A few years ago, a debate between atheists and religious believers spilled out from the halls of academia and the pews of America’s churches and into the public spotlight. A crop of atheist manifestos led the charge, surmounting and holding the tops of the nonfiction bestseller lists. This offensive brought on an outpouring of religious rebuttals. As both sides exchanged spirited volleys, accusations were leveled; myths, stereotypes, and strawmen arguments were perpetuated; and bitter hostility filled the air. Today many of these misconceptions and myths linger on, along with the generally acrimonious spirit of the debate.
In America’s Blessings, distinguished researcher Rodney Stark seeks to clear the air of this hostility and debunk many of the debate’s most widely perpetuated misconceptions by drawing from an expansive pool of sociological findings. Looking at the measurable effects of religious faith and practice on American society, Stark rises above the fray and focuses exclusively on facts. His findings may surprise many, atheists and believers alike.
Starting with a historical overview, Stark traces America’s religious roots from the founding of the country up through the present day, showing that religiosity in America has never been consistent, static, or monolithic. Interestingly, he finds that religious practice is now more prevalent than ever in America, despite any claims to the contrary. From here, Stark devotes whole chapters to unpacking the latest research on how religion affects different facets of modern American life, including crime, family life, sexuality, mental and physical health, sophistication, charity, and overall prosperity. The cumulative effect is that when translated into comparisons with western European nations, the United States comes out on top again and again. Thanks in no small part to America’s rich religious culture, the nation has far lower crime rates, much higher levels of charitable giving, better health, stronger marriages, and less suicide, to note only a few of the benefits.
In the final chapter, Stark assesses the financial impact of these religious realities. It turns out that belief benefits the American economy—and all 300 million citizens, believer and nonbeliever alike—by a conservative estimate of $2.6 trillion a year. Despite the atheist outcry against religion, the remarkable conclusion is clear: all Americans, from the most religious among us to our secular neighbors, really ought to count our blessings.
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About the Author
Rodney Stark is one of the leading authorities on the sociology of religion. For many years, the Pulitzer Prize nominee was professor of sociology and professor of comparative religion at the University of Washington. In 2004 he became Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences and codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He has authored more than 150 scholarly articles and 32 books, including several widely used sociology textbooks and best-selling titles like The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, and The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.
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How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists
By Rodney Stark
Templeton PressCopyright © 2012 Rodney Stark
All rights reserved.
Creating Religious America
* * *
MOST PEOPLE probably believe that Colonial America was far more religious than the nation is today—their impressions strongly shaped by pictures of Puritans dressed in somber clothing on their way to church. But most colonists were not Puritans; Puritans were not even a majority of those aboard the Mayflower. In 1776 the overwhelming majority of colonists in America did not even belong to a local church. Only about 17 percent did so, and even in New England only 22 percent belonged. As for the somber Puritans, they wore plain, drab clothing only on Sunday. On other days they tended to favor bright colors. Those who "could afford it wore crimson waistcoats and expensive cloaks," and the women wore jewelry and very fancy clothing at appropriate times. Moreover, from 1761 through 1800, a third (33.7 percent) of all first births in New England occurred after less than nine months of marriage, so single women in Colonial New England were more likely to engage in premarital sex than to attend church.
The very low level of religious participation that existed in the thirteen colonies merely reflected that the settlers brought with them the low level that prevailed in Europe. Then, as now, the monopoly state churches of Europe, fully supported by taxes and therefore having no need to arouse public support, were very poorly attended. This situation was not a new development. Contrary to another popular myth, medieval Europeans seldom went to church and were, at most, barely Christian. That state of affairs was not changed by the Reformation, which simply replaced poorly attended Catholic churches with poorly attended Protestant monopoly state churches.
