When sociologists look at religion, what do they see? Inevitably, they see statistical clusters of churchgoers sorted through ecclesiastical, geographic, and demographic grids. People who want to assess contemporary social trends in American religion would do well to consult this new volume by Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge. In impressive detail. Stark and Bainbridge document how the ongoing decline of America’s “main-line” denominations is fueling the growth of militant sects and novel cults. The authors find “an endless cycle” in which “faith is revived and new faiths born to take the places of those withered denominations that lost their sense of the supernatural. Through secularization, churches reduce their tension with the surrounding sociocultural environment, opening fields for sects and cults to grow and, in turn, themselves to be transformed.”
Yet even after acknowledging the general validity of Stark and Bainbridge’s pattern, even after noting the accuracy of the specific figures given for, say, the declining Methodists or the ascendant Assemblies of God, many readers will still wonder if overweening faith in sociology is not itself symptomatic of the decline of faith. It was that passionate Christian Soren Kierkegaard who taught us that “a crowd is untruth.” As students of crowds, sociologists have not proved Kierkegaard wrong, nor have their techniques brought us closer to God. When the solitary prophet descends from the mountain, his message rarely matches the jottings of the sociologists who stayed behind to survey the people in the valley. If Methodist and Episcopal ministers spent more time in prayer and scripture study and less time consulting with sociologists, fewer of their former parishioners would now call themselves Lutherans, Baptists, and Mormons, and fewer still would be experimenting with the latest Asian cult.
[The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation, by Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge; Berkeley: University of California Press]
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