CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2005 International Conference
June 2-5, 2005 – Palermo, Sicily
Religious Movements, Globalization and Conflict: Transnational Perspectives

Back to the Future: a Neo-Durkheimian Analysis of a New Religious Movement.
The Case of Soka Gakkai in Italy.

Carlo Barone, University of Milano Bicocca

A paper presented at the 2005 CESNUR Conference in Palermo, Sicily. Preliminary version – do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

My goal is to bring real theories into sociology, not
to found a new theoretical sect. So, rather than
suggest that rational choice theories are the future
of sociology, I would suggest that, for the future of 
sociology, theory is the only rational choice.
 R. Stark (1997), Bringing theory back in.


1- Introduction

Soka Gakkai is a religious movement created about 70 years ago as the lay organization of a Japanese Buddhist group, known as Nichiren Shoshu. It is currently one of the world's fastest-growing religious movements (Shupe 1991; Dawson 2003) and it claims more than 12 millions members, scattered in 190 countries worldwide (SGI 2005). Although with most religious movements it is rather difficult to give entirely reliable estimates, scholars agree that in the late ‘90s there were more than 8 million members in Japan, its home ground, and at least 2 millions members abroad, with an impressive growth rate in recent decades (Hurst 1992:109; Hammond, Machacek 1999:37; Shupe 1991). Since almost half of Soka Gakkai  European members live in Italy, this country figures among the western nations where this new religious movement has been most successful (Dobbelaere 1998:25-26). Stark (1987) estimated that even the fastest-growing religious movements usually take at least one generation to reach 20'000 members: in Italy, Soka Gakkai (SG) was close to 30'000 members within 20 to 25 years (Macioti 2002). Its rapid growth in Italy can be appreciated also if one considers that its members are as many as those of all the other Buddhist groups together. The purpose of this paper is to explain this success-story: why has SG, and particularly its Italian affiliation, grown so rapidly?

The relevance of this research question is at least twofold. First, SG and more generally new religious movements (NRM) can be seen as "barometers" of social change (Dawson 1998, 2003). In most countries their share of the total population is often modest, but their proliferation is perceived as an informative signal of the deep and more general transformations of the religious attitudes and beliefs in contemporary societies. In this vein, some scholars have noticed that the case of SG offers a very telling story of how religion can proliferate in highly rationalized, individualized and globalized societies (Machacek, Wilson 2000; Dawson 2003), against the predictions of the standard secularization theory. This point will be discussed and further elaborated in this paper.

However, the study of SG is interesting also for a second, and less "speculative", reason. SG is strictly related to Komeito, a political party that has played an important role in the Japanese political system, especially after the "political revolution" of the mid '90s (Aruga 2000:137-152). Komeito is currently within the government coalition and it is the third political party in Japan. Although it is an autonomous political party, its religious affiliation to SG still represents a core element of its identity and its informal connections with SG remain very strict. Thus, it is fairly clear that SG, and especially its charismatic leader Daisaku Ikeda, has the opportunity to play a significant role in contemporary Japanese politics. Moreover, SG has built an extensive network of non-profit organizations around the world, including schools and universities, foundations, journals and commercial firms (Dobbelaere 1998:65-83), and the economic relevance of this network has attracted much attention. However, many SG Italian members, probably the majority of them, are not even aware of the existence of Komeito, nor are they regularly informed about the economic ramifications of SG. I do not mean to claim that SG is responsible for purposely hiding these activities from its members (although its detractors have often stressed this point). Instead, I find it interesting that many believers, while actively contributing to the expansion of a global organization, hardly appreciate the far-reaching implications of what appears to them primarily as a private religious experience. However, I wish to show that, if we are to shed some light on their inner spiritual experience, we need to trace the wider network of symbolic and material exchanges that occur within this NRM, conceived as a global organization. In short, SG seems an interesting case in point of the political and economic implications of religious participation in a globalized world.

In order to explain the rapid expansion of  SG in Italy, I begin with an examination of the adaptive strategies developed by a Japanese organization in the Italian religious market (Finke 2004), almost completely monopolized by the Catholic Church, at least until recent years (Pisati 1998:68)[1]. My purpose is to show that these strategies have been particularly successful in that they have considerably reduced the time and reputation costs, as well as the required investment in religious human capital, that are associated with membership in a NRM. This view is consistent with the religious economy model originally developed by Stark and Bainbridge (1987). Also consistent is an emphasis on material and nonmaterial benefits as the driving incentive to entice potential converts and to motivate new members: it is taught that, by chanting the mantra Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo, they can ensure better finances, better health, better social and personal relationships, and so on. In sum, I will suggest that participating in the activities of SG is perceived as a feasible and affordable experience that might prove highly rewarding: so, why not try?

I am persuaded, however, that this rational choice explanation cannot work of its own. Instead, it raises a number of further compelling questions. How is it possible that people come to believe that chanting a mantra can foster a spiritual transformation and ensure concrete material benefits? Most members are fully persuaded that "it works" and that their efforts will be rewarded, because SG can be trusted to give what it promises to give. However, this belief cannot be taken for granted; indeed many external observers would judge it controversial. Thus, I will claim that, while a successful utilitarian social exchange does represent a core mechanism behind the success of SG, its functioning is fully embedded in the dynamics of pre-contractual solidarity that promote trust, especially when the expected benefits do not materialize immediately. Moreover, these solidarity dynamics generate intense emotional gratification that works as a highly motivating incentive to sustain members' commitment and to prevent them from dropping out. I will argue that this pre-contractual solidarity is actively produced and continuously reproduced by means of ritual interaction (Collins 1988, 1997, 2004). This kind of argument is explicitly inspired by the well-known Durkheimian critique of the utilitarian approach (Durkheim 1893; Collins 1993; Scott 1999): I do not understand this critique as a merely negative refutation of the utilitarian approach. I take it instead as a starting point to elaborate on the crucial idea that rational action is deeply embedded in cognitive frames and non-instrumental motivations generated by ritual interaction. Indeed, it should be noted that Stark himself, in the reformulation of his original rational choice theory of religious behaviour, has acknowledged that «too little explicit attention was given to the emotional and expressive components of religion, nor was sufficient scope given to the typical elements of religious practice such as ritual, sacrifice, prayer, and the like» (Stark 1999:264).This paper is meant to contribute to further remedy of this limitation[2], while still maintaining Stark's core assumption that, even in their religious choices, people display a tendency to weigh costs against benefits, although in a somewhat unsystematic and intuitive manner that is consistent with the model of bounded rationality (Stark, Finke 2000; Hechter 1994; Swedberg, Hedstrom 1996; Goldthorpe 2000).

The empirical material to support my analysis is primarily based on a participant observation of the Italian SG meetings, ceremonies and other activities, integrated with in-depth interviews of its members and with textual analysis of its publications. These interviews were tape recorded, and all participants were promised confidentiality. My research began in September 2004 and lasted one year. I visited 14 discussion groups (the basic units of SG organization), located in a big city of the North-West, in a medium-size town of the North-East and in two small towns of Central Italy and Sicily. Obviously, this is not a representative sample of the population of SG members, however I made every effort to "maximize the variability" of the visited groups at least with respect to the basic socio-demographic characteristics of their members[3]. Moreover, by comparing my results with those of empirical studies carried out in Great Britain and in the United States, I have found several indications that many substantive conclusions of my work may be generalizable to other countries, as I will try to show. This is indeed not so surprising, given that SG follows a recurrent organizational model across countries and addresses similar segments of the population (Dobbelaere 1998; Hammond, Machacek 1999).

The local coordinators of SG have been informed about my research purposes and they have always been willing to offer help and collaboration. According to my impression, they have obviously tried to convey a positive image of SG, but they have proved also extraordinarily open to discuss the problems of their religious movement- indeed they seem to do very little to hide them. We should keep in mind that SG has a very positive reputation among most sociologists: its coordinators are often aware of this fact at least in Italy, and in recent years SG has actively collaborated with several sociological surveys and academic publications concerning this religious movement as well as broader religious issues (Dobbelaere 1998, ch. 1). In turn, this is part of a more general activism of SG in the field of intellectual and cultural activities that, as we will see, is grounded in its origins and that constitutes an important ingredient of its successful adaptation to contemporary societies.

