Sunday, January 09, 2022

The Hollow Center

 From Eric Kaufman (Shall The Religious Inherit The Earth? 2010) , a demographer who has studied the changes in religious participation extensively:

If you are going to be religious, you may as well go for the whole thing.  Otherwise you might as well be secular.

He is not in the least evangelistic here.  He is describing the data of what seems to be the world-wide attitude in nearly all cultures (and their religions) going forward. The flanks (not necessarily the fringes) of religious sentiment are growing, both the believers who are gravitating toward stricter sects, and the seculars who have no affiliation, or even contact with religion at all. It is the middle that is hollowed out - the mainstream denominations of the West, for example. Even in Islam, Bosnia used to have many moderate Muslims.  They have tended to go one way of the other in the last two generations. Kaufman describes that fundamentalism arises in response to the impression that the mainstream is abandoning the faith for secular preferences.

Bsking noted years ago how few young people she worked with were interested in all the interesting liberal political things some of the churches were doing. They shrugged and reasoned that if that is what they wanted, they would simply join secular liberal causes, that focused more intently on those things, without dragging God into everything.

Interestingly, Kaufman notes that those traditionalist groups, such as Orthodox Jews or Amish or Hutterites, tend to be pro-natalist and have more children, and this is a stronger long-term strategy for growth than evangelism.  Mormonism grew for a long time on evangelism, but now there is "churn" of people who grew up LDS leaving, while there is now only a slightly higher number of births per woman. Their growth has leveled. Evangelicals have churn as well, with almost as many leaving as joining. However, they are strongly pronatalist and will continue to have growth because they have more children. Evangelism is apparently a temporary strategy. I will add that while much is made of the explosive growth of the Christian Church in the early centuries, from a few dozen believers at the outset to 6M when it was the dominant religion in the early 4th C.  But most of that increase was in the first hundred years, and most of that was in the first twenty years.  After that you can go on 2% growth a year, so long as it is sustained. The miracle of compound interest and all that.

Kaufman does note that the two often coincide - the evangelistic sects tend also to be pro-natal. He does also suggest that the hollowing of the center may be slowing, not accelerating, as there are only so many who want to move to either flank. The ones who wanted to leave are already gone.

I admit I listen to such podcasts with two ears, one listening for religious growth information and understanding, the other for cultural and political knowledge. Those overlap but are not identical.


james said...

A quibble: I'm not sure I'd call cultural Christians or cultural Jews the "center" of the religion--certainly not the philosophical center. Or, if they are, the religion is in deep trouble.

Rodney Stark suggested that the growth of Christianity was slower than we usually think.

In later works he wrote about high commitment religions. Perhaps counterintuitively, they can be more attractive than low commitment ones.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Kaufman mentions Stark's earlier work specifically, generally with approval but noting that his prediction about Mormon growth did not materialise. It was part of his discussion that endogenous growth - having children - was a stronger long term strategy than evangelism.

Point taken on the use of "center." I will go back and see if that is the word he actually used. I think it was largely because they are more numerous

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

@ AVI tend to be pro-natalist and have more children, and this is a stronger long-term strategy for growth than evangelism
@ james high commitment religions. Perhaps counterintuitively, they can be more attractive than low commitment ones.

This makes me think of Shakers as examples of these two points. A high commitment sect to be sure, but not over pushy with getting new converts. They generally got along quite well with the community at large because of this. Since members had to be celibate, even married couples that joined, the growth of Shakerism was as much dependent on taking in orphans as it was converting adults to the fold. They embraced the orphan model and it served them well - until improved heath conditions in the average population coupled with new laws that probably discouraged adoption by non-relatives slowed the "pool" of orphans. That, and changing spiritual attitudes in the populations around them meant there were fewer and fewer with the commitment necessary to sustain such a unique religious sect.