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  An American Manifesto
Thursday August 21, 2014 
by Christopher Chantrill Follow chrischantrill on Twitter

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Rodney Stark

by Christopher Chantrill
April 11, 2005

AT LEAST since the Enlightenment, most western intellectuals have anticipated the death of religion as eagerly as ancient Israel awaited the Messiah.”  Thus do sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge begin The Future of Religion.  But it turns out that the intellectuals have a problem.  Religion has not died out.  It has persisted, confounding the predictions of the experts.  Perhaps it is time, Stark and his collaborators suggest, to create a sociology of religion that treats religion not as a “superstition” or a pathology but as an integral part of being human. 

They decided to develop their own typology, dividing the religious world into churches, sects, and cults.  They picked up a definition developed by Benton Johnson in 1971: “A church is a religious group that accepts the social environment in which it exists.  A sect is a religious group that rejects the social environment in which it exists.”  In other words, a church is in “low tension” with the surrounding society whereas a sect is often in “high tension” with society.  But what about cults?  They are often in high tension with society, just like sects.  So Stark and Bainbridge decided to define a sect as a “schismatic group” that claims to be “the authentic, purged, refurbished version of the faith from which [it] split.”  A cult is something new, incorporating “a new revelation or insight justifying the claim that it is different, new, ‘more advanced.’”

The Churching of America: 1776-2005 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark decided to develop “quantitative evidence for the study of American religion” that could answer questions about the extent of religious observance and the changes in church membership rates over the years.  What they found was that, starting at a reported low ebb in 1776, religious adherence in the United States has increased dramatically over the years.  In 1776 only 17 percent of Americans were religious adherents.  By 1980 a full 62 percent adhered to a church.  So much for secularization.  What had happened?

The United States, it turns out, is not just the home of the written constitution, the separation of powers, and the free market system.  It has also developed the bold and persistent tradition of religious entrepreneurism, a subculture of people that have believed that the people of the United States could and should be saved.  By 1800 they had already perfected the system of “religious revivals” that continues to this day.  Between 1776 and 1850 they drove the rate of adherence from 17 percent to 34 percent, and most of that growth was in the upstart Methodist Church that increased its market share from 2.5 percent to 34.2 percent.  After 1850 the Irish took over and applied exactly the same principles to the Catholic Church.  Only they did not talk about “revivals” but “parish missions.” In the United States today, about 62 percent of Americans adhere to a church.

Acts of Faith Rodney Stark and Roger Finke follow the advice of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises and use economics as a subset of a general theory of human action.  They analyze churches and religious movements as if they were religious firms supplying religious products and services to religious consumers.  They take the opportunity to present their approach to the study of religion as a “new paradigm” using Rational Choice theory and to refute the claims of the “old paradigm” that religion is “false and harmful,” that “religion is doomed,” and that religion is an “epiphenomenon,” a mere manifestation of “more fundamental social phenomena.”  So they attempt

to demonstrate that it is possible to produce an adequate micro theory of religion based on rational assumptions.  The single difference we acknowledge between exchanges involving only humans and exchanges when one of the partners is a god is that the latter can involve far more valuable payoffs.  Aside from that, in their dealings with the gods, people bargain, shop around, procrastinate, weigh costs and benefits, skip installment payments, and even cheat.

Then they apply their theory of costs and benefits to the collapse in vocations in the Catholic Church that occurred immediately after Vatican II. They find that the collapse was caused by the removal of the substantial benefits that the religious, priests and nuns, enjoyed in the old dispensation when they had been told that they “were in a superior state of holiness.  Now, despite their vows, they were just like everyone else.”

They apply their idea of “tension” between church and society to develop a model of the religious economy, with various market niches from the “very strict” to the “ultraliberal.”  The various niches all fall into a Bell Curve, like any market, where the big, mass-market niches fall in the middle, the “moderate” and “conservative” niches where the costs and benefits to religious membership are moderate.  Most people, it turns out want a religion with moderate costs and moderate benefits.  Only a few people want a religion with high costs and benefits, or will bother to belong to a church that makes very small demands upons them.

This is all bracing stuff, and tremendous fun if you are a conservative who loves to see liberal oxen gored.  There are more books to check out, including Stark’s latest, Exploring the Religious Life.   Check out his full bibliography here. To take a look at the other side of the street, and Stark’s sometime nemesis, read Steve Bruce’s God Is Dead.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.  His Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.

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 TAGS


Action

The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


Chappies

“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison


China and Christianity

At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing


Churches

[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust


Class War

In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, “The Scientist as Rebel”


Conservatism

Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority — the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says ‘we should...’.
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity


Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph


Conversion

“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh


Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


 

©2007 Christopher Chantrill