(Don’t Give Me That) Old-Time Religion

March 11, 2009

By way of Jack Cafferty, a recent study purports to show that lack of religiosity, while still uncommon in America, is on the rise:

More Americans are saying they have no religion — according to a wide ranging study done by Trinity College.

The survey shows 15 percent of those polled say they have no religion; that’s up from about eight percent in 1990. Northern New England and the Pacific Northwest are the least religious regions. And the number of Americans with no religion rose in every single state.

Organized religion seems to be playing a smaller role in many people’s lives. 30 percent of married couples say they didn’t have a religious wedding ceremony, and 27 percent say they don’t want a religious funeral.

Nonetheless almost 70 percent of those surveyed say they believe there is a God; and another 12 percent say they believe in a higher power but not the God of traditional organized religions.

Some suggest that the rise in evangelical Christianity is actually contributing to the rejection of religion by other Americans. The survey shows about one in three are evangelicals. The number of evangelicals is actually increasing while the number of Christians overall is declining.

The hypothesis that evangelical Christians are crowding out others from organized religion is an interesting one, and not too common in explanations of religiosity’s decline. Typically, religious dynamics are modeled as reacting to non-religious social processes. The classic example of such a model is the argument that increased scientific knowledge depresses religiosity. Another hypothesis (discussed by Jamelle here) is that the rise of the welfare state engenders a decline in religiosity. In these and other models, religiosity is exogenously determined: the religious behavior of any given individual is held to be affected by scientific or economic trends which lie beyond the influence of that individual.

The “evangelical crowd-out” model, if may I call it that*, is a new sort of beast. Now, endogenous models of religiosity – that is, theories in which one person’s religiosity is determined by another’s – are not entirely novel. In the economics of religion, Laurence Iannaccone and his colleagues have been advancing for over a decade models in which religiosity is explained either as the outcome of an individual’s past religiosity, or of the religiosity of that individual’s fellow believers. The evangelical crowd-out hypothesis separates itself from this distinguished line of research in its lack of an explicit rational-choice foundation.

To be sure, there may be rational or quasi-rational reasons for other Christians to let go of their faith in response to the evangelicals’ rise. One possibility is that evangelicals’ prominence is increasing the stigma associated with being a Christian. Another possibility is that the risk of being confused for an evangelical grows as evangelicals form a larger proportion of all Christians. But this does not seem to be the argument here. The “crowd-out” non-evangelical Christians are experiencing seems to be based less in spiritual economics and more in an ethical response to evangelical Christianity. The scope, too, is greater than the one in traditional economics-of-religion models, which deal with households or single sects. Here, the religious practices of another group – one that lapsed believers may seldom interact with – are affecting these (ex-)believers’ own religiosity.

I have been describing the argument that evangelicals are crowding out non-evangelical Christians from organized religion as a hypothesis, a model, a theory. In truth, I am either not familiar with or there does not yet exist a formal sociological theory of religion which would encompass this idea. If you know of an actual model which depicts individuals’ religiosity as a function of socially distant religious practices, I would be glad to hear about it. Otherwise, do suggest what such a model might look like. How should the social sciences generalize from the observation that evangelical Christianity is driving non-evangelicals out of the broader religion?

My own shabby attempt: ethically-motivated exit from organized religion should increase with the seriousness and pervasiveness of other believers’ misconduct, and should decrease with the social distance from the misbehaving other believers. This formulation explains why, for instance, Catholics might have left the church over the misbehavior of their priests, but not over William Bennett‘s gambling; and why Protestant exits were probably not motivated by either one. However, “ethically-motivated exit” demands a clear definition, and the proposition as a whole may be too limited in scope.

* Emerging Christian attributes the idea to Mark Silk, but I have been unable to find his (or anyone else’s) original statement of this theory. Silk is quoted at greater length on the topic here.


2 Responses to “(Don’t Give Me That) Old-Time Religion”

  1. Stephen Says:

    CNN has the relevant Mark Silk quote.

  2. grandmute Says:

    Thanks; I wasn’t sure if the quote had been lifted from an interview or from a written document.

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