Churches subject to competition, scholars say

Pluralism makes pastors work harder, sociologists contend

April 15, 2001|By Chris Shea | Chris Shea,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Drive down 16th Street in Washington, and you will see evidence of the religious diversity that has struck visitors to America since Toqueville.

Church after church will flash by: Grace Lutheran, the National Church of the Nazarene, Trinity AME Zion, All Souls Unitarian. And on and on.

To a small group of sociologists, the reason there are so many kinds of houses of worship is no different from the reason there are so many brands of detergent or toothpaste at the supermarket: economics.

Competition, and supply and demand, shape the earthly aspects of religion - its popularity and how it is delivered - they say. And people in pews are fickle consumers, ready to bolt to a competing brand if the current one seems stale or uninspired.

This economic approach has led them to conclude that competition, rather than undermining belief, actually spurs it. Not only does it make the clergy work harder, they say, but it also means there is a greater likelihood that any one person will find a church that suits his spiritual tendencies, whether New Age or biblical literalist.

"It can be demonstrated that in any society there is a distribution of religious tastes and concerns," said Rodney Stark, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and a leading proponent of what is known as the religious economies theory.

`The basic point'

"The basic point is that any society would be better served by many different religions focusing on - if you want to use market language - different market segments. I'm sure we drink more soda pop because there are 20 companies out there, rather than just Coke." Why wouldn't religion be the same, he asks.

Religious pluralism, Stark and others say, explains why the United States is so religiously vibrant, while much of Western Europe has seen a decline in interest in traditional churches.

But both the economic language and the pluralism argument have upset many in the field. Steve Bruce, a sociologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, has written that the sociology of religion is suffering from "the malign influence of a small clique of U.S. sociologists" who are peddling daft ideas. And Mark Chaves, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, calls the pluralism theory a "house of cards," collapsing under close scrutiny.

The religious economies scholars, who focus on the variety of Christian denominations, are trying to tear down the view of pluralism that has reigned in the sociology of religion for a half-century. It was perhaps most famously articulated by Peter Berger in his 1969 book, "The Sacred Canopy."

Berger, now director of the Institute on Religion and World Affairs at Boston University, wrote that faith was once like an awning that sheltered all of society, offering citizens a common certainty. But as tolerance opened the door to different varieties, the canopy tore. Certainty could not help but decline, and faith followed. Berger made his case through broad historical and cultural analysis.

A woolly picture?

But Stark and Roger Finke, a sociologist at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of "Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion" (University of California, 2000), argue that this big-picture sociological view is often woolly and unscientific. They say, too, that a new theory is needed to make sense of America.

In the United States today, some 40 percent of adults claim to attend church weekly, compared with 10 percent in Britain and 4 percent in Scandinavia.

With some 1,350 denominations and sects, according to the Encyclopedia of American Religions, the United States is at once one of the most pluralistic and one of the most religious modern societies. Those facts have forced sociologists to rethink the idea that religion would die out when neighbors stopped believing in the same God.

Adam Smith drew some links between competition and religious commitment in "The Wealth of Nations" 225 years ago, but most scholars ignored them. Stark and others started using economic language to describe religion in the mid-1980s.

The new brand of thinking started making waves, however, in 1988, when he and Finke published an article in the American Sociological Review. Using data from an unusually thorough survey of religious behavior in 1906, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, they explored the link between religious diversity and commitment. (Such information is no longer gathered by the government.)

The secularization thesis held that religion would decline most rapidly in cities, because it would be impossible for urbanites not to notice that their neighbors headed off to different churches. But Stark and Finke found that rural areas had attendance rates of 50 percent, while some urban areas had rates as high as 60 percent.

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