Why do more Americans go to church regularly than people in any other country in the world? It’s been that way for decades. Now, sociologists have started to look for explanations—and the most likely one applies the principles of free-market capitalism to religion. The free market, the argument goes, has permitted religious groups that adopt successful strategies to expand, and to do so at the expense of those groups that fail. In contrast, Europe—with its history of established churches, each holding a monopoly within its state—has been progressively secularized. This has resulted from the lack of competition in the religious marketplace, leaving declining, unattractive religions as the only options for potential believers. Because the new school of sociologists of religion has borrowed ideas from the rational-choice theories of economics, it has been dubbed the “rational choice” school.
The old story about the cause of decline in religious practice is termed the “secularization thesis” and was advanced by sociologists Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Bryan Wilson. This thesis posited that religious belief is linked with the way of life of traditional agrarian societies and that industrialization and technical advance inevitably cause religion to decline. Instead of praying for rain, farmers turn to irrigation and fertilizers; instead of praying for a return to health, the sick take antibiotics. Religion’s role in everyday life becomes smaller as people develop this-worldly solutions to their problems. Skeptics who have questioned the secularization thesis have claimed that it reflects, rather than any hard evidence, the antireligious bias of those who maintained it: The founders of the fields of anthropology and sociology were hostile to religion, and they wanted their new disciplines to play a role in undermining and replacing it.
The rational-choice school goes in a new direction. It points out that evidence from America falsifies the secularization thesis. In The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark show that, at the time of the American Revolution, less than one-fifth of the American population claimed church membership; the rate rose to more than one-third in the mid-nineteenth century and to more than one-half today. This is what they refer to as the “churching of America.” (Together with William Bainbridge and Laurence R. Iannaccone, Finke and Stark are the main figures in the rational-choice school.)
In the United States, then, religion actually grew with industrialization and technical advance—a fact that falsifies the claim that technological and scientific development must lead to religious decline. Following the lead of sociologist Robert Wuthnow, Stark, Iannaccone, and Finke attribute the popularity of the secularization thesis among social scientists to the fact that the social sciences are less scientific than the hard sciences, with the consequence that “their semi-religious reliance on non-testable claims puts them in direct competition with traditional religions.”
The rational-choice school explains American exceptionalism by offering a general theory of religious behavior. The school’s theory has two principal components. The first, a market model of religious competition, is used to explain the level of religiosity in societies. The second, a supply-side analysis of the success of particular religions, focuses, in Stark’s words, on “the behavior of religious firms rather than only upon religious consumers.”
The market model of religious competition asserts that, when a religion enjoys a monopoly in a given market, its leaders, lacking the spur of competition, will not try very hard to make religious practice an attractive option. But when a competitive market in religions replaces a monopoly, not only will the spur of competition be present, there also will be a process of natural selection among religions, with the more attractive religions gaining at the expense of the less attractive ones. This is the model that the new school uses to explain American religious exceptionalism.
Before the American Revolution, most of the American colonies had established churches, and Americans were not very religious. After the Revolution, these churches, no longer established, had to raise their game in order to compete for members. Churches that did not offer much to people shrank, and churches that were attractive grew. This competitive process made the average church more effective at getting members. This, in turn, led to a rise in religious practice in the United States throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Europe, by contrast, churches maintained an established or quasi-established status until the twentieth century, which resulted in steadily diminishing attendance.
Because it offers a good explanation for American religious exceptionalism, Finke and Stark’s market model represents a considerable achievement. As a universal explanation for the strength of religious practice within societies, however, it does not fit the data. The market model predicts that societies in which one religion has a monopoly will be religiously lax. But societies as varied as the Byzantine Empire, sixteenth-century Spain, Tibet under the Dalai Lama, Malta until the late twentieth century, and many Islamic countries throughout history were not lacking in religious fervor. In general, prior to the American Revolution, free markets in religion were scarce or nonexistent, but religiously fervent societies, while not universal, were not uncommon.
Nor is it true that a free market in religion always leads to increased religiosity. Most areas of Western Europe have not had an established church for over a hundred years. The religiosity of these lands was significantly higher when they did possess established churches, and the removal of establishment has not produced any of the positive effects that the free-market component of the rational-choice school predicts. Stark and Iannaccone’s claim that some degree of religious monopoly has persisted in these countries (they cite, as an example, Belgium’s pre-1981 ban on sending Jehovah’s Witnesses publications through the mail) does not provide a convincing explanation for the failure of the free-market model in Europe. Such remnants of religious establishment do not, after all, impose a significant cost on belonging to religions that are not the established one.