The paper is organized as follows. The second section contains a short description of SG: its origins and historical development, as well as the most important beliefs and practices of its members. This is a very selective presentation, aimed primarily at highlighting some aspects of this religious movement that are relevant for the general discussion. This paper is not intended as an in-depth description of SG in Italy: detailed ethnographies on this NRM are already available elsewhere (Macioti 1996, 2000). Instead I use my ethnographic material, together with other research results on SG, for explanatory purposes, i.e. understanding the successful expansion of a Japanese organization in societies dominated by completely different religious traditions. The third section focuses on the adaptive strategies that have ensured the success of this NRM and the following one describes how these strategies are embedded in the ritual interaction dynamics that foster participation. The final section puts together the core elements of my explanation of the success of SG and explores some wider theoretical implications of my analysis, elaborating on the view that individuals are responsive to the configurations of costs and benefits of the external situation, but their rational evaluations are grounded in the social practices that build trust and shared beliefs in segregated networks of agents and that generate symbolic incentives to participate in these networks[4].

2- Origins and development of the Soka Gakkai

Soka Gakkai is a Japanese religious group that can be ascribed to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. It is well-known that, in its initial form, Buddhism was an order of mendicant monks who dedicated their whole life to meditative practices with the aim of enlightenment (Tamaru 2000:17). This monastic orientation left little room for the bulk of humanity to join in: lay people who sympathized with Buddhist teachings could support the monks, but they had little hope to attain full enlightenment. The Mahayana tradition, however, attempted to interpret and integrate the teachings of Buddha to accommodate a greater number of people. It was more lay-oriented and popular in its universalistic orientation[5]. It produced a multitude of sacred texts called Sutras that gave expression to this new strand of ideas. One of them, the Lotus Sutra, will be of core importance for SG.

In the 6th century CE Buddhism was officially introduced in Japan and the Mahayana tradition was predominant. Japanese Buddhism has proliferated for centuries in a number of different and often competing religious groups. One of them was founded in the 13th century by Nichiren Daishonin, a charismatic monk who predicated that the Lotus Sutra contained the ultimate truths of Buddhism. He taught that the believer could obtain salvation and bestow temporal benefits by invoking the title of the Lotus Sutra in its Japanese translation (Myoho-renge-kyo). According to Nichiren, Myoho-renge-kyo was far more than the title of a Buddhist text: it was the highest expression, in words, of the Law of Life. Thus, the invocation Nam-Myoho-renge-kyo was conceived as a universal practice for tapping and expressing the life-condition of Buddhahood that is latent in every person. Nichiren also claimed that the other Buddhist schools were misguided and inconsequential: he held that an attack on these doctrines was necessary, in order to lead people to the truth of the Law of Life. These ideas spurred reliance on aggressive proselytizing and, more generally, they stimulated a competitive stance towards other religions for a long time. As we will see, in recent decades these ideas have been gradually abandoned and the old practices are more and more often replaced with a moderate encouragement to believers to share with their family, relatives and friends their religious experience (Dobbelaere 1998).

After Nichiren's death, his disciples divided into many subschools. In 1288, Nikko (1246-1333) parted from the other followers to form his own school, called Nichiren Shoshu (the True Nichiren school). A central significance was accorded to the Gohonzon: Nichiren had taught that the universal Law permeating life and the universe was embodied in the form of a mandala: in the Gohonzon, a scroll written in Chinese and Sanskrit characters, Nichiren depicted symbolically the life state of Buddhahood. Today's SG members still chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo before a Gohonzon enshrined in their own homes: this is considered as the very heart of their religious practice. The Gohonzon, together with a practitioner's faith and chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, is seen as a stimulus to activate the life-condition of Buddhahood that everyone, without exception, has the potential to attain - the universalistic inspiration of the Mahayana tradition is plainly evident here, and it represents a precious cultural resource when Nichiren Buddhism becomes a worldwide religion thanks to SG.

Although SG is generally counted among the NRMs that originated in contemporary Japan, it has been from its origins until recent times, strictly connected to Nichiren Shoshu. More precisely, SG has been for a long period its lay organization. SG was founded by an elementary schoolteacher, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944), who published in 1930 an essay on pedagogy ("A Theory of Value-Creating Pedagogy") advocating the reform of educational methods and policies in Japan. It has been noticed that his progressive ideas present several affinities with Dewey's pedagogy (Bethel 2000). In the same year, he created the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (the Value-Creating Educational Society), an association that was to promote the pedagogical conceptions elaborated by Makiguchi. However, since in these years he came to embrace the teachings of Nichiren, his association had, from its very beginning, the dual character of both an educational reform movement and a religious movement. It was a small group, with no more than few hundred people by 1940. In 1943 the Japanese government imposed the religion of state Shinto, with its nationalistic ideology of emperor worship, and grew increasingly intolerant of political and religious dissent. Makiguchi refused to convert to Shinto and advised the members of Soka Kyoiku Gakkai not to visit the Shinto shrines. Thus, he was imprisoned, together with his favourite disciple Josei Toda (1900-58) and with 19 other members of the movement. The following year Makiguchi died in prison of malnutrition. As can be seen, the emphasis on education, tolerance and human rights, that plays a central role for the positive image of the contemporary SG (especially outside Japan, see par. 3), is deeply rooted in its history (Machacek, Wilson 2000:30-33).

After Makiguchi's death, the destiny of SG could have been similar to the silent death of the hundreds of new religious movements that grow and decline every century. However, the historical moment was extremely propitious for NRMs in the post-war Japan and it is well-known that they spread out in great numbers. Interestingly, it has been noticed that this religious vitality was the consequence of the liberalization of the Japanese religious market after the predominance of Shintoism, in line with the predictions of the religious economy model (Stark, Introvigne 2003:42). However, it is widely recognized that it was also the result of the compelling search for new identities and values that emerged during the post-war reconstruction period and in the early years of the Japanese industrialization (Shupe 1991; Hurst 2000:73; Dawson 2003)[6]. After Japan's defeat in World War II, and after the Emperor was forced by the Allies to deny being a God - a truly dramatic event for the population of that time- the Shinto religious foundations of Japanese national identity were deeply undermined. It comes as no surprise that in this context many NRMs flourished that offered new ideological support to Japanese national identity, and SG was one of the most influential among them. Toda undertook the reconstruction of the Soka Gakkai and, when in 1946 he was inaugurated as its second president, the membership was about 3000 households[7]. Under his leadership, this religious movement had a spectacular growth and, within seven years, the former small association had become a nationwide religious movement, with a membership of over 750,000 households. SG remained affiliated to Nichiren Shoshu as its lay organization. This expansion was actively enhanced by the practice of shakubuku, a vigorous method of proselytism inherited from Nichiren, who had recommended it as a very important duty of every believer. Thus, in Japan during the post-war decades SG gained the reputation of an aggressively proselytizing group, due to the practice of shakubuku that encouraged animated discussions with nonbelievers and the confutation of their doctrines (Tamaru 2000).

After Toda's death, Daisaku Ikeda succeeded him as the third president of SG in 1960. Under his leadership, SG not only continued to grow in Japan, but also became a worldwide organization. In 1975, Ikeda founded Soka Gakkai International that rapidly spread in the United States, in Latin America, in several Asian countries and in some European nations.

Moreover, in the early 50's SG began its political involvement in local assembly politics and three members of the Komei Political League, a section within SG, were elected to the Upper House in 1956. Ikeda encouraged the formal separation between the religious and the political movement, that resulted in the creation of a political party, Komeito, that hereafter would take part in the local and national political competitions. Since the majority of Komeito candidates and voters still belongs to SG (Aruga 2000:118), the connections between the two parts remain strict: this gives a political voice to Ikeda and his followers in Japan (Aruga 2000). However, these connections are viewed as an issue of little relevance for believers outside Japan. Komeito was never mentioned at the Italian discussion meetings of SG I took part in, although it is probably safe to say that many group coordinators have at least heard of it. Needless to say, it would be also a delicate topic, particularly in Italy, where the connections between the Catholic Church and political parties often represent a very controversial issue.

