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Shopping for Faith or Dropping Your Faith?
(Released May 2005)

  by Peter Ellway  


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The Rational Choice Theory of why religious vitality varies between societies, and its relationship to the Secularization Thesis

It was Voltaire who said, 'If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him'. Our theory agrees. (Stark and Bainbridge 1987, page 23)

These words come from a work of academic sociology but seem intensely relevant to current political concerns. Since the reelection of born-again Christian George W. Bush as President of the USA in November 2004, the importance of religion in the life of the USA has been a constant theme in the news analysis not only of that country but worldwide. Opinions differ on the importance of religion in determining the electoral result, but it cannot be denied that religion is a hot topic in the discourse of the world's only remaining superpower.


it is commonly agreed that all candidates for high office in the US need to demonstrate some religious allegiance. Yet the USA explicitly separates church and state, unlike many other countries that retain an established religion. The UK is an example of such a state, despite another commonly agreed fact—that the British are considerably less religious than their American cousins. Clearly the relationship between the official religion of a country (or its absence in the case of the USA) and the religious life and liveliness (religious vitality) of that country is a complex one.

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The continued importance of religion as a political and social phenomenon cannot be denied. To stay with the American Presidential contest for a while, two of the main issues there were the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the continued fallout from the terrorist attacks in September 2001. Both these foreign policy issues intimately concerned Islam, which shares a historical and theological background with Christianity (both are monotheistic faiths deriving from Judaism and Zoroastrianism) yet has been in opposition to it for many centuries. Religion is a controversial subject in many other countries than the USA, of course, and these include many where religious observance is arguably less solid than it used to be, such as western Europe; the growing importance of religious pressure groups such as Moslem immigrants in the UK is the subject of a New Statesman article (Odone 2004) and the growing importance of religious enthusiasm worldwide is the subject of many recent articles, such as that by Maitland (2004).

In view of the current importance of religion in politics and international relations it seems especially appropriate that CSA's Hot Topic series should include one in sociology of religion (but do please look at CSA's Holy Y2K! Millennial Cults and TEOTWAWKI). This new Hot Topic for 2005 is called "Shopping for faith or dropping your faith?" It is not directly concerned with the importance of religion in US politics, or with the nature or political importance of Islam, but it reflects the importance of these controversial subjects by looking at two contending theories that address the nature and social importance of religion from a sociological perspective. Its main subject is the Rational Choice Theory of Religion, also known as the Supply Side Theory, which it relates to the previously dominant and competing theory in the sociology of religion, the Secularization Thesis. The arguments between the proponents of each of these two theories are longstanding and heated. The Rational Choice/Supply Side theory is of general interest, since as its name suggests, it is a systematic attempt to relate religion to human behaviour and in fact contains much terminology that reminds one of Economics. Both it and the Secularization Thesis have profound implications for the future of religion as a force in society.

The following Overview describes and compares the two theories, and also assesses their merits and the evidence for them.

Definitions of the two theories—and of religion

Rational Choice Theory (RCT) or Supply Side Theory? To begin with the alternative versions of the name of the theory, either of the above two seems to be acceptable and interchangeable with the other (and there is yet a third version of the name: Market Place Theory!) Whatever it is called, RCT aims to be a complete explanation of religiosity, or religious vitality, and depends on a number of key concepts: chief of these are Compensators. The theory took form in the 1980s in the work of Rodney Stark and collaborators like Roger Finke, Laurence Iannaccone and William Bainbridge. Its main propositions are that religious choice is or should be a rational activity because of the Compensator concept, that there is therefore a constant potential human demand for religious goods over time and between societies, but that the supply of these religious goods varies: it is this variation which explains the levels of religious vitality in different societies, and the more varied the supply of religious goods, ie the greater the religious diversity, the better for religious vitality.

Secularization Thesis (ST). This account of religious vitality dates back to the 1960s work of the British sociologist and pioneer of the study of religion from a sociological perspective, Bryan Wilson (who died in October 2004). ST's main proposition is very roughly that religious vitality in the Western world was at its peak in the Middle Ages and has been in long term (secular) decline since. It is therefore at odds with the central proposition of RCT, which is that the demand for religious goods remains roughly constant. The theories are even more at odds because the Secularization Thesis sees religious diversification, ie the increase in the number of different and competing religious organizations after the Protestant Reformation, as the main cause of secularization, whereas RCT sees religious diversity as beneficial to religious vitality.

While the two theories described are incompatible if taken as a whole, it does not follow that neither contains any truth or value, or for that matter that either is substantially true—and my conclusions will cast doubt on both as complete theories. For that matter, Voas et al (2002) contend that both theories are misconceived and that "currently there is no compelling evidence that religious pluralism has any effect on religious participation".

Having defined the two theories of religion, I should attempt to define religion itself before proceeding further. RCT has a formal definition of religion, as it has of most of its concepts: "Religion refers to systems of general compensators based on supernatural assumptions" (Stark and Bainbridge, 1987)—which does not mean much until you have understood some of the RCT theory itself. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines religion as "the belief in a superhuman controlling power, especially in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship". The most famous definition is probably that of Matthew Arnold—"morality touched by emotion"—although this omits the idea of supernatural agency. While everyone sort of knows what the word means, its meaning is not at all clear when one considers whether a particular person is or is not religious, and this is in fact highly relevant in assessing theories which are concerned with levels of religious vitality! I will be returning to this point in the Conclusions section. Meanwhile, the article by Aldridge (2004) is devoted to the question of defining religion.

Rational Choice Theory:
A short account

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What does RCT claim?

The theory defines rationality as "marked by consistent, goal-related activity" (Stark, 1997) and it sees religion as essentially a rational response to human needs (hence the title Rational Choice Theory). RCT in Sociology goes back to the sociologist George Homans, and the phrase itself is associated preeminently with the economist Gary Becker—which explains the economistic language used in the theory. It has been applied to other social sciences than economics: examples are public administration (Hay, 2004) and penal policy (Burnett and Maruna, 2004). But it was Rodney Stark and his collaborators who applied the concept to religion, and they assert that religion reflects the rational, inevitable, infinite and constant need of human beings to know that life has a beneficial supernatural element: for instance that there is meaning in life, that there exist supernatural beings like God, and that there is life after death. As such the theory is a reaction against both ST, which RCT sees as predicting the end of religion, and also against previous theoretical traditions in Sociology which regarded religion as incapable of rational analysis: for instance the Functionalism of dominant theorists like Talcott Parsons. The "paradigm shift" brought about by RCT proponents is the emphasis on rationality and on supply side factors in religious life. It holds that ST and similar theories are concerned only with the "demand" for religion and wrongly ignore its supply.

What the theory does NOT assert is that any particular religious belief is rational in the sense of likely to be true. RCT has often been welcomed by defenders of religion (who sometimes see ST sociologists, in contrast, as actually wishing the end of religion as well as forecasting this); Miller (2003) is an example of a journalistic piece linking RCT to a favourable view of Christianity. In many of its documents, however, the RCT school is clear about its professional neutrality on whether any religion is actually true, and indeed has a rather clinical if not cynical view of religion (see the critical evaluation in evaluation section). A recent development of the theory (Bainbridge, 2003) further explores the concept of Compensators as "sacred algorithms . . . in a world that does not in fact contain a supernatural realm", and sees religion as a "necessary falsehood" that is susceptible of scientific research—not a sympathetic attitude to the truth of religious belief.

As just mentioned, the concept of Compensators is central to the theory and is linked to the other formal concepts of Rewards and Costs. What humans really want are Rewards, in this case genuine explanations of the meaning of life, and of how to overcome pain and death—in other words, we all need reassurances which would allow us to overcome the transitoriness, the puzzles and the trials of life. These explanations would be religious certainties, but what religions actually provide are Compensators in the form of religious goods, which involve religious organisations like Churches, Denominations, Sects and Cults, and religious specialists like priests.

RCT sees almost everyone having these needs for religious compensators, even though we differ in exactly what sort of religious compensators will satisfy us. Religious compensators are superior to secular compensators like political utopianism because, for one thing, they cannot be disproved in the way that, say, the predictions and promises of Marxism have patently failed to materialise; and anyway, however good the Marxist utopia on Earth might have been if it had ever happened, it would not have been Life in Heaven Everlasting. But while the demand for religious services is thus roughly constant and infinite, according to RCT, the supply of these services is not constant or infinite, and this difference explains the differences in the fervour that various societies show in their religious adherence. For instance, if only one religion is available in a society then there exists an effective religious monopoly which will not be able to satisfy the religious needs of all members of that society. The result is a low rate of religious vitality. In contrast, in a society with a free market of religions available, there will be a high level of religious vitality. You will now appreciate how the theory gets its alternative name of Supply Side Theory.