In addition, some of the larger Colonial denominations, such as the Episcopalians and Lutherans, were overseas branches of state churches and not only displayed the lack of effort typical of such establishments but were also remarkable for sending disreputable clergy to minister to the colonies. As the celebrated Edwin S. Gaustad noted, there was constant grumbling by Episcopalian (Anglican) vestrymen "about clergy that left England to escape debts or wives or onerous duties, seeing [America] as a place of retirement or refuge." The great Colonial evangelist George Whitefield noted in his journal that it would be better "that people had no minister than such as are generally sent over ... who, for the most part, lead very bad examples."
In addition, most colonies suffered from having a legally established denomination, supported by taxes. The Episcopalians were the established church in New York, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The Congregationalists (Puritans) were established in New England. There was no established church in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, and not surprisingly these two colonies had higher membership rates than did any other colony.
Therein lies a clue as to the rise of the amazing levels of American piety: competition creates energetic churches. As Adam Smith explained in 1776, established religions, being monopolies, inevitably are lax and lazy. In contrast, according to Smith, clergy who must depend upon their members for support usually exhibit far greater "zeal and industry" than those who are provided for by law. History is full of examples wherein a kept clergy "reposing themselves upon their benefices, had neglected to keep up the fervour of faith and devotion in the great body of the people; and having given themselves up to indolence, were become altogether incapable of making any vigorous defence even of their own establishment." Smith went on to note that the clergy of monopoly churches often become "men of learning and elegance," but they have "no other resource than to call upon the civil magistrate to persecute, destroy, or drive out their adversaries." Smith's claims were fully demonstrated by the weakness of European Christianity. But the lazy colonial monopolies did not survive in the United States, being replaced by a religious free market in which Smith's analysis was fully confirmed.
Pluralism and Piety
Following the Revolutionary War, state religious establishments were discontinued (although the Congregationalists held on as the established church of Massachusetts until 1833), and even in 1776 there was substantial pluralism building up everywhere. This increased rapidly with the appearance of many new Protestant sects—most of them of local origins. With all of these denominations placed on an equal footing, intense competition arose among the churches for member support, and the net result of their combined efforts was a dramatic increase in Americans' religious participation. By 1850 a third of Americans belonged to a local congregation. By the start of the twentieth century, half of Americans belonged, and today about 70 percent are affiliated with a local church.
From the early days, people generally knew that competitive pluralism accounted for the increasingly great differences in the piety of Americans and Europeans. The German nobleman Francis Grund, who arrived in Boston in 1827, noted that establishment makes the clergy "indolent and Lazy," because
a person provided for cannot, by the rules of common sense, be supposed to work as hard as once who has to exert himself for a living.... Not only have Americans a greater number of clergymen than, in proportion to the population, can be found on the Continent or in England; but they have not one idler amongst them; all of them being obliged to exert themselves for the spiritual welfare of their respective congregations. The Americans, therefore, enjoy a three-fold advantage: they have more preachers; they have more active preachers, and they have cheaper preachers than can be found in any part of Europe.
Another German, the militant atheist Karl T. Griesinger, complained in 1852 that the separation of church and state in America fueled religious efforts: "Clergymen in America [are] like other businessmen; they must meet competition and build up a trade.... Now it is clear ... why attendance is more common here than anywhere else in the world."
But competition did not benefit all of the American denominations, as can be seen in Table 1.1; some were unable (or unwilling) to compete. It would be very misleading to compute market shares in 1776 and 1850 as a percentage of church members since the rate of church membership precisely doubled during this period. This problem is eliminated by basing market shares on the entire population, churched and unchurched. That also takes into account the rapid growth of the population during this same period. When population growth is ignored, all denominations appear to have been quite successful; even the Congregationalists nearly trebled their numbers, and the Episcopalians more than did so. But when market shares are examined, it becomes obvious that the Congregationalists and Episcopalians had suffered catastrophic losses. The Presbyterians had held their own. The Baptists had made an immense gain (from 29 per 1,000 to 70), and the Methodists had achieved an incredible share of the religious marketplace, going from 2 per 1,000 to 116. During this era the Roman Catholics grew, too.