Through its expansion, SG developed a "symbiotic" relationship with Nichiren Shoshu priesthood: the lay organization was mobilized for the massive recruitment of new members and it provided generous financial contributions to support the priesthood, that in turn gave symbolic legitimation to its activities. In particular, a Japanese monk of Nichiren Shoshu conducted the conferral ceremony where new members received a copy of the Gohonzon, thus formally and explicitly embracing Nichiren's teachings. It must be noted however that, apart from this ceremony, believers outside Japan had relatively few contacts with the priesthood. For a long time, both SG and Nichiren Shoshu presented the relationship with each other as an excellent example of harmonious division of labour between priesthood and lay people. Thus, most members of SG were shocked when in 1991 Nichiren Shoshu excommunicated Ikeda and SG. Within a few months, the two parts split-off from each other and the wide majority of SG members remained within SG. Indeed, at least from the mid 70's pervasive tensions and conflicts had arisen between the two parts, that gradually developed divergent views concerning the offerings and fees to be paid to Nichiren Shoshu, the prerogatives and authority of the priesthood and, on the other side, the role of Ikeda. Thus, while a detailed reconstruction of this controversy is outside the scope of this work (cf. Metraux 1992), it is widely recognized that instrumental motivations related to a conflict over financial resources and power played a relevant role (Machacek, Wilson 2000). At the same time, there was also a conflict over symbols, concerning the importance to be accorded to doctrinal purity, or to the pragmatic innovations required to what had become a worldwide religious movement. As noted by Hurst (2000:81), to the priesthood the essential purpose of promoting Nichiren's Buddhism is the protection of its own traditions, temples and the legitimacy of the unbroken lineage from Nichiren. The symbolic universe of SG, on the other hand, had increasingly diverged from this traditional orientation and, as we will see in the next section, it had focussed on the modern themes of individual self-fulfilment and the promotion of education, world citizenship, peace and civil rights. At issue were also a different emphasis on the ritual deference to be accorded to the priesthood and the growing veneration of Ikeda, with the correspondent accusation of "Ikedaism" addressed to SG (Hurst 2000).

The most dramatic event of this dispute testifies to the driving force of symbolic conflict, over and above any instrumental motivation: the destruction of the Sho Hondo temple, i.e. Nichiren Shoshu's main temple, a magnificent masterpiece of religious architecture completed in 1972. This temple housed the Dai-Gohonzon, the sacred mandala inscribed by Nichiren himself for the Enlightenment of all humanity. Sho Hondo had been funded mainly with SG donations: the enormous financial effort required to build it was perhaps the most powerful demonstration of SG worldwide success. It was meant to represent an emblem of the wealth and unity of Nichiren Shoshu with its lay organization. It was eighteen stories tall at its highest point, with more than 110,000 square feet of interior space, and it cost $100 million to build (Hurst 2000:69). After the split, the head temple remained the property of Nichiren Shoshu: it was first made off-limits to SG members and then in 1998 the priesthood ordered its complete demolition. This demolition took no less than 2 years and it cost Nichiren Shoshu as much as $ 35 million. While this may look like a completely irrational act on the side of the priesthood, it is not difficult to imagine the symbolic impact of this event on the millions of SG members around the world that for years had contributed to the construction of the main temple. We can also understand that, from the point of view of Nichiren Shoshu, it was untenable to worship the sacred mandala in a building sponsored by what now appeared as an heretic sect practicing a counterfeit religion. In a sense, the Sho Hondo temple had to be destroyed, because it was the symbol of a social relationship that had now broken.

In sum, it comes as no surprise that a conservative priesthood endorsing a traditional and hierarchical conception of religion was to conflict with  a global organization that embraces a more liberal stance of rational adaptation to the transformations of contemporary societies (Wilson, Dobbelaere 1994:243-44; Hurst 2000:79). The consequences for SG of the split from Nichiren Shoshu are yet to be evaluated, but scholars seem to suggest that these dramatic events have probably turned out to be a liberation of energy for SG, because the split has reinforced the progressive, modern and this-worldly orientation that underlies its worldwide expansion (Machacek, Wilson 2000:8; Hurst 2000), as we will see in the next section devoted to a cost-benefit analysis of SG conversion strategies.


3- The successful adaptation outside Japan

Rational choice theory (RCT) views social exchange as the constitutive dimension of religious behaviour (Stark, Bainbridge 1987; Stark 1997, 1999)[8]. This is a counterintuitive and controversial claim that has attracted much criticism (Bruce 1999; Jerolmack, Porpora 2004). It would seem that much scepticism originates from the strictly utilitarian assumptions of this claim (Stark, Finke 2000:39; Iannacone 1995) and, more generally, of the rational choice approach, at least in some of its mainstream formulations. I will argue later that this is a real problem that calls for a wider theoretical perspective. However, we should be very careful not to dismiss RCT too easily. One does not need to be a supporter of "economic imperialism" to recognize that human beings display a strong propensity to avoid (what they see as) the negative outcomes of their choices and to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. This capability is highly imperfect and in many instances it does not result from conscious calculation. However, this adaptive tendency is a fundamental feature of human behaviour. Indeed, empirical research in several core sociological fields supports the assumption that individuals are responsive to the costs and benefits of their decisions (Friedman, Hechter 1988; Hechter, Kanazawa 1998). In the study of religion, a considerable amount of empirical evidence suggests that the behaviour of religious organizations is responsive to external constraints and opportunities, and that believers (and nonbelievers) are responsive to the quantity and quality of the religious supply (Iannacone 1991; Chaves, Cann 1992; Stark 1997; Pisati 1998; Stark, Introvigne 2003, Introvigne, Stark 2005)[9]. Thus, there is room to work with this theory in order to assess  its accuracy in explaining and predicting religious behaviour.

RCT describes believers as being engaged in a wide-ranging bargaining relationship with supernatural beings. People often ask their gods this-worldly rewards like money, health, success, love and so on; however, according to this perspective the very specific and most important religious good is otherworldly rewards, i.e. those that will be obtained in a non-empirical and usually posthumous context (Stark 1999:268). For gods, the believers' prayers, invocations, sacrifices or ceremonies are valuable terms of exchange. However, in exchanging with the gods, humans are interested in keeping the "prices" they have to pay as low as possible. In other words, ceteris paribus they will seek to minimize costs.

It should be clear that, in this view, the supernatural -that refers to entities beyond or outside nature that can exert an influence on physical forces (Stark 1999:267)- is a core element of religion, contrary to Durkheim's well-known claims. Moreover, gods are conceived as entities having consciousness and desires: this is coherent with (or even required by) the idea that they engage in an exchange relationship with human beings.

The case of SG is an interesting one to evaluate the preceding claims. On one side, it offers considerable support to this utilitarian perspective, on the other it suggests that social exchange does not tell the whole story. One could say that the members of this religious movement take RCT literally, since they deliberately pray in search for «benefits», and these include very practical matters (money, health, etc). It is emphasized, however, that these benefits are the consequential outcome of an interior transformation that entails even greater psychological benefits, such as self-confidence and perseverance (Dawson 2003). All the SG meetings I took part in turned into a discussion on the meaning of benefits, on the best way to obtain them and on this "dialectic" between material and immaterial benefits. During these meetings, I have been told several times that «our religion is the only one that, together with theoretical proofs and documentary proofs, also offers a concrete and tangible proof» (cf. Macioti 1996:53). In his messages to believers, Ikeda often exhorts SG members to have success in their life, since this is the best demonstration of the validity of Nichiren's teachings. At the beginning of the year, members are expected to write on a paper a list of detailed wishes and purposes and, at the last meeting of the year, they are often invited to make a detailed evaluation of what they have obtained: a group coordinator once explained to me that «it is important to show that Buddhism really works». This benefits enumeration has its counterpart on the side of what believers have to offer: they can keep note in a poster of how long they pray each day: 20 minutes of chanting correspond to 1000 points. The poster contains a figure divided into 1000 squares and the believer can put a cross on a square every 1000 points: this means that he/she must obtain one million points, an aim that is associated with the realization of a particular wish.