The foremost work of the RCT school is Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge's book "A Theory of Religion". The foreword, written by another RCT theorist, Jeffrey K. Hadden, sums up the theory: "Religious economies consist of firms, products, consumers, market share and penetration, competition, regulated and unregulated economies, monopolies, and so on. Anchored in rational choice, participation in religion is a voluntary activity. Religious organizations compete for members, albeit under different conditions in different cultures and historical periods" (Stark and Bainbridge, 1987).

RCT's Framework

The Theory takes a systematic approach to religious behaviour and is proudly deductive, deriving formal propositions from axioms and definitions; it employs some novel terminology and also involves exchange theory, which is the balance of Rewards and Costs in an exchange. The central concepts of Explanations, Compensators, Rewards and Costs are linked in the main RCT definitions and propositions, which follow; all the following quotations are from Stark and Bainbridge (1987):

Definitions: "Compensators are postulations of reward according to explanations that are not readily susceptible to unambiguous evaluation. Costs are whatever humans attempt to avoid. Rewards are anything humans will incur costs to obtain." Propositions: "Compensators are treated by humans as if they were rewards. Humans prefer rewards to compensators and attempt to exchange compensators for rewards."

As such, Compensators are essentially promises or IOUs, and not necessarily religious in nature. But: "The most general compensators can only be supported by supernatural explanations", where "Supernatural refers to forces beyond or outside nature which can suspend, alter, or ignore physical forces" and "Religion refers to systems of general compensators based on supernatural assumptions".

Religion is contrasted not only with secular compensators but with Magic, which uses less general supernatural compensators because it is not concerned with the meaning of the universe but only with its manipulation for specific ends. Religion has the same advantage over Magic as over secular compensators because its promises, being general, cannot be disproved in the way that a magician's can. Stark and Bainbridge's earlier book, "The Future of Religion" (1985) has more illustrative examples than "A Theory of Religion", one of which is Scientology, an example of how a cult begins by claiming pseudoscientific, ie magical, abilities, and when it runs into problems of disproof, becomes increasingly general in its claims: it becomes a religion. Syanon and The Process are other examples of what were originally psychotherapy-oriented cults which show the same features as Scientology, ie a move towards general supernatural compensators.

But while religion is superior to magic, both are seen as essentially rational activities, and Stark and Bainbridge draw on the work of the anthropologist Malinowski here to argue that so-called primitive people do not resort to magic without reason: "It is more efficient to pull weeds than to pray for rain. It is not more efficient to spit on fields than to pray for rain" (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985)

Gods are supernatural beings, and religious specialists (ie priests) emerge because they have the advantage over ordinary people in terms of exchange. Eventually, these religious specialists form an elite. "Religious specialists act as intermediaries between their clients and the alleged sources of the desired general rewards—the gods", and religious organizations like churches are born.

Churches, Sects, Cults, Schisms, and Secularization

RCT provides a basis for examining how churches decline in the process of secularization, how schisms happen, and how sects and cults are formed as a result. The theory follows the common practice in the sociology of religion of distinguishing between these types of religious organisations, as follows (this topic is discussed further in the article by Turcotte, 2004):

  • Churches—conventional organizations which claim a monopoly of religious truth
  • Denominations—conventional organizations which do not claim a monopoly of religious truth
  • Sects—deviant organizations which, however, follow an established religion and claim a monopoly of religious truth
  • Cults—deviant organizations which feature religious innovation and do not claim a monopoly of religious truth
Please note that "monopoly" has nothing to do with the so-called religious monopolies that RCT is obsessively concerned with: what is meant here is that some religious organizations claim to be the only way to achieve salvation or whatever else is promised, whereas others do not claim this. What is novel about RCT's treatment of these types of religious organization is that it calls Churches and Denominations Low tension organizations, and contrasts them with Cults and Sects, which are described as High tension. Tension is roughly equivalent to Deviance and indicates the degree of religious vitality or commitment that each type of organization possesses. Schisms are the processes whereby churches break up into denominations, sects and cults as secularization sets in. Note that although RCT as a whole opposes ST, it sees secularization as an inevitable process affecting every specific church or denomination: what RCT denies is the claim by ST that religion as a whole is in general and inevitable decline. Instead there is an everlasting cycle of birth, decline and rebirth within the religious life of societies. For RCT, churches are characteristic of societies where there is a religious monopoly, sometimes maintained by political repression: as a result, religious vitality is low. Denominations also show low commitment and are the result of secularization away from supernaturalism. In a free society there are schisms, and sects and cults are formed with higher tension, ie stricter principles and therefore greater commitment, partly because of the startup costs of establishing them (Iannaccone 1994). Sengers (2004) gives an example of the sect-to-church mechanism, applying it to the Dutch Catholic Church and arguing that it declined as it lost tension with the society around it.

RCT's view of the natural history of religious organizations is well summarised by Wallis and Bruce:

For the complex of reasons known as the Niebuhr thesis, organizations offering supernaturalistically derived compensators will gradually tend to shift away from their earlier supernaturalistic tradition. As the tradition itself loses credibility, and thus the ability to generate credible compensators, so new forms of religion based on imported or culturally innovative beliefs and practices—informed by a stronger version of the supernatural—will emerge as cults, some of which may provide the basis of a new religious tradition. Thus, Stark and Bainbridge propose a relatively constant religious economy: the desire for great and scarce rewards being met by different forms of religious belief and organization. The decline of the leading churches in the tradition will first be replaced by growth in sectarian variants, and then later by growth in cultic innovations. Secularization is thus self-limiting (1992).
Rational Choice Theory: Evaluation

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The influence of RCT

The theory has been widely acclaimed, especially in the USA, where it claims to explain the vitality of US religious organizations, differences in vitality between these organizations, and differences between their "efficiency" and the moribund state-based churches of countries like Sweden and Britain. Increasingly, studies on religiosity refer to RCT as "the new paradigm" and to ST as "the old paradigm". RCT is now being taught in Sociology of Religion courses at major US universities, and is the subject of abundant research. The language of RCT permeates modern literature on the subject—not only are there "religious firms", "religious markets" and "religious economies", but "interbrand" and "intrabrand" competition: the last term indicates that apparently monopoly religions like Catholicism and Islam are seen by RCT as in fact containing competitive organizations within themselves.

As well as many empirical studies of RCT, there are attempts to refine the theory itself; an example is the formal model proposed by Montgomery (2003), and Martinez-Garcia (2004) classifies rational choice theories.

Applications and offshoots of RCT

A typical application of RCT is to see whether increased supply of religious services stimulates higher church attendance levels: this was the subject of the Dutch Christmas study by Bernts and De Graaf (2003). The phenomenon of switching between religions is implied by RCT, and Loveland (2003) investigates this in the US, finding that a third of Americans change religion at some point, and that religious preferences themselves vary more than "classical" RCT assumes. An example of the practical use of RCT is discussed by Richter (2002): this is the way that Methodist and Anglican churches in the UK are deploying itinerant staff to maintain congregation sizes. The Freeriders problem is another offshoot: this is a topic within game theory, and in RCT it is concerned with the problem of those who use the religious goods of a church but contribute little to it; Iannaccone has written a good deal about it (1992 and 1994).

An even more intriguing offshoot of RCT is discussed by Smith (2002): this is the application of RCT to specific texts, in this case the Book of Revelation, as Smith applies RCT to the biblical author John of Patmos: "The argument of Revelation functions to persuade the believers that engaging in pagan idolatry does not pay off. The short term gains from compromising the Christian faith, as the author of Revelation defines compromise, are outweighed by the expected eschatological losses". Smith, an economist, applies discount rates in analysing the author's rhetoric, pointing out that: "Eschatological outcomes are particularly vulnerable to heavy discounting".

A final example of the influence of RCT is Berman's paper (2003) which takes an RCT approach to extremist political movements like Hamas, showing how what are primarily religious groups also supply so-called "club" or public goods like education and security.

Criticisms of RCT

However, even within the US academic environment which has most taken to RCT, doubts have been expressed on how complete and reliable a theory it is. In the volume edited by Young (1997), which consists of papers presented at the 1994 Sundance Conference on RCT and which is generally supportive of the theory, Mary Jo Neitz and Peter R. Mueser point out that financial support for the state church in a democratic country like Sweden is likely to be endorsed by the voters, and they liken such subsidies to European state health care schemes, which are emphatically supported by the national electorates (Neitz and Mueser, 1997). The point being made is that these monopolies, if such they are, can be the results of consensus rather than being the oppressive structures that RCT sees them to be. Another paper in the same volume, by Nancy Ammerman, stresses the importance of cultural as well as market factors, thus pointing out the narrowness of RCT and its inability on its own to explain the many faces of religious change (Ammerman, 1997). Johnson (2003) also criticises the narrowness of RCT, arguing that it needs to be balanced by an equally strong focus on the concept of community.