Oddly, the recognition that competition among religious groups was the dynamic behind the ever-rising levels of American religious participation withered away in the twentieth century as social scientists began to reassert the charges long leveled against pluralism by monopoly religions: that disputes among religious groups undercut the credibility of all, hence religion is strongest where it enjoys an unchallenged monopoly. This view was formulated into elegant sociology by the prominent sociologist Peter Berger, who repeatedly argued that pluralism inevitably destroys the plausibility of all religions because only where a single faith prevails can there exist a "sacred canopy" that spreads a common outlook over an entire society, inspiring universal confidence and assent. As Berger explained, "the classical task of religion" is to construct "a common world within which all of social life receives ultimate meaning binding on everybody." Thus, by ignoring the stunning evidence of American history, Berger and his many supporters concluded that religion was doomed by pluralism, and that to survive, therefore, modern societies would need to develop new, secular canopies.
But Berger was quite wrong, as even he eventually admitted very gracefully. It seems to be the case that people don't need all-embracing sacred canopies, but are sufficiently served by "sacred umbrellas," to use Christian Smith's wonderful image. Smith explained that people don't need to agree with all their neighbors in order to sustain their religious convictions, they only need a set of like-minded friends; pluralism does not challenge the credibility of religions because groups can be entirely committed to their faith despite the presence of others committed to another. Thus, in a study of Catholic charismatics, Mary Jo Neitz found their full awareness of religious choices "did not undermine their own beliefs. Rather they felt they had 'tested' the belief system and been convinced of its superiority." And in her study of secular Jewish women who converted to Orthodoxy, Lynn Davidman stressed how the "pluralization and multiplicity of choices available in the contemporary United States can actually strengthen Jewish communities." A national survey conducted in 1999 found that 40 percent of Americans have "shopped around" before selecting their present church, and these shoppers have a higher rate of attendance than do those who did not shop.
The Poverty of Permissive Religion
But if they have been forced to retreat from the charge that pluralism is incompatible with faith, critics of pluralism now advance spurious notions about the consequences of competition for religious authenticity. The new claim is that competition must force religious groups to become more permissive—that in an effort to attract supporters, churches will be forced to vie with one another to offer less demanding faiths, to ask for less in the way of member sacrifices and levels of commitment. Here, too, it was Peter Berger who made the point first, and most effectively. Competition among American faiths, he wrote, has placed all churches at the mercy of "consumer preference." Consumers prefer "religious products that can be made consonant with secularized consciousness.... Religious contents ... modified in a secularizing direction...may lead to a deliberate excision of all or nearly all 'supernatural' elements from the religious tradition ... [or] it may just mean that the 'supernatural' elements are de-emphasized or pushed into the background, while the institution is 'sold' under the label of values congenial to secularized consciousness." If so, then the successful churches will be those that minimize the need to accept miraculous, supernatural elements of faith, that impose few moral requirements, and which are content with minimal levels of participation and support. In this way, pluralism leads to the ruination of traditional religion. Thus did Oxford's Bryan Wilson dismiss the vigor of American religion on grounds of "the generally accepted superficiality of much religion in American society," smugly presuming that somehow greater depth was being achieved in the empty churches of Britain and the Continent. In similar fashion, John Burdick proposed that competition among religions reduces their offerings to "purely opportunistic efforts." But it's not so. The conclusion that competition among faiths will favor "cheap" religious organizations mistakes price for value. As is evident in most consumer markets, people do not usually rush to purchase the cheapest model or variety, but attempt to maximize by selecting the item that offers the most for their money—that offers the best value. In the case of religion, people do not flock to faiths that ask the least of them, but to those that credibly offer the most religious rewards for the sacrifices required to qualify.