Several observations also confirm that SG pays considerable attention to the costs of participation to its activities and makes every effort to reduce them. These include time costs: new members are only invited to take part to SG meetings twice a month. These activities are organized in a way that accommodates the different (and possibly conflicting) needs of students, workers and old people. The meetings are scheduled on Tuesday, from 7.45 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.[10] and I noticed that most coordinators carefully control that they do not last longer (this rule is respected even when some members would like to discuss further). Practitioners are expected to pray everyday in their homes as long as possible, but this is a private activity, therefore it is de facto entirely free: nobody will ask you how long have you been praying each day and, from what I could see, the amount of time devoted to the prayers varies considerably from person to person, or even from day to day for the same person. A small but revealing detail: a few years ago the booklet for the prayers was shortened. It included three chapters of the Lotus Sutra written in old Chinese, but one of them, the most difficult to pronounce- a believer once described it to me as «a never ending torture»- has been dropped, thus almost halving the time required for the daily pray. This is just an example, but I could mention many other shrewd adaptations of the original Japanese liturgy (concerning for example the proper posture while chanting before the Gohonzon, or the old rules on who could lead the group prayers, and so on) that have been introduced in the course of SG worldwide expansion, in order to make participation less demanding. Hammond and Machacek (1999:98) note that in the United States «at first meetings were conducted in Japanese, and the traditional practices of removing one's shoes before entering the room, kneeling on the floor before the Gohonzon and sitting in sex-segregated groups were maintained in the American organization», but these practices were abandoned within a few years. Obviously these adaptations should not be conceived as the result of some conscious cost-benefit calculation; rather they testify a constant, informal monitoring of the members' needs and difficulties, together with a very flexible attitude towards ritual rules.

SG also imposes weak restrictions on the behaviour of its members. Contrary to many other successful religious movements (Iannacone 1994), there are very few prohibitions concerning drinking, eating, dressing, sexual behaviour, and so on. Indeed, I never happened to hear group discussions, nor informal conversations between members, concerning restrictions of this sort. Moreover, as the time devoted to collective activities is relatively limited, members spend most of their time with non-members, so there is little space for informal control on their behaviour. Members often express strong appreciation for this liberal orientation and they contrast it with what they see as the Catholic moralistic attitudes. More generally, all the studies of this religious movement indicate that on average its members share liberal political views and libertarian attitudes towards traditional morality (Wilson, Dobbelaere 1994; Macioti 1996; Hammond, Machacek 1999; Dobbelaere 1998). At the same time, these studies show that SG converts endorse more often postmodern values such as an appreciation for human diversity and multiculturalism, a particular emphasis on human rights and environment protection concerns.

In the Italian religious economy, that is still rather close to the ideal type of (Catholic) monopoly, membership in a NRM can still entail non-negligible reputation costs. As for many other countries, some NRMs are often surrounded by suspicion, mistrust, or even explicit aversion, as in the case of Scientology or Jehovah's Witnesses. There are also Catholic countercult groups that actively contribute to discrediting some of the fastest-growing NRMs, although usually they are not formally supported by the Catholic Church which does not want to be accused of being intolerant (Introvigne, Stark 2005). In this context, SG has chosen a successful strategy: public recruitment of new members is almost entirely avoided: the network of personal contacts is used instead. This is not only a much more efficient recruitment method (Stark, Bainbridge 1980; Stark, Finke 2000 ch. 5), it is also one that requires limited public exposure, thus highly reducing the risk that SG is accused of proselytism. On one hand, the old "aggressive" method of shakubuku (literally "break and subdue") is abandoned in favour of soft conversion strategies that emphasize dialogue and persuasion. On the other hand, public activities are typically limited to events that reinforce the positive image of SG. These events are justified on the basis of highly consensual values such as «the promotion of worldwide peace» or «the promotion of peace, culture and education» (SGI 2005). Relevant examples of these activities uncover conferences on human rights, public debates on the issues of the globalization, donations to local libraries, exhibitions on social issues, and so on. Countless of these initiatives are organized every year, often together with local authorities and, perhaps even more important, not rarely also with Catholic groups.

In fact most SG converts are former Catholics, however these are people with previous low commitment with the Catholic religion (Macioti 1996; cf. Hammond, Machacek 1999:144-147): it would be untenable to claim that SG is "stealing" believers to the Catholic church; instead, it addresses to a market niche of the Italian religious economy that is not covered by the Catholic monopoly. Moreover, it should be noticed that new converts are not told that they have renounce their Catholic beliefs, although this is what usually happens if they stay within SG. I noticed that similarities or even commonalities between Buddhist and Catholic teachings are frequently stressed by the members. At the same time, the criticism towards the Catholic Church takes the form of the benevolent wit and subtle irony, for example against the restrictions to believers or the Catholic "superstitions" concerning the existence of God. In sum, a soft conversion strategy is adopted and, given the considerable cultural discontinuity between Buddhism and the Catholic tradition, this seems a rational solution.

This strategy is part of a more general low tension orientation towards the mainstream culture: SG does not require particular lifestyles, nor does it pose strict restrictions on the behaviour of its members. Moreover, Buddhism is presented as consistent with modern science and with the Western rationalist tradition (Machacek, Wilson 2000: 36). While this claim is certainly not peculiar to SG, it must be noted that this religious movement avoids any reference to gods, spirits or other supernatural beings, as discussed below. The notion of "karma" is often presented as the "cause-effect law" that, to a Western audience, echoes the language of physical sciences. This positive orientation towards the Western culture and its values does not result from some "natural affinity": suffice it to mention that the overriding majority of non-Japanese members of SG live in Asian countries. Rather, it is the result of a deliberate selection from the SG cultural repertoire of the elements that seem more compatible with Western culture: in this sense, it can be understood as a form of strategic adaptation aimed at ensuring cultural continuity with the conventional beliefs of Western societies. It is noticeable, for instance, that the soft conversion strategies described above are adopted by an organization that in Japan has developed a reputation of intolerance for other religions and that is well-known for its aggressive recruitment methods, for its massive rallies and parades (Macioti 1996: 46-47; Hammond, Machacek 1999:17). It seems equally relevant that Nichiren's nationalistic ideology has been emphasized for centuries by his followers, thus favouring the successful spreading of his doctrine in Japan (Shupe 1991; Machacek, Wilson 2000: 26), while being completely abandoned in the course of the "exportation" of Nichiren Buddhism outside Japan.

Finally, we should note that financial costs to join in SG are almost negligible: membership fees are entirely voluntary. Even more important, the funding method entails weak informal pressure to contribute: at the beginning of the year, members are only given a deposit slip for a free donation, but nobody of their group will come to know if and how much they have contributed. New converts and people under age are explicitly forbidden to contribute and much attention is paid to ensure that the donations remain within reasonable limits, given everyone's budget, as noticed also by Macioti (1996:100-101). Members are invited to subscribe to SG publications, but this requires a small amount of money. On one side, this funding policy reduces the costs of participation for members; on the other, it further reinforces the positive reputation of SG[11]: any possible accusation of financial exploitation of the members is thus avoided.

To summarize, there is little doubt that the search for utilitarian benefits plays a crucial role in the decision of potential converts to join in SG, as the vast majority of its members indeed explicitly recognize (Macioti 1996[12]). The marketing strategy of this religious organization makes reliance on these instrumental attitudes by presenting Nichiren Buddhism as a feasible way to solve one's own problems, while at the same time asking very little of new members. Thus, the success of SG recruitment strategy can be ascribed to the capability to attract people with limited previous religious commitment (Dobbelaere 1998, ch. 2) and with weak motivation to pay high costs of religious participation, presenting a religiously framed solution to their problems. To the extent that this represents a wide segment of the religious market, the potential for the expansion of SG is considerable.