There are many more devastating objections to the theory, which follow. As I said at the beginning, RCT is a theory with three names. One could actually regard it also as a theory with three aspects—rational choice, compensators, and the monopoly versus free market thesis—and it seems useful to look separately at the problems facing each of these three aspects.

Rational choice

From a commonsense aspect it is difficult to accept that a phenomenon so complex and emotive as religious affiliation, which we might call nonrational rather than either rational or irrational, can be analysed as "choosing" a faith on the same basis as choosing to buy apples as opposed to pears. It is arguably inappropriate to attempt to compare things that are completely different, ie religious "goods" and other goods. An example of this apparently deliberate blurring of the distinction between religious and nonreligious goods occurs in the paper by Gill and Lundsgaarde (2004) which relates decline in church attendance to government spending on welfare: the more welfare provided by government, the less need people have for churches to supply "spiritual" goods like welfare. Does welfare of the kind provided by government really count as spiritual goods? Gill and Lundsgaarde have in fact given what would have been an example of Secularization (as a result of Social differentiation) an RCT "flavour" by their use of language like "spiritual goods". The article already mentioned by Berman, on Hamas and similar groups, arguably also blurs this distinction.

The notion of cost in "rational" religious behaviour might also seem problematic. Whereas in everyday life we have cost as a scale by which to measure whether we want something enough to buy it, the idea of cost in religion is problematic: one person's perceived penalty ("Not another two hour prayer meeting!") is another's perceived blessing ("Two hours of power in the Precious Blood!") (Bruce, 2000).

There is also an element of truism in an attempt to define rationality: RCT ends up stating tautologies, for instance that we act in order to maximise our satisfaction from religious goods. To quote Coleman (1999):

Most variants of rational choice theory are nearly tautological. Whatever one chooses is rational—no matter how seemingly costly in time, effort, and personal interest—because one gains something one desires (good feelings, compensators, some set of rewards according to one's preference schedule) from it. As so defined, in the end it really explains nothing since it explains everything. Both those who chose martyrdom (which Stark sees as functioning to help early Christianity deal with its "free-rider" problem) and those who apostosized during the persecutions are somehow seen to have made rational choices.

In Economics this feature of rationality is not a problem; rational choice there is not a theory but a basic assumption of the whole discipline, and economists are at pains to point out that people in fact often do NOT act in a "rational" self-regarding way. Economists simply exclude these huge areas of behaviour and concern themselves with what one should do IF one wished to maximise one's economic wellbeing. But for a subject like sociology of religion, this does not hold, and RCT swings between the extremes of tautology and overbold contentiousness. Becker, the economist on whose work the RCT school has drawn heavily, himself says, in a passage which seems to indicate the difference between Economics and a subject like religious choice, which is concerned with reasons for preferences: "Since economists generally have little to contribute…to the understanding of how preferences are formed, preferences are assumed not to change substantially over time, not to be very different between wealthy and poor persons, or even between persons in different societies and cultures" (1986). Rogeberg (2003) examines Becker's controversial extended utility approach, which claims that even drug addictions constitute rational behaviour.

Further doubt on the applicability of rational choice theory to religious behaviour may arise from considering other areas of social science where it has been applied but with dubious results: an obvious example is penology, and the article by Burnett and Maruna (2004) shows how unrealistic are the assumptions of rationality which underlie UK sentencing policy. Bankston (2004) examines the concept of rationality in religion and finds it more multidimensional and complex than most RCT allows, arguing that rationality in individual actions must be related to collective actions and contexts; Boudon (2003) also finds RCT's definition of rationality too narrow. Branas-Garza (2003), on the other hand, examines Spanish religious behaviour and finds this to indeed be "rational". Sharot (2002) gives a critique of RCT's treatment of rationality that points out its US bias from the perspective of eastern religions, and Mortazavi (2004) also points the Western bias of RCT in the context of economics and politics. Macdonald (2003) is another critic of RCT in general, Marshall (2003) sees it as inappropriate to the social world, and Martinez Garcia (2003) views it as not really a theory but simply a useful grammar to consider social problems.


One obvious empirical problem for RCT's view that religious needs are universal, ie that religious compensators are always needed, is the existence of atheists and agnostics. In fact, however, RCT theorist Andrew Greeley (who interestingly trebles as Catholic priest and thriller writer as well as sociologist!) simply describes them as people with a zero demand for religious services! (Greeley, web article). As long as the proportionate numbers of these outsiders does not vary significantly between societies and over time, RCT can cope with them, it seems.

But the language of RCT is especially confusing over Compensators, and Bruce, in "Choice and Religion" (2000) shows that this most important concept of Compensators (which, if you remember, are not Rewards but IOUs for Rewards) is used ambiguously by Stark and Bainbridge to mean Explanations—which are supposed to be a type of Reward! If one can plough through the difficult prose in Stark and Bainbridge's "A Theory of Religion" one may come to the conclusion that the concept of Compensators, if it means anything, is roughly the same as what we would normally call religious faith —but of course, the economistic language of RCT imparts a calculating motivation to Compensators that is quite alien to the subjective experience of the millions of people who genuinely hold and practice a religious faith.

This observation leads to a fundamental criticism of RCT, taken up by Jerolmack and Porpora (2004), which is that it neglects the moral and idealistic dimensions to religious faith. The need to make sense of things is indeed a fundamental aspect of human existence, but not all religion is simply a question of placating the gods in order to survive and receive "religious goods", which seems to be the moral level that RCT focuses on. Certainly, Matthew Arnold's definition of religion as "Morality touched with emotion" is nowhere in sight. Jerolmack and Porpora argue that the thesis of psychological egoism which is basic to RCT is untenable; and Johnson (2003) also criticises the individualistic utilitarian assumptions of RCT.

Monopolies and free markets in religion

However, it is RCT's supply side that is the most crucial area for judging it, partly because it leads to empirically testable claims that religious diversity will be associated with religious vitality and are therefore assumed to cause it. The main problems facing this aspect of RCT are:

  • Conceptually, can it be assumed that monopoly is inefficient in the context of religion and therefore inimical to religious vitality?
  • Even if this is so, what really is monopoly and is RCT correct to assume that certain societies like Western Europe are monopolistic in their religious structures?
  • How is religious diversity to be measured?
  • How is religious vitality to be measured?
  • Even if a correlation is found between religious vitality and religious diversity, which variable causes which?
These questions are now briefly discussed. To some extent they are problems facing ANY systematic theory of religion, not just RCT.

Is monopoly so inefficient in principle?

It is possible to question RCT's confidence in opposing free-market efficiency with monopoly inefficiency. Bruce (2000) points out that competition can actually be wasteful, illustrating this by the way that the Catholic Church tended to build a single church in an area; in contrast, the various Protestant churches replicated each other by all building their own churches, with overcapacity and empty pews as the result. Catholic priests are not usually highly paid and their celibacy means that the Church faces relatively low financial claims—hardly a picture of monopoly profiteering. More generally, Bruce points out that to assume (as RCT is in fact doing) that all priests will use a relative lack of competition to slacken in their posts, actually wanting small congregations as it means less work, appears glib and unrealistically cynical in its assumption that no-one has any but a financial interest in their work. And remember Nietz and Mueser's point (1997): what looks like monopoly may actually be the result of consensus.

What constitutes monopoly?

RCT seems to regard monopoly and state subsidy as almost equivalent, as Roger Finke demonstrates in "The Consequences of Religious Competition: Supply-Side Explanations for Religious Change (Finke, 1997). Finke points out that state subsidy in societies like Sweden, where the Lutheran church is the established organization, increases the "startup" costs of new religions and is therefore a hamper on religious freedom. This might be true as far as it goes, but in fact is inconsistent with Stark and Bainbridge's theory that sects benefit from high tension and commitment just because the costs of starting a new sectare high: so two aspects of RCT are actually in opposition here (Bruce, 2000). The RCT case is anyway weak inasmuch as subsidy is not monopoly; in any area of human exchange, whether it's religion or supermarkets, markets are usually imperfect for all sorts of reasons, but they are not monopolies.

Measuring religious diversity—and does it mean real choice and competition?

The Herfindahl Index is used by Stark and Bainbridge to assess the amount of religious diversity in a society. The scale is a function which relates the total number of churchgoers in a location against the numbers for a particular organization, and ends up with a figure (less than 1) which indicates diversity. Bruce identifies several problems (2000) with the index, which is scale specific and makes places seem relatively diverse if they have relatively equally sized denominations. Another point complicating attempts to measure diversity is that some churches are not really choices for some people: for instance, some churches are monolingual (so that a newly founded Swedish church in a US location would not increase choice for English-only speakers) and some are race-based (as in segregated parts of the USA or ethnically divided communities anywhere).

