Sunday, 17 August 2014

Why Is There So Little Conversion away from State Religions?

The reason more Americans than Europeans attend church and claim to believe in God is in large part due to the absence of a state church in the USA. Historically this has meant that churches had no guaranteed income from the state, so their preachers would have to do a really good job in order to fill the collection plate - or starve. The same pressure was not present in Europe. Indeed, while Europeans have become less church-going since US independence, Americans, originally rather disinterested in religion, have attended the Lord's House with increasing assiduousness; church membership rates are up from 17 per cent at the time of the Revolution to over 60 per cent today.

These economic forces were noted already by Adam Smith, who wrote the following in The Wealth of Nations:
"[The preachers'] exertion, their zeal and industry, are likely to be much greater [when they depend on the voluntary contributions of their hearers] than [when their subsistence comes from legislated entitlements]. In this respect, the teachers of new religions have always had a considerable advantage in attacking those ancient and established systems of which the clergy, reposing themselves upon their benefices, had neglected to keep up the fervour of the faith and devotion in the great body of the people."

Elsewhere, Gary Anderson's article 'Mr Smith and the Preachers' (p. 1077) offers another pertinent quotation by the Great Scot:
"In the church of Rome, the industry and zeal of the inferior clergy is kept more alive by the powerful motive of self-interest, than perhaps in any established Protestant church. The parochial clergy derive, many of them, a very considerable part of their subsistence from the voluntary oblations of the people: a source of revenue which confession gives them many opportunities of improving. The mendicant orders derive their whole subsistence from such oblations."
Anderson also notes how Catholic Bishops were in a good position to grant promotions to the lower orders of clergymen; it is important to preach well, but one must also preach to the right person.
Thus, religious denominations which have to survive on their own do better than do state-supported ones. Which makes it rather puzzling that European non-state churches would have had to do just that. So why have they not thrived in Europe? One would think that assimilation of groups of different religion should open the door for natives to explore other faiths, and since they would do that in churches relying on voluntary contributions, they would be more likely to be swayed.
What could explain the absence of growth in non-state religions? Surely it would seem odd to many secular individuals to attend some new chruch, but all individuals are not the same, and to some of them it would not seem strange at all. This makes the new religion somewhat less strange and so increases its ability to attract new members. Many religions might not believe in collection plates or things producing similar results, but those that do should still have grown. Maybe many other faiths do not meet on weekends or whenever members of state churches can meet, or maybe they meet when competition from secular alternatives is otherwise very strong, but these possibilities are unlikely to fit every case. There should have been some religions meeting the criteria. Suggested explanations are most welcome.
Lastly and relatedly, Anderson's aforementioned article also notes David Hume's approval of an established religion on the grounds that it would mute the fanaticism of independent sects. I am inclined to think that the consequences of more religious belief among people are not generally as bad as that, though maybe one way of countering militant islamism is to make Islam the state religion?

No comments:

Post a Comment