From Mainline to Sideline
Not so many years ago, a select set of American denominations was always referred to as the Protestant "mainline": the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, American Baptists, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and, more recently, the Evangelical Lutherans. As the name "mainline" suggests, these denominations had such social cachet that when Americans rose to prominence they often shed their old religious affiliation and joined one of these bodies. Today, although media bias and ignorance often result in these groups still being identified as the mainline, that designation is very much out of date; the old mainline has rapidly faded to the religious periphery, a trend first noticed about forty years ago.
In 1972 Dean M. Kelley, a Methodist clergyman and an executive of the National Council of Churches, provoked a storm of criticism by pointing out a most unwelcome fact: "In the latter years of the 1960s something remarkable happened in the United States: for the first time in the nation's history most of the major church groups stopped growing and began to shrink." Kelley was being somewhat diplomatic when he referred to "most ... major church groups," knowing full well that the decline was limited to the mainline Protestant bodies.
Kelley's book stirred up angry and bitter denials. Writing in the Christian Century, Carl Bangs accused him of using deceptive statistics, even though Kelley had relied entirely on the official statistics reported by each denomination. Everett L. Perry, research director of the Presbyterian Church, called Kelley an ideologue who "marshaled data ... to support his point of view." Martin E. Marty dismissed the declines as but a momentary reflection of the "cultural crisis" of the sixties. If so, then the declines should have been momentary as well. In fact, the declines accelerated, as can be seen in Table 1.2.
As with Table 1.1, in order to eliminate the effects of population growth, in Table 1.2 denominational size is calculated as the number of members per 1,000 Americans, which can be interpreted as each denomination's market share. Each of these seven denominations in Table 1.2 has suffered catastrophic declines; most have lost more than half of their 1960 market share, some of them far more. To make matters worse, all of these denominations suffer from having very elderly congregations, presaging an even more rapid decline.
Some have dismissed these declines as merely reflecting a more general decline in the nation's religiousness, claiming that America finally has begun to follow Europe along the road to irreligion. Not so. Americans remain just as likely to attend church as they ever did, and more Americans now belong to a local church than ever before. Others have shrugged off these declines as merely reflecting a drop in the relative number of Protestants in response to high rates of Catholic immigration. But that excuse fails because the Catholic market share has declined slightly since 1960.
If the data in Table 1.2 were all we had to go on, the debate as to why these declines occurred might be irresolvable. But Kelley did not merely claim that the mainline was declining; he pointed out that the conservative churches were more than taking up the slack. In fact, Kelley headlined this contrast in the title of his book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. That's really what riled academics and mainline clergy.
Some dismissed conservative growth as nothing more than fraudulent statistics. Others admitted that the membership roles kept by the conservative churches were honest, but claimed they were greatly inflated because so many of their members hop from church to church that they get counted two or three times. Several have argued that the growth of conservative churches is primarily due to higher levels of fertility among their members, in contrast with the very low fertility of the mainline. But this mostly reflects that the mainline congregations grew old and therefore currently lack fertility, because the sons and daughters of the remaining members defected and took their fertility with them. It has been suggested that the growth of conservative Protestant denominations merely reflects the growth of the South. But the declines have occurred in every region. The significant fact that overwhelms all objections is that most who join conservative churches as adults grew up in mainline churches. Finally, many liberals have even attempted to make a virtue of the mainline decline, claiming that the contrasting trends reflect the superior moral worth of the mainline—that if the conservative churches are growing it is because they are "herding insecure and frightened masses together into a superficial conformity," while the mainline churches remain as a "faithful remnant of God's people whose prophetic courage and lifestyle truly point the way." Meanwhile, the mainline continues to shrink, and the conservative churches continue to grow.
Excerpted from America's Blessings by Rodney Stark. Copyright © 2012 Rodney Stark. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Creating Religious America,
Chapter 2: Crime and Prosocial Behavior,
Chapter 3: Fertility and Family,
Chapter 4: Sexuality,
Chapter 5: Mental and Physical Health,
Chapter 6: Generous Citizenship,
Chapter 7: Achievement and Success,
Chapter 8: Intellectual Life,
Conclusion: Counting Our Blessings,