A related argument is made by Beaman (2003) who maintains that the "supermarket approach" to the religious marketplace does not really indicate diversity, and that in America religious choice is dominated by mainstream Protestantism and so exists only within a narrow range of "products"; her article's methodology is however criticised by Gill (2003). The readiness of RCT writers to use terms like "market" does not in itself prove that there is freedom and choice of religion in the society under discussion: a mere profusion of sects within a religion would be compatible with lack of real choice outside that faith.

The big point underlying all this is that choice and competition both require diversity, but mere diversity does not guarantee either choice or competition. There seems relatively little discussion of the actual nature of choice and competition in the RCT literature, although one paper that does cover this territory, by Brodin (2003), studies how people choose to join the Swedish New Age movement.

Religious vitality—is there a measure?

This is a very large and difficult question because the subject of religion is so complex: really this is the crux of the whole RCT/ST debate. The paper by Iannaccone and Everton (2004) is concerned with weekly attendance counts, an obvious measure of vitality; Greeley (web article) measures the proportion of atheists of different degrees as an index of lack of religiosity; Voas (2003) examines baptism levels; and the paper by Wallace et al (2003) is a survey of US student attitudes, surveys being another prime method of assessment. But does religious vitality mean primarily the numbers of churchgoers, or numbers of active members only, or does it include those who profess belief when asked but do not participate? Are some religions more religious than others in the sense that they require more commitment, or do laid-back New Age cults count for as much as fervently evangelical sects? Some indices of vitality are discussed by Wilson (in Bruce, 1992), including attendance figures, but also ratios of church sittings to local populations (which is the subject of a whole paper by Gill, also in Bruce, 1992), plus baptism and confirmation statistics, church taxes and voluntary contributions, and the number and educational level of religious professionals. Wilson does not provide figures for all these, and his main point is that some of these indices, despite their obvious relevance, are neglected by the proponents of theories of religious vitality or decline. This failure to measure sufficient parameters is not a problem for, or criticism, of RCT alone, since it applies to ST as well, but RCT claims to have all the answers, so arguably it should explore all the measures that would verify these answers.

But does even the above set of parameters really indicate the totality of religious vitality? Wilson (1992) goes on to discuss less tangible but highly relevant indicators of the power of religion in modern societies, and points out that the concerns of religious organizations, and their justification for their own existence, have become increasingly secular in the last century, although in fact "Governments pursue policies with little heed to specifically religious injunctions or interdictions". Rather than influencing today's decision makers, religion is seen by Wilson and ST as constantly following and adjusting to the changing values of society: "The social causes that are espoused . . . are by no means exclusively endorsed by scripture—there are other sources of ethical concern, some of them manifestly secular, and some that might be described as secularist" (Wilson, 1992). This is relevant to question of vitality if one regards the vitality of a religion as implying not only the existence of a substantial number of believers with a substantial degree of commitment, but implying also a certain degree of impact of that religion on the social and political life of the society in which it exists. Religious belief after all is usually an active force that seeks to convince other people of its truth and of its moral significance and relevance to social and political controversies. Yet RCT does not really address these concerns, and it seems to be unduly narrow in its view of people as passive consumers reacting to a greater or smaller supply of "religious goods".

Correlation, but causation?

Even if one accepts the trustworthiness of studies that indicate a correlation between increased supply of religious alternatives and increased religious participation, the interpretation may be questionable on the ground that the direction of causation is being assumed. Why should we not interpret a correlation to indicate that religious diversity is the effect rather than the cause of religious vitality? RCT tends to make large assumptions and claims in this area as in many others. An example where the direction of causation is the crucial concern is Iannaccone's claim that marriages of same religion partners are "efficient" because of "economies of scale" such as lower petrol costs to church (1990) and that this leads to higher church attendance. Leaving aside the rather ludicrous triviality of such arguments, it is actually more likely that the couple married because they were both already heavily committed to their faith, so in other words the causation is the other way (Bruce, 2000).

Voas et al (2002) are also concerned with the problem of inferring causal links from mere correlations, and cast doubt on any causal relationship between religious pluralism and religious participation.

Inside the USA, and outside

Some of these problems arise because much of the discourse of RCT seems to presuppose the US context in which it feels at home. Iannaccone in particular, as an economist, goes into a great deal of detail about consumption of religious goods, and some of his discussion indeed seems to be about the more superficial or trivial aspects of what different churches can offer the individual—good singing, a social life, etc—while his idea of costs does actually appear to mean the financial cost of, say, driving to church. This may reflect the situation inside the USA, where availability of unlimited religious choice is arguably general and where the individual, provided s/he has the religious needs that RCT regards as universal, can in fact choose and switch between many churches on whatever basis s/he chooses. As Bruce points out, however, in most societies, switching between religions is a much more momentous decision than the type of switching that Iannaccone discusses: this is not because of monopoly, but because religion in most societies, and in particular divided societies, is associated with community and is in that sense not "rational" but determined largely by custom and loyalty to the group (Bruce, 2000).

When RCT is not presupposing a US context it tends to make sweeping statements about the supposed benefits of free religious markets compared with the assumed inefficiency of monopolistic religion. An example is the way that Stark quotes the great 18th century economist Adam Smith: "The clergy, reposing themselves on their benefices, had neglected to keep up the fervour of faith and devotion of the great body of the people" (Stark, 1997). This shrewd observation is taken as crucial evidence for Stark that contemporary Britain is still in a similar benighted condition.

Paradoxically for a theory that emphasises rational autonomy, RCT seems to view people as passive regarding religious organizations. While it is true that individual people are constrained by preexisting market structures, it is also true that people collectively create and enlarge markets, whether they live in the USA or outside. So the main problem for RCT over the question of religious markets is that it cannot account for "auto-supply" (Bruce, 2000) in a modern democratic society, or even in a relatively free one like Britain a couple of centuries ago. In other words, in the absence of really punitive sanctions against new religions, it is always open to people to start their own religion if the existing one is hopelessly inefficient and does not satisfy their needs, which is just what has happened over the last few centuries. More than ever, in today's world of the Internet, for RCT to claim that the citizens of advanced and free societies like those of western Europe are constrained by monopolistic restrictions in choosing their religion is ludicrous: it is possible to join a religion which operates through the Internet, as is the case of Kemetic Orthodoxy (a religion based on that of Ancient Egypt), so where are the costs here? And at the other end of the freedom/constraint spectrum, early Christianity is an obvious example of a faith which survived extremely high "startup costs", ie savage persecution, to become eventually the established religion of the Western world.

RCT's vision

In his 1997 article, a few sentences on from the Adam Smith quotation, Stark is looking back on the development of RCT at a "macro" level and says: "The deduction that religious mobilization must be low when a religious economy is essentially monopolized required us [Stark and Bainbridge] to examine history and to discover that the received wisdom about the universal piety of medieval Europe is mythical and the medieval masses were scarcely religious at all. The theory [RCT] even predicts the churching of Europe, should the religious economies of those nations be effectively deregulated."

Stark here is implicitly saying that he wishes to revise accepted history, and also that a future large scale religious revival in Europe, the continent which is least religious, is possible given some institutional changes. RCT, for all its apparently theoretical base, is in fact hitching itself to a study of the past and to prediction of the future, in other words to standing or falling by empirical evidence. So the question arises of whether RCT has real-world empirical support.

Is there empirical evidence for RCT?

RCT claims empirical confirmation for its theory that religious vitality, in terms of both numbers of people with religious affiliation and the intensity of their commitment, is related to the amount of competition in the religious market. Many of these studies relate to the USA and their interpretation is sometimes disputed by RCT's opponents: for instance Bruce (2002) claims that some studies cited as evidence by Stark and his associates actually show a negative correlation between religious diversity and vitality. The studies are conflicting and sometimes confusing in their conclusions, but the short answer is yes—there is empirical support for the theory, but there is also empirical evidence against it.

To mention just a few studies that support RCT, "The demand for religion: hard core atheism and supply side theory" (web article) by Andrew Greeley looks at three countries outside the USA, including Ireland. Greeley compares the religious attitudes of the Catholics in the predominantly Protestant North (ie Northern Ireland) with their coreligionists in the south (the Irish Republic), and concludes that Catholics in the North are more fervent than those in the South. This is what RCT would expect, given that there is something of a monopoly for the Catholic Church in the Irish Republic, whereas Catholics form a minority, and a historically oppressed one at that, in the North: the RCT concept of tension does seem relevant here. The other countries studied are Norway, which Greeley sees as not conforming to the ST model, and East Germany, which (he admits) does.