In his books Fragmented Gods (1987), Unknown Gods (1993), and Restless Gods (2003), Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby has shown that the Canadian experience provides particularly clear evidence against the universal efficacy of a free market in religion. Such a free market has existed in Canada since the British conquest in 1759, and, until the post–World War II period, Canadian religious observance seemed to confirm the free-market model. As recently as 1956, Canadians were considerably more religious than Americans, with an average claimed weekly church-attendance rate of 61 percent. After 1956, however, the rate of reported weekly church attendance in Canada fell below the American rate and has now stabilized at about 25 percent. According to a poll taken in 2009 for the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, 38 percent of Americans now say they attend religious services at least once a week. This figure is consistent with the 40 percent level that has held steady in the United States since the beginning of Gallup polls in the 1930s. (Because people may be inclined to claim that they attend church more often than they actually do, there is some question about how accurate figures for church attendance are. If we assume, however, that the degree of exaggeration is similar in both Canada and the United States, these figures still can be used to compare the two countries.) The drop in religious observance in Canada did not happen as a result of the existence of an established religion. As Bibby has found, the fall resulted largely from Canadians’ continuing to have some attachment to a religion but ceasing to practice it.
The explanation of the failure of the free-market model in Western Europe and Canada probably lies in the fact that, for such a model to apply, people have to think of a religious commitment as analogous to a purchasing decision, and to think of different religions as analogous to competing sellers of goods. Although this sort of thinking may be true of many or most Americans, it is not universal. Belonging to a particular religion often has been thought of as analogous to (or part of) membership in a family or an ethnic group, neither of which can be chosen or renounced. In Canada, for example, movement from one religious family to another is extremely rare; Canadians, as Bibby has found, do not act as consumers in a religious market.
The second main component of the rational-choice school—its supply-side analysis of the success of religions—offers a more successful model than does the free-market component. The supply-side approach to macroeconomics emerged in the 1970s, in response to the failure of then dominant Keynesian ideas, to cope with a combination of inflation and low economic growth. The Keynesian approach identified the management of demand as the key to a prosperous economy. The supply-siders insisted, on the contrary, that economic policy should focus on the supply of goods and services. They recommended reduction of the then prevalent high marginal tax rates—70 percent or more—on the grounds that such tax rates fostered inefficient economic activity and discouraged work. The rational-choice school took from this school the idea of focusing on the supply of religion rather than the demand for it. One claim of the supply-side analysis is fairly obvious: Religious practice involves effort, and reward for this effort largely depends on the existence and activity of the supernatural being or beings toward whom the effort is directed. To motivate people to make this effort, a religion must place great stress on the existence and power of these supernatural beings. Thus, the more overtly and insistently otherworldly a religion is, the more successful it will be.
The other claim of the supply-side model is more interesting and surprising: Religions succeed if they make distinctive and demanding requirements of their adherents. The rewards of religion are supernatural and, therefore, unseen. Religious commitment thus involves taking a risk, and one’s perception of this risk is lessened if the other members of one’s religious community are zealous and committed. A high average level of enthusiasm also makes the collective activities far more rewarding; compare, for example, singing hymns in a small and listless congregation with singing as part of a large, enthusiastic group.
Zeal and commitment are also necessary to lessen the “free rider” problem that plagues all voluntary groups—the problem of members who take the benefits of membership without contributing themselves. One can add to these considerations the fact that much of the appeal of religion comes from its providing moral principles with which to structure one’s life. Such principles are far more effective when one sees that most of the people around one are following them. A community of people who, by and large, follow the principles of a morally demanding religion is a far more effective moral educator than any amount of preaching—a factor that is especially important for parents. Thus, a church has to set high standards for membership in order to be attractive, and the churches that set high standards are the churches that will grow. Those with low standards will shrink because low standards reduce the rewards for religious commitment below the required cost in time and effort. This is why, as Finke and Stark assert, “the churching of America was accomplished by aggressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness.”
In addition to presenting the supply-side analysis, Finke and Stark offer an explanation of why religions tend to abandon the winning recipe of success:
Because of the long-term exchange relations that religious organizations require, people are forever paying the costs in the here and now while most of the rewards are to be realized elsewhere and later. As a result, humans are prone to backslide, to get behind on their payments. . . . Thus, other things being equal, people will always be in favor of a modest reduction in their costs. In this fashion, humans begin to bargain with their churches for lower tension and fewer sacrifices. They usually succeed, both because it is those with the most influence—the clergy and the leading laity—who most desire to lower the level of sacrifice and because each reduction seems so small and engenders widespread approval.