So far, I have suggested that an utilitarian theoretical model fits very well with the utilitarian philosophy that motivates many converts. However, my research indicates that some relevant beliefs and practices of this religious movement are at odds with Stark's rational choice model. In particular, one could seriously doubt that supernatural beings do have a place in the doctrine of Soka Gakkai. While other Buddhist schools have inherited from Hinduism a rich pantheon of gods, divinities have virtually disappeared from the discourses and beliefs of the Italian members of SG. Some concepts such as the "Law of Life" might be interpreted as referring to transcendent entities (although even this contention could be questioned), but in no case to personal entities such as gods with consciousness and desires, contrary to the assumptions of Stark's model. Although in the tradition of Nichiren Shoshu there are, for instance, protective gods and guardian deities that defend the correct Buddhist teachings and their practitioners, these are better conceived as metaphorical entities, at least from the point of view of present-day SG members who would never address a prayer to these gods nor ask them material or immaterial benefits. It is more interesting to note that some members tend to personify the Gohonzon, but this attitude is far from general and it is firmly discouraged by the organization. In sum, we are faced with the seeming paradox that there is substantial evidence supporting the utilitarian exchange model, but we find no god to exchange with[13].

Equally discordant with the theory of religion summarized above is the central position accorded to this-worldly rewards: my research indicates that what SG members most appreciate of their religion is precisely this hic et nunc philosophy, while other-worldly rewards, mainly related to the doctrine of reincarnation, are more marginal (Machacek, Wilson 2000:4; Dawson 2003). A member once made the following observation: «when I was Catholic, I was always wondering why happiness should belong to another world. But now that I am Buddhist, I know that happiness belongs to this world!»

One could still retain Stark's conception of religion and conclude that SG, because of the above mentioned "anomalies", cannot be properly defined as a religious phenomenon; however this contention would contrast with much of the phenomenology of this movement: the reference to a sacred text, the importance accorded to the Founder, the presence of the clergy until very recent times and the simple fact that its doctrine belongs to a well-known religious tradition, i.e. Buddhism. Instead, one could recognize that this is an interesting anomaly and take seriously the SG members' point of view: their religious experience is mainly focused on this world and the only legitimate god they can address to are themselves. The next section will shed some light on this very important point. SG might be interpreted as an intriguing proof that religion could proliferate even in a society that has lost its gods and its feeling of transcendency.

A final point to be noticed is that, as far as a convert becomes a stable member, there is the expectation that he/she will contribute more to SG activities (e.g. helping with the organization of ceremonies and group meetings). Although the normative pressure concerning these duties is rather weak and much is left to the good will of the believers, many members spend a lot of their time in favour of SG (Macioti 1996: 101). It is the wide recourse to these voluntary activities that makes it possible to impose low membership fees on new members. Similar observations apply to chanting: in spite of the weak social control, many members dedicate a considerable amount of time to chanting. Hammond and Machacek (1999:58) report that 62% members of SG chant twice a day the gongyo, which takes around 30 minutes, and the frequency of chanting is positively correlated with the length of involvement. They further suggest that, in spite of the instrumental orientation of SG recruitment strategies, the experience of demonstrable rewards for chanting does not always seem necessary to sustain commitment: other kinds of motivations gradually take place (Macioti 1996: 60; Dobbelaere 1998 ch. 2). In the next section, I will try to shed some light on them by describing the interactional dynamics that create a sense of a common belonging and a diffuse solidarity between members.


4- The metamorphosis of the utilitarian believer

«You fell in love with Soka even before you realize how the practice works. You feel part of a revolution against everybody. And when you go the meeting for the first time you feel a magic atmosphere, and that moment is the driving force of everything, of your faith, of the voluntary activities, of your prayers»

«At the beginning it was just like a therapy. I had to solve my problems. But now I don't care about benefits. I pray because I like it!»

«The idea is that you create groups where similar people meet and get to know each other, where they listen to each other's problems and they find shared solutions, thus generating group cohesion. After all, it is a matter of creating small communities by face-to-face interaction that feeds friendships, reciprocal support and shared experiences» (Macioti 1996:78)

«What strikes most new converts is that SG members are joyful, funny, friendly and they are always in a good mood, they emanate a vital force, they possess a creative soul and they are always serene» (Dobbelaere 1998:49)

In this section I will use Interaction Ritual Theory (IRT) to describe how emotionally dense encounters can generate shared beliefs and symbolic incentives to participate in the activities of a religious movement. It may be useful, therefore, to sketch some basic elements of this theoretical model (Collins 1988, 2004). An interaction ritual has four initiating conditions: 1a) the physical co-presence of two or more people assembled in the same place; 1b) the boundaries to outsiders that give participants a sense of who is taking part in the ritual and who is excluded; 1c) a common focus of attention upon the same object; 1d) a shared emotional mood. Collins stresses that these ingredients feed back upon each other and, particularly, the shared focus of attention and the emotional tone reinforce each other: «as the persons become more tightly focused on their common activity, more aware of what each other is doing and feeling, and more aware of each other's awareness, they experience their shared emotion more intensely, as it comes to dominate their awareness» (Collins 2004:48). Thus, a mutual entrainment of emotion and attention stimulates collective effervescence and heightens the sense of mutual participation. This ritual dynamic can produce four main outcomes: 2a) group solidarity, i.e. a feeling of membership, a sense of belonging to the group; 2b) a feeling of confidence, enthusiasm, strength; 2c) symbols that represent the group, i.e. emblems that members feel are associated with themselves collectively; 2d) feelings of morality: the sense of rightness in adhering to the group and respecting its symbols.

Two observations are in order. First, ritual interaction should not be confused with the notion of ceremony, since the former is much more general: ceremony is simply one of the possible forms that it can take. The constitutive elements of ritual interaction, as well as its predicted outcomes, can be found in a friendly conversation, in a rock music concert, in a family dinner, in a political assembly. Collins views IRT as a general theoretical model and much of his work is a forceful and persuading effort to show that IRT can be fruitfully employed to elaborate detailed micro-explanations in several core sociological domains such as the study of social stratification, of collective movements, of the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in everyday sociality, of the processes of knowledge accumulation, and so on (Collins 2004, 2000, 1991, 1988, 1982; Collins, Rössel 2002).

A second observation is that both the initiating conditions of ritual interaction and its outcomes are better conceived as variables: in every single situation they can be present to a different degree. This allows Collins to establish systematic theoretical relationships, that are open to empirical scrutiny, between the conditions that foster ritual interaction and its expected outcomes.

This short presentation of IRT suggests the following point: membership in a religious movement can be described as the experience of participating in a sequence of nested interaction rituals. Let me examine this claim in the case of SG. Its collective activities include the by-weekly meetings in small discussion groups (zadankai), the study meetings, the Gojukai ceremony (where new members receive a copy of the Gohonzon for praying in their private homes) and, less regularly, the public events organized by SG, such as exhibitions on present-day world problems, musical comedies and other cultural manifestations, festivals and so on. The ritual dimension of these activities is fairly clear: we can easily identify the four initiating conditions of ritual interaction and their typical outcomes. Interestingly, these have been noticed also by scholars that were not working within Collins' theoretical framework. For example, Dobbelaere (2000: 247) states that «the festivals are rites in which the values propounded by the organization are celebrated on an international level. These rites stimulate the engagement of members and unite them in common cause with all those who aspire to foster peace throughout the world». Dobbelaere stresses not only the positive influence of these initiatives on group solidarity and the feelings of morality associated with them, but also their symbolic implications, in that some ideas and instances promoted by SG find expression through noble ideals such as peace and human solidarity. In the same vein, Macioti (2000:385) notices that the human rights exhibition organized in Italy by SG «achieved its primary (though perhaps not explicitly stated) objective- that of making the members feel part of a noble common undertaking. It made them feel proud to belong to SG, an association capable of offering its support in a socially relevant field such as human rights, a socially useful association to which it was worth dedicating one's time». In their study of SG in Britain, Wilson and Dobbelaere (1994:229) suggest that the goals of world peace, of the promotion of culture and education provide «corporate ends which bind members in commitment to higher purposes», thus adding a social dimension to the practice that has been described also by Hammond and Machacek (1999:77) in the case of SG-USA. Thus, while in the previous section I have argued that these public events are rational investments that can build a positive external reputation, we can see that they have equally important functions related to their symbolic and emotional outcomes.