A study more unambiguously supporting RCT is Roger Finke's "The Consequences of Religious Competition: Supply-Side Explanations for Religious Change". This article concerns the "rush hour of the gods", an outpouring of new religions in Japan after 1945, when military defeat had brought about the repeal of laws controlling religion and disestablishment of the dominant Shinto religion: Finke interprets this as a response to increased supply of religious services (Finke, 1997). A similar theme, but relating to Protestant churches in South Korea, is covered by Kern (2001). There certainly seems no reason why one should not regard an increase in religious freedom as both a supply side change and conducive to an increase in both quantity and quality of religious participation in a society, but this is of course not all that RCT wants to claim. Finke in fact allows for changes in demand for religious services as well as supply; what RCT cannot entertain is secular, ie long term, changes in demand.

Froese (2001 and 2004) covers several countries in East Europe and give further empirical support for RCT, as do Finke and Stark (2004). One specific prediction of RCT, ie that a small share in the religious market should motivate religious leaders more than a large share, thus increasing participation of denomination members, is supported in the article by Perl and Olson (2000), which found a negative relation between market share and financial giving.

Finally, a recent article by Frances Cairncross, (an economist, and formerly a senior editor of "The Economist" newspaper) entitled "The God Gulf", is concerned with the contrast between the USA and UK as regards the political and social importance of religion. Cairncross points to the "free market in religion" in the US: "There never was a one-size-fits-all monopoly religion. Instead, churches have always had to vie for congregants. The monopoly churches of Europe, by contrast, have never learned this skill and so, in a world that prizes consumer choice, are threatened with extinction" (Cairncross, 2004).

On the other hand, the paper on the Nordic states (Bruce 2000) and the two books by Bruce (2000 and 2002), to mention just one writer, offer a widely based refutation of RCT's empirical claims. To mention just a few, Australia is characterised by low and declining state regulation, but also by low and declining rates of church attendance (Bruce 2000). The UK is a problem for RCT, because the falling off of religious observance has occurred as the country has become more religiously diverse and as the State has relaxed what grip on religion that it had: the Church of England does not now have state support so is not a monopoly in any economic sense. A recent article by McOwan (2005) describes the new ecumenical spirit in modern Scottish Christianity and relates this to secularization: rather than rejoicing in sectarianism and division, as RCT would predict, the churches are cooperating to survive. The paper by Montgomery (2003) incidentally finds a negative correlation between religious competition and religious participation among US counties.

Many empirical arguments by Bruce and others against RCT also support ST, and are considered in the following discussion.
The Secularization Thesis

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ST is the original paradigm that RCT hopes to supplant. As has been shown, RCT leads to empirical claims about religion that are incompatible with those of ST, and the arguments for one tend to rule out the other. So what does ST actually say?

ST states that religious enthusiasm in the Western world was at its peak in the Middle Ages and has been in long term (secular) decline since, partly as a result of the Protestant Reformation and the continued diversification of religious organisations and beliefs. This claim opposes RCT: not only does religious diversity (ie the free market of RCT) not produce an increase in religious commitment, it has historically led to a reduced commitment. Whereas, in the monopoly world of mediaeval Catholicism, there was only one possible source of religious truth, the Reformation led to a babble of competing churches and sects, with predictably adverse effects on the propensity to believe in religion in the unquestioning way that characterised the lay person of the Middle Ages. The work of Max Weber (1907) is central to the foundations of ST because it showed how the Puritans adopted a new ethic, which saw worldly success, if it was achieved honestly by pious people, as proof of divine favour; so that, in his phrase, "this-worldly asceticism" replaced the otherworldliness of hermits and monks. The work of Emile Durkheim (1912) is also central, because he represented the traditional function of religion as symbolising the identity of a community; it is this process that has almost irretrievably weakened in Western Christianity, according to ST.

ST as developed by Wilson, however, saw more general forces at work than the Protestant Reformation as central to the decline of religion. These include Social differentiation, Societalization, and Rationalization. Together, these processes constitute the general concept of Modernization which ST sees as inimical to religion as a social force. All these processes are connected with the advance of technological control over nature since the Industrial Revolution; MacLeod (1992) quotes a Dutch saying, "Artificial fertilizers make atheists". Behind this technological advance is of course scientific discovery, despite the fact that the relationships between science and religious belief are more subtle than one might suppose. The links between the various forces that have fostered Secularization are illustrated in the following diagram (taken from Bruce, 2002).

The Secularization Paradigm

Secularization does not mean only that fewer people are genuinely or even nominally religious; it claims that even those who are religious live in a secular society which limits the extent of their commitment: this is why ST sees modernization as essentially inimical to religious commitment as a social force. In common with RCT, it sees so-called Liberal religion, which includes the more moderate Protestant churches, as declining faster than Conservative religions, and Sects declining less than denominations and churches; the emergence of cults like New Age religion in the more recent decades reduces the overall decline but does not cancel it. But the explanation ST provides for these changes has nothing to do with concepts of competition, tension and the rest of the RCT system: according to ST it is modernity, in particular the loss of the organic community of old, which hits religion as a dominant social force, and only when a religion can maintain its function as symbolising the identity of a community—its "sacred canopy" in the words of Peter Berger's famous book (1967)—is it likely to maintain its place in that community.

It should be noted that Secularization is not quite the same as Secularism: the comparison I made between the USA and the UK at the start illustrates this distinction, since the US is at once more formally secular and in fact less secularised than the UK. So also, the topical importance of secularism in France, in particular the controversy about Islamic dress in schools, does not in itself mean that France is an especially secularized society, only that its government is committed to remove any expression of religious adherence within state areas such as schools (King 2004). Kissane (2003) discusses the opposite commitment of the Irish government: it is against secular neutrality over religion, but this would not preclude the possibility that Irish society at large might be undergoing secularization.

The dominance of ST, and challenges to it from recent history

ST has its own history, which briefly follows and is relevant to understanding its claims. Many early social theorists were hostile to religion and/or looked forward to its demise; most famous of these prophecies is Karl Marx's claim that religion is the opiate of the people and would disappear along with the oppressive capitalist State, while Auguste Comte, founder of Sociology as a discipline, also predicted the end of religion, and Weber (1907) predicted that rationalization of social processes would produce secularization through a process of "disenchantment". Weber has already been mentioned as central to ST because of the historical links he proposed between Protestant religious affiliation and the capitalistic economic behaviour which is itself part of the process of modernization. But ST took its modern developed form in the 1960s; Dobbelaere (2004) gives an account of this process as secularization theory emerged from general sociological theory, and Koshul (2003) offers a reinterpretation of Weber's work.

The decade of the 1960s appeared to most people even at the time to be one of rapid change, with implications for religion as for every other aspect of life. Traditional Christianity, in the UK and similar countries, gave every sign of retreating in the face of mass popular culture, youth revolt, the drug culture, and the interest, however superficial, in exotic oriental religions. So it may be significant that the seminal academic work on ST, "Religion in Secular Society", appeared in 1966; its author, Bryan Wilson, remains the doyen of the theory. To a sociologist writing around 1970, ST must have appeared convincing indeed, as traditional religions seemed to be on the retreat not only in the West but on the world stage: there were secular regimes in much of the Moslem world and in India, while atheistic communism had triumphed over much of Europe and Asia, making it difficult for its subjects to practice their religion, whether Christian, Islamic, Confucian or Buddhist.

Yet by the end of that decade, the Shah of Iran's westernised regime had collapsed and given way to a theocratic Islamic state. The political ripples from that change were immense and remain so today, especially as the three disastrous wars that Saddam Hussein's Iraq—a prominent example of a superficially secularised Moslem state—has fought since 1980 are among those effects. Among the other effects of the Iranian revolution was the decision of the USSR to cement its hold on Afghanistan against the infection of resurgent Islam by invading that country, and during the 1980s the Soviet Union's unsuccessful fight for control of Afghanistan, which reverted to tribal and strongly Islamic rule. By the end of the 1980s Communism itself was collapsing in eastern Europe and Soviet Asia: in the USSR and its former satellites, totalitarian Communist dictatorships were replaced by pluralistic ones which allowed free religious expression, so that church attendance was at last unhampered by repressive Communist regimes. In the USA, the rise of the New Religious Right in the 1980s—to an extent supported by President Reagan—challenged the apparent drift towards secular values which had occurred in the previous two decades, embodied for example in the legalisation of abortion in the 1972 Roe v Wade Supreme Court judgment (see CSA's recent Since Roe v. Wade: American Public Opinion and Law on Abortion), and in the banning of prayer from schools. And even in Western Europe, religion was becoming more of an issue again, partly due to the large and intensely religious immigrant communities in many west European countries.