This process leads churches to lower the standards required for membership. This pleases people in the short run, but in the long run, after the effects of lowered standards make themselves felt, it drives them away.
Finke and Stark have shown how the supply-side model fits the American case: Mainstream Protestant churches that make few demands of their members are declining, and more demanding evangelical or Pentecostal churches are growing. Unlike the free-market model, however, this analysis fits all the data, not only the American case.
The supply-side analysis explains why, in 1945, at the close of the Second World War, Canadians were substantially more religious than Americans: Canadian churches were stricter. An example of Canadian Protestant strictness is the furor that erupted among Canadian Methodists at the time of the First World War, when it was made known that card playing was widespread among Canadian troops. A formative event in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada was the arrival of priests fleeing the French Revolution. These men provided much of the clergy in Quebec and stamped the French Canadian Catholic Church with an outlook that was strict and conservative even by nineteenth-century Catholic standards. One might expect that such strictness will put people off religion, but in Canada the opposite happened: Strictness led to high religious observance, for reasons that the rational-choice theory explains. After the Second World War, however, Canadian Protestants and Catholics liberalized to a greater extent than did their Americans counterparts. As a result, Canadian churches had less to offer their members than American churches did, and the Canadian rate of religious practice fell below that of the United States—again, as the rational-choice theory predicts.
The situation in Western Europe is parallel. There, the main event to be underlined is the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and the changes that were implemented in its name. The postconciliar changes (and, to a debated extent, the conciliar documents themselves) tried to erase, as far as possible, many distinctions between Catholics and non-Catholics. This involved the abandonment of strict rules and distinctive dress for clergy and religious, the replacement of a distinctive liturgy by one that resembled Protestant worship, the legitimation of dissent on moral teaching, and the downplaying of strict Catholic doctrine in religious instruction. According to the rational-choice theory, these were the best possible steps that could have been taken to diminish European Catholicism, and this prediction has been confirmed by events. The most vigorous religious movement in Europe today is extremist Islam—a form of religion whose success is also predicted by the rational-choice theory.
The abandonment of demands and distinctiveness by the Catholic Church has had a particularly devastating effect on priests and nuns, a fact commented on by Finke and Stark, who remark that “many of the most distinctive aspects of Catholic liturgy, theology, and practice, abandoned by the Council, turned out to have been crucial for generating and sustaining vocations, especially vocations sufficient to meet the high costs of Catholic religious life.” This effect can be seen throughout the world, not just in Europe, and further confirms the supply-side analysis. Finke and Stark predict that “no longer in tension with the surrounding culture, the church will generate less commitment from its membership and will gradually fail to compete with a new generation of upstart sects.” In evaluating this prediction, it is important to remember that the secularization school and the rational-choice school are the only serious positions in the sociology of religion. There is no sociological theory or sociological evidence to support the claim that religions can preserve or increase their influence while lowering their standards and submitting to the society around them.
As far as I know, the important discoveries of the rational-choice school are completely unknown to religious leaders. How do these leaders’ policies stack up in the light of these discoveries? Muslims, whose extremism is increasing, are doing the right thing, as are Hasidic Jews and Protestants who preserve their otherworldly doctrines and strict standards. Liberal Protestant denominations generally seem not to be salvageable: It is easier for believers who seek stricter standards to move to another church than it is to try to reimpose such standards on a resistant institution. Benedict XVI has made some movement toward a revival of Catholic distinctiveness by encouraging traditionalism, but the rational-choice theory does not predict that this will cause a general revival within the Church.
What will be necessary for such a revival is for strict standards to be required, not just permitted. This, however, would be antithetical to the pope’s approach, which focuses on gentle persuasion. On a brighter note, Benedict’s attempts to clarify the teachings of the Second Vatican Council open possibilities. In the decades since the council, its teachings have been widely understood as mandating an abandonment of Catholic distinctiveness and a virtual surrender to the modern secular world. What is needed now, in contrast, is an interpretation of council teachings that rejects the currently prevailing understanding and upholds traditional Catholic distinctiveness. If such an interpretation is not vigorously enforced as well as promulgated, however, no Catholic revival is to be expected. Instead, the pressures of secularism and competing religions will continue to erode Catholic membership. This is what the supply-side analysis predicts, and its predictions cannot be faulted so far. In short, if the Catholic Church is to thrive, a revival of zeal and reimposition of discipline within it is urgently necessary.
John Lamont teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame Australia.