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  An American Manifesto
Wednesday July 23, 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


What Liberals Think About Conservatives

[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. “Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists,” she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican


US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


Taking Responsibility

[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050


Society and State

For [the left] there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance.
David Cameron, Conference Speech 2008


Socialism equals Animism

Imagining that all order is the result of design, socialists conclude that order must be improvable by better design of some superior mind.
F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit


Sacrifice

[Every] sacrifice is an act of impurity that pays for a prior act of greater impurity... without its participants having to suffer the full consequences incurred by its predecessor. The punishment is commuted in a process that strangely combines and finesses the deep contradiction between justice and mercy.
Frederick Turner, Beauty: The Value of Values


Responsible Self

[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.


Religion, Property, and Family

But the only religions that have survived are those which support property and the family. Thus the outlook for communism, which is both anti-property and anti-family, (and also anti-religion), is not promising.
F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit


Racial Discrimination

[T]he way “to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis,” Brown II, 349 U. S., at 300–301, is to stop assigning students on a racial basis. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.
Roberts, C.J., Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District


Postmodernism

A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ’merely relative’, is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.
Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy


 

©2007 Christopher Chantrill