Within the world of academic sociology, some proponents of ST themselves began to doubt the analysis. An example is Peter Berger, author of "The Sacred Canopy" (1967) who later pointed to the religious enthusiasm of the US and Islamic world as casting doubt on ST, and also to the identification of secularist attitudes with social elites rather than with the mass population of these societies (Berger 1997). Societies like Communist China, which had ignored religion as an object of study until the late 1970s, began to take it seriously (Yang 2004).

For ST the implications of recent history are that societies do not necessarily change in one direction: they can apparently become more rather than less religious. Does this, if true, disprove ST? I will now look at this and other criticisms of it, and start off by looking at a war of words between two of the most extreme proponents of the opposing theories: Rodney Stark and Steve Bruce.

Assaults on ST from RCT

In addition to being the foremost proponent of RCT, Rodney Stark has been, as we might expect, a formidably hostile critic of ST. In a paper provocatively entitled "Secularization: RIP" (1999) he adduces a range of arguments and empirical studies which are typical of those by opponents of ST, and aims to show the following weaknesses:

  • The past. There never was Golden Age of Faith in the Catholic religious monopoly world of the Middle Ages, according to Stark, and he provides a long list of laments by mediaeval writers, often priests, about the ignorance and sloth of clergy, the reluctance of the mass of people to attend church, their lamentable conduct when they did attend, and the prevalence of pagan superstition. The last point leads on to the claim by Stark that Europe was never properly converted to Christianity—only the princes were, apparently.
  • The USA. Religion is alive and well, says Stark, because of the efficient religious market in the USA. With ample evidence of this vitality over a wide range of religious organisations, and, given the size and sophistication of this country, how can ST be true?
  • Europe. Even in so-called secularised Europe, Stark claims that church membership is not that low and is not falling: studies show that many European countries are as religious as in the past, and where they are not it is the fault of the monopoly churches.
  • New religions. The cultic New Age religions that have developed in the West over the last few decades disprove ST, according to Stark.
  • Nonchristian religions. Stark states that ST cannot explain the fervour of the Islamic revival or of other non-Christian religions outside the West. Not only Islam but other Asiatic religions are actually growing, for instance Shinto in Japan.
  • Naturally, Stark makes much of the apparent INCREASE in religious fervour that I have already mentioned in countries like Iran and Russia.
Defences of ST

Steve Bruce is one of the most uncompromising contemporary defenders of ST, and in his most recent book, defiantly entitled "God is Dead: Secularization in the West" (2002) deals with these and other possible attacks. He is concerned to define the proper nature and claims of ST in order that it not be misrepresented by the likes of Stark, and makes the following clarifications of what ST does NOT claim:

  • It does not claim to be inevitable or universal or uniform
  • It does not necessarily predict a large number of atheists or agnostics in the population—mass apathy about religion is the surer sign of secularization
  • It is not systematic theory: "There is no secularization theory. There is a cluster of testable explanations that cohere as well as anything in the social sciences" (Bruce, 2002, pp.39)
  • It does not claim that secularization equals progress or is liberating
Do these clarifications answer Stark's criticisms?

The first clarification certainly addresses some of Stark's attacks, namely that ST fails as a universal theory covering non-Christian religions and that religion is growing in some parts of the world. Wilson, the sociologist who developed ST in the 1960s and 1970s, only ever claimed that ST related to the western world—ie Europe, North America and the related societies like Australia with a Christian heritage—so to attack ST on the grounds that Islamic societies remain highly, or are increasingly, religious is to attack a straw man. A different but related point, which effectively covers the last of Stark's attacks, is that a society like the Shah's Iran or Soviet Russia which has had a secular regime (whether capitalist or Marxist) forced onto it, and then rejects the regime in a revolution, cannot be said to have become MORE religious: it never ceased to be religious, and reverted to its true nature when the alien regime was thrown out.

As for the other criticisms, Bruce (2002) deals with them in other ways.

  • The past. Bruce simply disputes the truth of Stark's very important first criticism, ie that we are no less religious than in the Middle Ages, and in doing so attacks Stark's methods and objectivity. This very contentious position calls into question the reliability and objectivity of Stark's use of historical sources.
  • Europe. Bruce contends that western Europe is generally much less religious than a century ago, and that what vitality there is tends to come from immigrant communities, who practice Asian religions and have little or no impact on the indigenous Christian churches and denominations. There are revivalist movements, it is true, but they do not last as far as attracting mass interest. East Europe is more complex because of the Communist domination which lasted till the 1990s and which had some success in suppressing religion (though in fact it allowed private observance). Bruce contends that when there was a genuinely popular church, like the Uniate Church in Czechoslovakia or the Catholic Church in Poland which opposed the regime, religious observance indeed increased in popularity after the fall of Communism, but it declined again when nationalism was able to express itself in a secular state.
  • The USA. Bruce accepts that the USA is considerably more religious that Europe, but contends that it still demonstrates changes which confirm ST and attempts to explain why the differences persist between the USA and the UK. Some relevant social differences, he argues, include the greater importance of strongly religious Hispanic immigration into the US compared with Europe, the greater freedom in the US to set up self-isolating religious fundamentalist subcultures which are themselves monolithic, and the relative ease with which religious minorities can for a time gain control of mass media and even educational establishments to voice their fundamentalist views. This social background follows from the early history of religion in the USA, which featured persecuted sects who moved to unsettled areas to practice their faiths in freedom, yet were themselves intolerant of other religions. RCT used Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America", which studied these communities, to illustrate the huge diversity of religion in the USA during the early nineteenth century, but Bruce points out that Tocqueville was actually moving from one monolithic location to another. So for an individual, religious choice was not available within a particular community.
  • New or alternative religions. Bruce contends that the phenomenon of New Age religious cults is one characterised by both smallness of numbers and a noticeable lack of real commitment to the faiths by their adherents. The New Age "religions" appear to him to be a selection of pick and mix lifestyles with a supernatural element thrown in. ST does not predict just fewer religious people but a diminution in religious commitment among those who are nominally religious, and the devotees of these new cults are no replacement for the faithful of the past in either numbers or commitment.
  • Nonchristian religions. Bruce is only interested in the effect of these religions on the indigenous Christian societies of the West: the demographic importance of immigration into these societies from Asia and other non-Christian societies is obvious but not relevant—remember that ST does not claim secularization of these religions—and the immigrant communities themselves have had little impact on the beliefs of the host countries. His view is basically the same as over New Age—there may be many groups but the numbers of individuals involved is small relative to the lost congregations of mainstream Christianity, and the interest in them is similarly superficial. He gives the examples of Feng Sui as a popular Western cult that has lost its original spiritual significance, and of Soka Gakkai and Transcendental Meditation as undemanding and therefore popular forms of Eastern religion for westerners.

Does ST predict the end of religion?

If we take Bruce literally, and it is he who seems to be the main contemporary proponent of "hard" ST, the thesis does not claim to predict the death of religion or even of Christianity. In fact, however, Bruce himself seems to think that the decline of religion in the West is likely to continue, and his final words are, "where diversity and egalitarianism have become deeply embedded in the public consciousness and embodied in liberal democracy, where states remain sufficiently prosperous and stable that the fact of diversity and attitude of egalitarianism are not swept away by some currently unimaginable cataclysm, I see no grounds to expect secularization to be reversed" (2002, pp.241). The exception for him, roughly following Durkheim's view that religion gives societies cohesion, is that religious faith associated with a community will survive as long as it symbolises and strengthens that community, especially in conflict situations. Many parts of eastern Europe, and other societies like Northern Ireland, fall into this category.

How representative are his views? Opinion is divided on the planks of Stark's attack described above, and I will revisit the points at issue between Stark and Bruce below—but first, let us see how the original ST has changed as a result of the criticism from RCT and others.

Variants of ST: Neo-Secularization, "hard" and "soft" secularization

In the 1992 symposium that Bruce edited, "Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis", most of the contributors were less convinced by ST than Bruce himself and Wilson. One was Hugh McLeod, who after comparing the degree of secularization in London, New York and Berlin in the late 19th and early 20th century, concludes that religion is too complex to be subjected to this type of survey over a broad range of countries: "the search for some master factor, which might provide the key to the whole process of secularization, is misguided". McLeod sees instead a complex of historical factors (1992). The implication is that ST is not a theory but a description of a process covering certain places and times. Similar ground is covered more recently by Morris (2003), who cites doubts about a simple relationship between modernization and religious decline. The book by McLeod and Ustorf (2003) is a major work on ST that sees secularization to be properly a descriptive term for Western Europe in the last two centuries rather than a teleological projection, as "hard" versions of ST would have it.