In the case of the Gojukai ceremony the ritual dimension is entirely self-evident and indeed we know that religious ceremonies are the Durkheimian archetype of the notion of interaction ritual elaborated by Collins. The zadankai discussion groups are a more interesting case in point, also because they represent the most important collective activity of the association. From the micro-sociological and situational perspective of IRT, we can analyze every discussion meeting as a sequence of ritual encounters: the conversational rituals before the meeting formally starts, the daimoku prayer (i.e. the invocation of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo), the subsequent discussion, the final prayers and the leave-taking rituals. Furthermore, we could examine the long-term consequences of participating to the meetings for a given amount of time, both for the individual and for the group that accumulates solidarity feelings and shared symbols. Finally, we ought to reconstruct the connections between the different kinds of collective activities, conceived as a chain of interaction rituals that are intertwined through the circulation of material resources, symbols, emotional energy. Although such a systematic account is outside the scope of this paper, in what follows I will touch on some of these points in order to highlight the emotional benefits that foster participation in the zadankai meetings. This seems an important point: in most cases, the first contact with SG takes place at these assemblies; at the same time, they are the regular meeting event for its members. In this sense, they represent the key to success for SG, with respect to the problem of recruiting new members as well as to the equally important aim of containing dropouts. Dobbelaere (2000: 238) reports that these meetings are rather successful, at least if one considers their very high attendance rate that varies, according to country, from 75% to 85%. Regular members take part enthusiastically to the zadankai meetings (Macioti 1996: 85) and potential converts often get a positive image of SG that spurs them to join in: what is the secret of these meetings?

We know that members are expected to chant daimoku in their homes and that they also pray at the meetings. During the observation period, I noticed that many members display a strong preference for praying with other members. This observation was also made spontaneously several times at the meetings. Believers report that praying together is easier, because the group has the power to "catch" them. They confess that, when they begin to pray at the beginning of the zadankai, they are often tired and weakly concentrated (for many of them, it is after work time) and so «everyone follows his own rhythm»; however, they perceive that the group gradually synchronizes into a common rhythm, that becomes closer and closer. Some members even begin to knock on the floor and their postures become more erect, more vigorous and reactive. Every single member is caught into the rhythm of the ritual. This corresponds precisely to the «feedback intensification through rhythmic entrainment» described by Collins in several other social contexts, in the case of successful rituals (this is probably also a general feature of religious ceremonies, although their emotional intensity may be highly varying). What really matters in these collective prayers is the emotional experience grounded in this rhythmic "dance" of the group, much more than the content of the ritual, as exemplified by the simple fact that most Italian members have no precise idea of the meaning of the Japanese words that they pronounce. We know from IRT that successful rituals convey high emotional energy to the participants and this contention is clearly supported if one observes the positive and enthusiastic atmosphere of elation that follows this common prayer. Through the observation period, I gradually came to realize that many members perceive chanting as a rewarding activity in itself, quite apart from the instrumental benefits that it may ensure. Because of the powerful emotional gratifications generated in the course of such successful rituals, praying cannot be reduced to a cost to be faced in order to obtain positive rewards.

After this prayer, it is time for the discussion, which is the main activity of the meeting. The group coordinators choose a different topic for every meeting and they usually stimulate the debate by reading a short excerpt of Ikeda or a small part of the Nichiren's writings. Then, everyone can express her/his opinion, pose a question, raise objections against what other members say, or even propose a new topic. The atmosphere is extremely informal and, since there are often new members, everyone is asked to present her/himself, by simply telling her/his first name. Again, the pattern of rhythmic intensification is manifest. At the beginning of the discussion, there can be some embarrassment and we can notice relatively long pauses between speakers, but the conversation rapidly becomes animated, and there are no gaps between utterances. Let us examine in more detail why these meetings are so animated and exciting.

The discussion groups are always small: usually there are 10 to15 people. This corresponds to a well-defined rule: if the group becomes bigger because of new members (an event that is relatively common), the coordinators must divide it into two groups or ask some members to join in another group. I was surprised to find out that this rule is respected also in the absence of spatial limitations and even if it may entail considerable efforts: since every zadankai group always meets in the same private house of a member, creating a new group requires finding a member that is willing to guest the group, as well as a new group coordinator. These tasks are not always easy to accomplish. However, SG places great importance on this "dimensional" rule, because «it is very important that everyone is given the opportunity to say a word during the meeting», as the group coordinators always repeat. Indeed, if a member keeps silent during the meeting, he/she is often kindly invited to say something, even if the discussion would not require it. Here the ritual dimension of these discussions becomes self-evident: what really matters is not necessarily the content of the speech, but the very fact that you say something, because this is the most tangible way to show that you are really taking part in the meeting, to act as a member of the group, in the fullest sense of this word. It should be noticed, moreover, that since the discussion topics touch on very concrete issues that are often related to the problems of daily life, it is quite "natural" that everyone is willing to say a word.

In short, individual participation is actively and purposely stimulated by the choice of interesting topics to be discussed in small groups, in a friendly and informal atmosphere, with little hierarchical structure. According to IRT, these are the typical conditions that maximize the individual accumulation of emotional energy: the more a person actively participates in a ritual, instead than being in a passive position, the greater her emotional commitment; the more "horizontal" the interaction is and the lower the deference to be paid to external authority, the lower the emotional losses of the participants. One could say that SG manipulates efficiently some of the golden rules of IRT. All this can be compared with the interaction dynamics of a Catholic church service, or with the less horizontal and informal activities of many other religious groups.

Another powerful generator of emotional energy is the veneration that surrounds President Ikeda. This collective feeling does not arise from some obscure irrational tendency. SG members have plenty of reasons to feel a sincere admiration towards him. SG journals regularly publish his speeches, poems and excerpts from his books that he often publishes together with famous philosophers, scientists and politicians (Galtung, Gorbaciov, etc); they inform SG members of his yearly peace proposal at the United Nations; of the awards and honorary doctorates that he continuously receives; of his meetings with the political leaders of the most important Asian and European countries; of the joyful meetings with all the SG members scattered worldwide; of the opening ceremonies of institutes, foundations and universities that Ikeda has sponsored. These rituals, in turn, become the topic of conversational rituals between members who, by sharing and reciprocally communicating their admiration for Ikeda, vigorously reinforce their sense of a belonging to an important movement that works for noble ideals. Through these nested rituals, Ikeda represents a group symbol that is strongly charged with positive emotions, thus spurring feelings of morality and solidarity between members.

