November 15, 2005

Not Godless Heathens After All

It's hardly the main point of his piece, but Paul Bloom argues that Europe isn't really more un-religious than the United States, it just looks that way:
[T]he religious divide between Americans and Europeans may be smaller than we think. The sociologists Rodney Stark, of Baylor University, and Roger Finke, of Pennsylvania State University, write that the big difference has to do with church attendance, which really is much lower in Europe. (Building on the work of the Chicago-based sociologist and priest Andrew Greeley, they argue that this is because the United States has a rigorously free religious market, in which churches actively vie for parishioners and constantly improve their product, whereas European churches are often under state control and, like many government monopolies, have become inefficient.)

Most polls from European countries show that a majority of their people are believers. Consider Iceland. To judge by rates of churchgoing, Iceland is the most secular country on earth, with a pathetic two percent weekly attendance. But four out of five Icelanders say that they pray, and the same proportion believe in life after death.
The point about a "free religious market" in the United States that enables churches here to "improve their product" makes sense. A while back, the New York Times Magazine had a great piece on how evangelical "megachurches" have managed to expand their congregations at a time when church attendance in the United States has either plateaued or decline lately. It's all in the marketing and innovation:
It's hard to imagine a more effective method of religious outreach, which is, after all, the goal of evangelical churches like Radiant. As McFarland told me: ''I'm just trying to get people in the door.'' To that end, Radiant has designed its new 55,000-square-foot church to look more like an overgrown ski lodge than a place of worship. ''For people who haven't been to church, or went once and got burned, the anxiety level is really high,'' McFarland says. '' 'Is it going to be freaky? Is it going to be like what I see on Christian TV?' So we've tried to bring down those visual cues that scare people off.''

In fact, everything about Radiant has been designed to lure people away from other potential weekend destinations. The foyer includes five 50-inch plasma-screen televisions, a bookstore and a cafe with a Starbucks-trained staff making espresso drinks. (For those who are in a rush, there's a drive-through latte stand outside the main building.) Krispy Kreme doughnuts are served at every service. (Radiant's annual Krispy Kreme budget is $16,000). For kids there are Xboxes (10 for fifth and sixth graders alone). ''That's what they're into,'' McFarland says. ''You can either fight it or say they're a tool for God.'' The dress code is lax: most worshipers wear jeans, sweats or shorts, depending on the season. (''At my old church, we thought we were casual because we wore mock turtlenecks under our blazers,'' Radiant's youth pastor told me.) Even the baptism pool is seductive: Radiant keeps the water at 101 degrees. ''We've had people say, 'No, leave me under,' '' McFarland says. ''It's like taking a dip in a spa.'' …

The spiritual sell is also a soft one. There are no crosses, no images of Jesus or any other form of religious iconography. Bibles are optional (all biblical quotations are flashed on huge video screens above the stage). Almost half of each service is given over to live Christian rock with simple, repetitive lyrics in which Jesus is treated like a high-school crush: ''Jesus, you are my best friend, and you will always be. Nothing will ever change that.'' Committing your life to Christ is as easy as checking a box on the communication cards that can be found on the back of every chair. (Last year, 1,055 people did so.)
That's good thinking, and not the sort of thing you're likely to see in a state-backed church, which makes one wonder why so many religious folks want to kick down the wall between church and state in the first place. (In fact, back in the day, when the Supreme Court first banned prayer from school, many religious leaders supported the court's decision for just this reason—to avoid state stultification of religion.) This also recalls the secular case for religiously-based social services, which seem to do more to break the grasp of theology than anything else. Although, as Paul Bloom notes, it probably doesn't make people any less religious personally—that seems to be an accidental evolutionary byproduct of our cognitive tendencies to a) distinguish between material objects and abstract ideas, and b) see patterns—some might say "intelligent designs"—in random events. At least that's the theory.
-- Brad Plumer 3:19 PM || ||