In some recent research, the obvious problem that ST finds it hard to account for US religiosity, and yet RCT cannot account for European indifference, has spawned a new formulation of ST, Neo-Secularization (Yamane, 1997). This departs from traditional ST by limiting the focus to structures and institutions; differentiation still means that institutions cease to be dominated by religion, but individual piety remains unaffected. Thus Neo-secularizationists would argue that even if religious affiliation remains steady, the authority of religion on issues like birth control is indeed declining. Phillips (2004) applies this variant to two American case studies (Mormonism and the Second Great Awakening), and Yip (2002) supports the Neo-Secularization thesis in a study of nonheterosexual Christians in the UK which confirms the lack of influence and impact of religious authority structures on the respondents' views of sexuality & spirituality.

Generally, the reaction in the last decade to the sustained attacks on the traditional formulation of ST is to emphasise that institutions as well as people can be secularized (Somerville 2002). This could be regarded as "soft" secularization, which contrasts with the original "hard" ST of Wilson and Bruce. The conclusion must be that the original ST concept seems to be somewhat eroded, and Somerville (1999) gives no fewer than five different uses of the word "Secularization"!

The Stark-Bruce controversy—other views

Was there an Age of Faith?

Going back to Stark's article which claims to bury ST, the "Age of Faith" argument is criticised not only by Bruce but by Somerville (2002), who contends that there really was an Age of Faith and points out the inconsistency in Stark's treatment of religious observance in mediaeval Europe: "Stark remembers to mention heresies and paganism when describing resistance to the Church, but he does not treat them as part of the religious mix of the time. When he wants to argue that there was very little religion back then, he concentrates on a narrow definition of Christianity. When he wants to argue that there is a lot now, he remembers to include everything".

US "exceptionalism"?

The vitality of religion in the USA is a problem for ST, just as its lack in countries like the UK is a problem for RCT. Another contributor to the 1992 symposium (Bruce, 1992) was RCT theorist Roger Finke, who is unsurprisingly sceptical about ST and points out the "exceptionalism" of the USA which is accepted by many writers. It is widely held that US churchgoing actually peaked as late as 1970, although it may have declined since (Finke, 1992). Smith's book (2003) analyses secularization in the USA from 1879 to 1930 as a real phenomenon, but he argues that it was not an inevitable effect of social processes of modernization, but was instead a deliberate achievement of the cultural elite. Cnaan et al (2004) confirm by a telephone survey that American teenagers appear to retain a strong religious commitment, and Wallace et al (2003) found that American adolescents were predominantly affiliated to a church. Hollinger's reflective article (2001) is concerned with the USA and argues that it is definitely less religious than it used to be, although he emphasises that it is primarily Christianity which has been weakened; following this article is a response by Sommerville (December 2002) and rejoinder by Hollinger (2002).

Europe—is it so secular?

Certainly the UK remains an example of ST if there is one: Brown's book (2001) confirms this, and Voas (2003) finds that baptism rates in the Church of England have fallen significantly since World War II, associating declining religious affiliation with high levels of religious diversity: this demographic theory of advanced secularization confirms ST. But is all of Europe as secular as ST proposes? The article by Lambert (2004) is based on European Values Surveys and interestingly shows that the trend away from religion in 1960s and 1970s has been counterbalanced since 1999. Diotallevi (2002) discusses the "Italian exception": he contrasts Italy with France, pointing out that modernization has not led to the same decline in religiosity in Italy, but also that the Catholic monopoly in Italy is hard to reconcile with RCT; he attempts to reconcile them by positing competition WITHIN the Catholic Church: this is the concept of intrabrand competition (as opposed to interbrand competition). In a journalistic piece Appleyard (2005) points to signs of a revival in interest in Christianity, even in doggedly secular Britain.

The religious life of eastern Europe is now an active research topic, and the balance of views casts some doubt on application of the ST analysis there. An example is the recent article by Maryniak (2004), and of course the already-mentioned RCT-oriented studies by Froese and others dispute the reality of genuine secularization in this region.

New Age, alternative and "invisible" religion: the importance of individualization

While Bruce discounts the statistical importance of newer religious forms like New Age that bypass conventional religious organizations altogether, other writers are less dismissive. Knoblauch (2003) confirms that Europe displays declining religiosity, but shows how this is qualified by a real takeup of what he calls alternative religion, a wider term than "New Age" which means privatized non-traditional and non-institutional religions. Pollack (2003) also points out that although institutional religion is in decline, other more individualist and syncretistic forms are emerging in western Europe, and he investigates this same phenomenon in central and eastern Europe. Houtman and Mascini (2002) look at the reasons for New Age growth and established religion's decline in the Netherlands, again focusing on the importance of individualization of religious life. Cipriano (2003) covers the same topic with reference to Italy, as do Hiernaux and Servais (2003) for Belgium.

So who is the exception?

The USA may be an exception to the general drift in the West towards secularization, if such there be, but it is not the only one. The article by Brewer (2004) on contemporary Ulster Protestantism makes it clear how important religion continues to be there, although Bruce of course allows that this is consistent with ST, and I have already the mentioned Italy as another possible exception within Western Europe. Anyway, the US's size, wealth and power make it central to any discussion of this issue. Ferguson (2004) examines whether the differences between Europe and the USA in religiosity are related to a simultaneous difference in declining industriousness (the difference being in the USA's favour!), and relates this to Weber's work: "Is it too fantastic to see in this link from religious belief to economic behaviour—whatever the direction of causation—a kind of centennial vindication of Weber's thesis? I think not".

At any rate, it is an open question whether religion, including Christianity, is as terminally ill as ST states. Chesnut's book (2003) is a study of the new face of Christianity in the huge region of Latin America. Cairncross (2004) points to the continued vitality of Christianity in many parts of the Third World, including Asia and South America, and asks whether it is in fact Europe that is the exception rather than America.

RCT and ST outside the Christian world

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What about the vitality of religion outside the West, and especially outside Christendom? Although I have said that ST as such does not claim to be universal, the question of whether there can be secularization in the (mainly) Third World countries whose native religion is not Christianity is interesting and highly relevant to the discussion, as is the application of RCT to such societies.

As already noted, large numbers of non-Christians now live in predominantly Christian countries, both in Europe and the "New Worlds" of America and Australasia, and the relationships between the very different faiths of host and immigrant communities is a subject in itself. It is therefore to an extent outside the scope of this Hot Topic, but an interesting article by Wuthnow and Cadge (2004) explores the influence of Buddhism in the USA.

What is religion outside the West?

It is necessary to clarify what "outside the West" means in terms of religion. Roughly, the Christian West means Christendom, the regions of Europe and the New Worlds traditionally dominated by that religion, although there are of course large Christian communities in Africa and Asia, and many of these appear to be flourishing. This section is in contrast concerned with the great non-Christian religions like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shinto, and Sikhism, plus other smaller ones.

As far as this subject, ie religiosity outside the Christian West, relates to the controversy between RCT and ST, the strength of religion in much of what might be called the Third World is not necessarily favourable to RCT any more than to ST. The proponents of RCT understandably point to the revival of, say, Islamic fundamentalism as a falsification of ST, but it can be argued that Islam is a problem for them too, if, as is commonly assumed, many Islamic societies feature a virtual monopoly religion, limiting religious freedom and regarding religion and state as intimately connected. It would therefore seem to be difficult to practise choice of religion in a country like Saudi Arabia or Iran, and such societies are arguably as far from the enthusiastic religious diversity of the USA as they are from the much less enthusiastic and arguably less diverse religious societies of Europe. Is this actually the case?

RCT and non-western religion

RCT claims to be universal in its scope, and several of the studies already mentioned relate to non-Christian religions: the papers by Finke and Kern, relating to Japan and South Korea respectively. A more recent paper, which openly takes an RCT approach to Islamic countries, is by Introvigne (web article), who explores in particular what he calls intrabrand religious competition in Muslim markets, with Turkey as the main example. Intrabrand competition refers to religious diversity within a religion, in this case Islam; in other words it means a variety of sects, but the author gives it an economistic connotation by his choice of words, in the same way that RCT in general appears to assume that diversity must mean choice and competition. Introvigne claims that the large variety of Islamic sects in Saudi Arabia proves the existence of religious choice there: this deduction is surely questionable given the country's reputation as one of the most repressive in the world.

The general criticisms of RCT made earlier surely apply with equal if not greater strength to this and any other attempt to apply to Islam or other non-Western religions.

ST and non-western religion

As far as ST is concerned, we run into problems of definition when attempting to see how far the concept of secularization is even applicable outside the Christian West; after all, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist societies and so on did not pass through the same processes of modernization as did those of the West. As far as they have become modernized, this was as a result of having this imposed on them by Western imperialism, or more recently, of attempting to emulate them.