During the discussion, it is very frequent that one or more members "tell an experience". This is an autobiographical anecdote that in most cases follows a general plot: the believer had a problem (or she/he wished to realize a desire), then she/he prayed before the Gohonzon in order to solve it, however the problem was not solved immediately or the situation even got worse, but the believer did not loose her/his faith and continued to pray, until she/he finally solved the problem, usually in an unexpected way. An interesting variation on this theme is that the believer realized that the problem was not a real problem (or that the desire was unproductive), then she/he "reframed" the problem and in the end, after praying faithfully, the believer obtained even more than could be expected at the beginning. These "experiences" are not only told at the zadankai assemblies, but they are also regularly published in the Nuovo Rinascimento, the by-weekly journal of the Italian SG that always dedicates a two pages article to an "experience". It is also common that during the Gojukai ceremony some members are invited to tell some of these anecdotes, hopefully the most intriguing and surprising ones. It is clear that these "experiences" play an important function. They are listened to with great emotion and excitement by the members. They are perceived as the most persuading proofs of the validity of SG core teaching: if you really believe that you can realize what you wish, and if you pray for this, you can obtain everything. Our happiness does not belong to a distant future or to another world, it only depends on ourselves. The most desperate situation can be changed, thanks to our perseverance and to our efforts (Machacek, Wilson 2000:5). How can you prove this? Not by means of abstract reasoning, but with vivid stories, with telling examples that strike our emotions. It is not very difficult to imagine that listening to such stories together with other members and sharing your emotions with them can work as a powerful mechanism of amplification of the persuading influence of these "experiences". In this sense, the belief in the efficacy of chanting for individual self-fulfilment (i.e. the crucial cognitive prerequisite for the utilitarian exchange described above) is produced by means of ritual interaction.

For a member who tells an experience, being the focus of attention of the group and representing a "living proof" of the validity of Nichiren Buddhism is an exciting experience and it is probably the best way to strengthen one's own faith. At the same time, those who listen set their hopes that, one day, they will have their own experience to tell, and they come to believe that this day is not far away. It is important to note that these anecdotes are always autobiographical. Members are expected to talk about themselves. This goes hand in hand with the marked anti-speculative attitude that characterizes these discussions: "abstract theory" is always discouraged, in favour of reporting one's own experiences, problems, solutions. This gives full expression to the very fact that, according to this Buddhist group, the real focus of our religious experience should not be an external divinity: instead, it should be our life. The self becomes the focus of attention of every SG collective activity: the group discussions, the ceremonies, the prayers. In this respect, Macioti (1996:65) describes the Gojukai ceremony as a solemn, public self-declaration of the convert's capability to change his/her own life. Moreover, when the members chant, they shake in their hands a necklace named jutsu, made of many small segments that form a double Y (fig. 1)

Fig. 1: The jutsu

When I asked about the meaning of this necklace, I was told that it symbolizes a human body. More precisely, it is a metaphorical representation of the believer's life: while chanting, the believer keeps her/his life in her hands. The self is treated as a sacred object: the attention and emotions of the members focus around it in the course of the different interaction rituals. These collective activities do represent powerful generators of emotional energy for the individual selves: they work as efficient methods of self-empowerment. From the perspective of IRT, when believers insist that the Gohonzon, the sacred object, «is within ourselves», they are (symbolically) telling the truth.


5 - The success of the Soga Gakkai: so, what's the secret?

In this final section I wish to discuss two relevant implications of the preceding analysis:

a) the motivations to join SG include strictly utilitarian attitudes as well as emotional gratifications driven by the symbolic mechanisms of ritual interaction; b) these two kinds of motivations are structured along a temporal dynamic that represents the essential ingredient of success of SG.

The empirical material presented in this work confirms that, even in their religious experience, individuals are often driven by cost-benefit calculations: their behaviour is not simply a routinized consequence of their socialization, it is also the result of their capability to adapt to external constraints and opportunities. Rationality is not only an emergent property of religious economies, it can also be a crucial organizing feature of religious organizations. At the same time, my research suggests that the motivations underlying religious participation cannot be easily reduced to the standard rational choice model, because this would preclude an analysis of the expressive dimension of religious behaviour. It is not sufficient to incorporate emotional benefits into the utility function of the rational actor. We need a theoretical model that specifies how emotional benefits are generated and under which conditions they can be increased or reduced. In this paper, I have tried to show that IRT is a promising candidate in this direction.

To illustrate point b), let me contrast my argument with an analysis developed within a standard rational choice framework. Iannacone (1994) has proposed an intriguing explanation of the positive relationship between the strictness of a religious movement and its growth rates, i.e. the religious denominations that conform more closely to the ideal-type of the conservative church, whose traits include a propensity to absolutism, conformity and fanaticism, display higher growth rates than the more liberal religious denominations. Iannacone's explanation of this well-established research finding is rather interesting in the light of the preceding discussion. He states that «in principle, perhaps, religion can be purely private, but in practice it appears to be much more compelling and attractive when experienced in groups» and he adds that «the pleasure and edification that I derive from a Sunday service does not depend solely on what I bring to the service; it also depends on how many others attend, how warmly they greet me, how well they sing or recite, how enthusiastically they read and pray and how deep their commitments are» (Iannacone 1994: 1184). From the perspective of IRT, one could comment that these observations confirm that the ritual dynamics described above are not confined to my case study: they are probably far more general. However, within a rational choice framework, these observations raise a typical free-riding problem, because they imply that «religion is a commodity that people produce collectively». Therefore, people with low commitment tend to contribute less than others and their mere presence dilutes the group's resources. Here comes the strength of strict denominations: by imposing higher costs of participation, they screen out people with low commitment. This can be done, for example, by imposing restrictions on smoking, drinking, eating, having sex, or by requiring a distinctive diet, dress, grooming and social customs that may stigmatize the members[14]. Iannacone (1994) presents strong empirical evidence that supports his explanation (Finke 2004; Olson, Perl 2005).

A possible implication of my study is that SG may be an interesting exception to Iannacone's rule ("the stricter the stronger"). We know that it figures among the world's fastest-growing NRMs, but at the same time I have documented that it pursues a strategy of cost minimization, especially for new members. SG is indeed rather close to the ideal-typical lenient church, characterized by a great emphasis on relativistic attitudes, diversity and dialogue, as well as by weak restrictions on the behaviour of its members. How can we explain this anomaly?

The strategy of imposing high entry costs is certainly an efficient screening method, but it has also an obvious weakness: screening means losing many potential converts. SG has developed an alternative strategy: it maximizes the initial recruitment of new members by imposing low costs of participation, in terms of membership fees, time, reputation and restrictions on believers' behaviour. At the same time, potential converts are attracted by the perceived opportunity to obtain temporal benefits (health, love, money, and so on ). Thus, recruitment is maximized by maximizing the benefits and minimizing the costs of the strictly utilitarian rational actor. This strategy on the side of the religious supply matches perfectly with the attitudes of many new members that in most cases begin to pray in search of concrete benefits (Macioti 1996). However, self-interested motivations gradually lose importance as far as new members get involved in SG activities (Introvigne 2001). They develop a deeper commitment to their religious group. In other words, instead of screening out potential converts with low commitment, SG motivates them rapidly and efficiently. The structure and the organization of this NRM seem to be designed to make particularly effective the mechanisms that generate a sense of common belonging. We have seen that SG is structured as a network of small groups, where members regularly meet to share their experiences, in an informal and emotionally dense atmosphere. The interaction dynamics that characterize these meetings are weakly hierarchical and every individual is stimulated to participate actively. In a sense, this context of interaction forces each member to focus her/his attention on the discussion topic: in a small group it is very difficult to be "invisible". This shared attention is channelled into a set of sacred objects: the selves of the members, the Gohonzon, the venerated founder Nichiren, the charismatic leader Ikeda. These symbols are strongly charged with feelings of enthusiasm, respect, admiration. This ritual interaction dynamic works as a powerful generator of individual emotional energy, which makes these encounters a highly rewarding experience in itself, quite apart from the search of utilitarian benefits.

Moreover, the collective effervescence that pervades these meetings cements group solidarity and strengthens the shared beliefs. People do not become members of SG because they share its doctrine: instead, they share its doctrine because they have become its members. As noticed by Macioti (1996:44), «the first time you go to a SG meeting because somebody invites you. You start to chant because you think that, after all, you have done so many things and even such strange things, so you can try one more time. You come to action before you are intellectually persuaded». Hammond and Machacek (1999:151) report that only 4% of the members of SG-USA said they knew enough about SG to join at the time of first encounter. Collins (1997) notes that social ties are often prior to ideological beliefs because «ideas are symbols of group membership and grow out of it»- a point that might be pertinent for many other religious (and nonreligious) movements. The belief that chanting before the Gohonzon "works" is far from self-evident to new members, but it becomes highly plausible after they have been exposed to hundreds of anecdotes that confirm it and to several rationalizations that explain the seeming anomalies. What makes these beliefs particularly effective is that they are grounded in the vivid, emotionally-charged experiences described by the members themselves during the meetings. Thus, the individual is exposed not simply to abstract claims, but also to persuading examples, to the feelings of enthusiasm and excitement that accompany them, and to the group interpretation of these "proofs". It is this situation as a whole that explains why an individual can come to embrace rather unconventional beliefs in a relatively short period of time.

