of Politics, Vol. 69, Issue 2, pp. 351-362, May 2007. Available at SSRN: or

Joshua Mitchell (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Department of Economics ( email )

Littauer Center
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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