Berger (1983), however, has a completely different view of this, and relates Weber's work on rationalization and modernism to eastern religions, noting that Western modernity, including the concept of secularism, goes back to the Judaeo-Christian tradition itself, since the Bible can be seen as marking a break with the magical-mystical world of the ancient Near East. He argues that the religions of eastern Asia—like Buddhism, Confucianism, Shinto, and Hinduism—are already secular in many ways: the Japanese Soka Gakkai religion is profoundly practical, as of course is Chinese Confucianism. Berger's paper is part of a larger set of Proceedings covering modernization and secularization in various Asian countries (Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, 1983).

Yoshiharu Tomatsu's "The Secularization of Japanese Buddhism: the Priest as Profane Practitioner of the Sacred" (1995) is another good example of the different meaning that the term "Secularization" acquires once we apply it outside the Christian West. The paper actually contrasts the usual meaning of the term, ie a trend associated with modernity and the movement from sacred to profane, with an appropriate application to Japanese society. Tomatsu argues that there has always been a tendency towards "secularization" of the priest in Japan, which means that his special sacred status was eroded over time: current trends are simply an extreme extension of this process.

Islam and secularism/secularization

A short paper that directly debates secularisation with reference to Islam is "Islam and Secular Democracy: the Challenge of Secularization" by Abdou Filali-Ansary (1996) which points out that Muslim societies have not experienced secularization as an internal force, but because of external pressures, which however precede reform of the religion itself. This process is "a reversal of the European experience in which secularization was more or less a consequence of the reformation". Another paper that deals with secularization, by Ghamari-Tabrizi (2004), explicitly points out that both ST and RCT posit a connection between modernity and privatisation in religion (though the relationship is seen differently by the two theories) and that both theories are undermined by the contentious and public nature of religion in revolutionary Iran. Kazemipur and Rezaei (2003) also focus on Iran and also reject the dichotomy of secularization and de-secularization, but they argue that religion under the Islamic revolution has actually become more personalised.

A much larger number of papers deal with the relationship of Islam to secular society; in other words they focus on the relationship between Islam and secularism (ie Islam in a secular state that is not dominated by religion) rather than the secularization of Islam. In view of the continued and highly topical importance of Islamic fundamentalism, and its insistence on full application of Divine Law, the Shariah, this is not surprising. The issue is not so much one of whether Islam is losing its appeal in terms of numbers of adherents as of the possibility of separating religion and state in the way that most countries in the Christian western world have done, including of course the USA. In "Searching for Secular Islam" (2004), Ziauddin Sardar identifies the mistakes of the West in forcing secularism on Islamic countries but claims that Islam itself has had a long history of humanistic secularism in the shape of the Mutazalites (literally, Separatists) who opposed rigid imposition of Shariah law; his thesis is that Islam and secularism are compatible if both reform themselves. Turam (2004) is concerned with the tension between Islam and the secular state; AydIn (2004) is also concerned with the relationship between religious pluralism and Islam. Salvatore (2004) investigates how far the settling of Moslems in the West has led to individualisation of their religion.

Turkey was one of the first Moslem countries to experience a process of secularism imposed from above, dating from the revolution after the country's defeat in World War 1; Kemal Ataturk became effective dictator and pursued a policy of wholesale westernisation, replacing Islam by a combination of secularism and nationalism (Colak 2004). Turkey has remained relatively secular, and this tendency is now reinforced by its application to join the European Union; Gole (2004) describes the tensions involved between the Islamic and the European aspects of this country, important as far as immigrant numbers in the West are concerned. Carkoglu (2004) also deals with the confrontation between secularism and Shariah (or Seriat as it is known in Turkey). Another paper concerned with Islam and the West, Pramanik 2003, describes the attempts of the West to force secularization on post-Ottoman Empire Islam. Khalid (2003) deals with the same subject with reference to a smaller Moslem state, Uzbekistan, and Cronin (2003) relates the opposition in Iran to the first attempt in that country to imposed secularization from above in the 1920s.

Several websites indicate a significant interest in the question of secularization as it relates to Islam. The home page of the Institute for Secularization of Islamic Society states that its mission is to "promote the ideas of rationalism, secularism, democracy and human rights within Islamic society"; a similar site is the Iranian Secular Society.

Other non-western religions

As far as Hinduism is concerned, many papers relate to the degree that India is a secular society, but again the emphasis is on secularism and religious toleration, rather than on religious vitality and secularization. Engineer (2004) is directly concerned with this vital topic, as is Ganguly (2003) and the book edited by Sharma and Wright. Reisz (2003) is similarly concerned with secularism in reference to Judaism, and Chan (2004) discusses the Falun Gong cult in China, relating its popularity to secularism and ideological breakdown.

While this is only a very brief look at these religions, the conclusion must be that ST does not appear to be an especially strong force in Islamic and other non-western societies, that it is difficult to apply the term in its original connotation, and that resurgent Islam in particular is actually reacting against imposed secularization. This seems to confirm the analysis of ST itself, that particular processes in Europe and North America led to the religious fragmentation and rationalism that caused Secularization.

Conclusions and observations

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Underlying all the arguments about and studies of this subject, one may usefully come back to definitions, especially as empirical studies sometimes get the results they expect, want or otherwise, by using loaded definitions and questioning techniques. Although there is a surfeit of definitions in RCT of a very specialist nature, definition is often crucial in controversy for the purposes of clarifying what the protagonists actually mean. An example is quoted by Bruce (2000) from Reginald Bibby's 1993 study of Canadian attitudes to religion, which found that Canadians who did not rate religion highly were actually more concerned at making sense of life than those who did; Bibby interpreted this as meaning that they were "trying to work out theological details". The point here is that Bibby was interpreting an intense general concern with the meaning of life—among people who did not believe they had definite answers because they were not religious in the normally accepted sense—to imply that in fact these people were concerned with "theology". And even nonreligious people may value a religion like Christianity for its ethical nature and therefore like to call themselves Christian if they are challenged in a survey. A popular English philosopher, C. E. M. Joad, became famous for the phrase "it all depends on what you mean by"—in this case, "religious". I have already discussed the technical problems of measuring religious vitality, and the problems of defining what it actually is to be religious constitute a further and even more fundamental problem faced by any attempt to assess whether people are more or less religious than in the past.

In this sense at least, the Compensators concept of RCT does seem to have a spark of truth: the need or desire to know the kinds of truths that religion deals with will surely always be there, even if the answers that satisfy us are not religious in the normally accepted sense. (The concept of "spirituality" is commonly used nowadays, and Grant et al (2003) write about it: it is wider than religion, even individualistic religion, which makes it even more difficult to define! Woodhead (2005) briefly and neatly relates the waxing and waning of religious movements to both spiritual needs and political power). But apart from this, questions remain about RCT as a general theory, in terms of both conceptual validity and empirical reliability, although it no doubt works in particular locations on a micro level, as some of the studies show. It seems to embody the characteristic of many theories in the history of ideas that the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin used to liken to the swing of a pendulum: each new theory was a reaction against the one before it, and would go to the opposite extreme. Thus RCT can be seen as a reaction against ST and against the failure of sociology to take religion seriously; whether "Neo-Secularization" is some sort of synthesis or mid point between the two opposite views remains to be seen.

In contrast, ST itself does not aim to be a comprehensive theory in the way that RCT does: it is significant that it is known as the Secularization Thesis, not as Secularization Theory, because any theory is required to claim a certain minimum level of generality and predictive ability. On this basis, ie as a descriptive analysis of religion in particular times and places, ST seems to have some credibility in societies like the UK and most of what is known as the Western World—even if the largest country in the West, the USA, is not to be so neatly included in the ST domain. (On a personal note, as someone who can remember life in the UK from the late 1950s, I can confirm the amount of secularization that has occurred from the things that concerned me at the time: to take just one example, whereas back then we had an extremely pious religious programme—"The Epilogue"—on every night of the week as a respectable close to the TV schedule, today there is nothing like it, and what British religious broadcasting there still is consists mainly of programmes that are about, rather than inspired by, religion).

If the balance of empirical studies casts doubt on the wide applicability of ST, and if RCT remains contested, the reasons may be that 1) any specific theory is likely to be falsified, and 2) there are all sorts of reasons why some people are more religious than others. To take one example, Schieman et al (2003) take a psychological viewpoint in attempting to explain religiosity, relating it to lack of a sense of mastery. To take another example, some demographic research indicates that liberal churches may be in decline faster than conservative ones because their members tend to have smaller families! Such work reminds us of the complexity of what determines religious vitality.

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