The Durkheimian taste of my argument should be now evident and echoes closely Collins' discussion of the rational choice approach to religion. Collins (1997) concurs with many substantive propositions and epistemological premises of Stark's theory (cf. Stark 1997). He approvingly emphasizes its generality, its deductive power and its testability. At the same time, Collins also stresses two observations that have found support in this work. First, he suggests that this-worldly benefits may play a more important role for religious behaviour than Stark and Bainbridge are willing to recognize: this applies to more mundane benefits, such as money or prestige, as well as to the emotional rewards related to the emergence of affective ties. Second, the behaviour and beliefs of rational actors are grounded in the network ties that usually put converts in contact with a new religion and hold members to their religious group. More generally, I find of some interest that, while rational choice and ritual interaction theory are usually perceived as rather contrasting theoretical perspectives that belong to competing traditions of sociological thought, in the subfield of the sociology of religion there seems to be an increasing awareness that these two perspectives may integrate each other (Collins 1997; Stark 1999). This paper is also meant to be an empirical contribution aimed at showing that this integration is feasible and, hopefully, fruitful.


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[1] Introvigne and Stark (2005) have documented the recent partial "deregulation" of the Italian religious economy, especially after the new agreement between the national government and the Catholic Church in 1984. This agreement has stimulated an increasing competition between Catholics and other religious groups and, according to Introvigne and Stark, it may be indirectly responsible of a recent religious revival in Italy. However, in spite of the increase of religious groups in Italy during the past decades, their members remain still a definitively marginal portion of the Italian population and the Catholic Church preserves some important competitive advantages over the other religious groups.

[2] This integration seems even more promising if one considers that Stark himself is ready to give a place in his theoretical model to the notion of "religious ritual" and to recognize that «our definition of religious ritual was informed by Collins definition of interaction rituals» (Stark, Finke 2000: 107). However, Stark reduces greatly the potential for the application of Collins' theory (see section 4), because he prefers to restrict the notion of religious ritual to the formal ceremonies of religious groups. On the other hand, Collins (2004: 49) has forcefully argued that ceremonies are only a small portion of social rituals: formality and stereotyped activity are indeed unnecessary ingredients of ritual interaction.

[3] This applies not only to the area of residence of the members, but also to their age, since I have visited groups of either mainly young, adult and old people. Furthermore, by visiting groups located in different areas, I could also experience some differences related to the different socio-economic contexts. I should say, however, that the observed similarities among the discussion groups seem to override to a considerable extent the variations associated with these factors.

[4] I should stress that, while the second part of this paper is explicitly inspired to Collins' analysis of interaction rituals, it is based on my own understanding of his theoretical model that Collins might not see as entirely appropriate. Moreover, we should keep in mind that Collins (2004: ch. 4, 2005) does not view rational calculation as a realistic micro-model – a claim that also many scholars working with rational choice theory would concur with (Lindenberg 1992; Ferejohn, Satz 1994). Indeed, Collins' analytical strategy tends to reduce as much as possible the space left to "cold" instrumental motivation (Barone 2005; Collins 2005).

[5] This is necessarily an extremely simplified account of doctrinal differences within Buddhism. For a discussion of the remarkable diversity of the practices and beliefs of the several Buddhist traditions, but also of the many commonalities and continuities among them, see Lopez (1995).

[6] Stark and Finke (2000) note that after wars, revolutions, natural disasters and other dramatic collective events, NRMs are more likely to emerge. They suggest that this is mainly due to the destructuring of the network of social relationships, that favours a fluidification of the religious economy. They argue that, under normal circumstances, most people do not convert nor reaffiliate because they wish to preserve their social relationships, therefore they do not risk their attachments by embracing non-conventional religious beliefs. In other words, religious conformity is simply explained as a rational investment in one's own social capital. Thus, when collective crises alter substantially social networks, conversion becomes less costly.

[7] For a long time, SG membership statistics have made reference to families, rather than to individuals.

[8] The following discussion is mainly concerned with the micro-theory of religious behaviour, much more than with its macro-level implications (i.e. "the religious economy model"), that have attracted most attention in current debates (Stark 1997; Iannacone 1994). Needless to say, the micro-level is closely intertwined to the functioning of the religious economies (see par. 4). I should also make clear that I do not mean this sketchy description as a full theoretical presentation of this perspective: I only wish to "isolate" some of its leading theoretical principles and to apply them to my case study. Finally, I deal mainly with Stark's formulation of this approach: we should keep in mind that, although it shares most core assumptions with the other rational choice models of religious behaviour, some non-negligible differences are also present.

[9] To be sure, the metaphor of the religious economy model is not meant to be offensive. This perspective simply suggests that people are able to make purposeful and meaningful choices also with respect to their religious beliefs. Its advocates are only interested in "explaining the human side of religion" (Stark, Finke 2000), but they deliberately  refuse to express any explicit or implicit judgement on the validity of religious beliefs (Stark, Finke 2000: ch. 1). In this exchange model, all that matters is that people believe that gods exist and place demands on humans, but the validity of this belief is of no relevance for this theory. 

[10] This means that workers can easily join the meetings after work, also because they will often have the opportunity to find a discussion group that meets near their workplace. At the same time, young people and adults do not "waste" their whole evening for the meeting, while the elderly have the possibility to come back home early.

[11] I leave aside in this work the internal disputes that characterized this religious movement for a short time in recent years and that seriously risked to harm its positive reputation, as documented by Macioti (2002). While also from my interviews there is evidence of some discriminatory and authoritarian practices against some SG members during the period 2000-2001, these practices have been now completely abandoned and those who promoted them have been gradually marginalized. Not surprisingly, these events caused many members to leave SG, or to invoke more transparency in dealing with internal dissent.

[12] Similar conclusions are reported by Wilson and Dobbelaere (1994) in the case of Great Britain and by Hammond and Machacek (1999) for the United States. These studies also confirm the low-tension orientation towards the mainstream culture and they find evidence of organizational tactics to ensure legitimacy to SG. It is clear, for example, that also in the United States SG has adopted a low-visibility approach, including recruitment strategy based almost exclusively on "warm contacts".

[13] It must be noted that Stark (2001: 621) is ready to recognize the existence of religions presenting impersonal entities, rather than gods with consciousness and desires. The former, however, do represent a rather problematic and uncomfortable bargaining partner for humans, according to his own exchange model. Suffice it to quote Stark and Finke's (2000: 97) general definition of religion as consisting of «very general explanations of existence, including the terms of exchange with a god or gods». Stark (2001: 621) further claims that «conceptions of supernatural are irrelevant to the moral order unless the supernatural is conceived of as a being- a thing having consciousness and desires» and that «participation in religious rites and rituals will have little or no independent effect on morality». Again, the case of SG does not accord well with his claim. As earlier mentioned, SG does not endorse a traditional morality but at the same time it actively promotes postmodern values. Moreover, the involvement in its collective rituals plays a crucial role for the internalization of these moral instances (see par. 5).

[14] In the light of our discussion concerning the expressive and integrative functions of religious groups dynamics , it  may be of some interest to mention Finke's observation that distinctive teachings on diet, sexual morality and so on are important also because they reinforce group identity and discourage nongroup involvement, while at the same time encouraging interaction with group members, which contributes to strengthen internal solidarity (Finke 2004:21). Stark (1987) also noticed that maintaining dense internal network relations is one of the essential prerequisites for the success of new religions.