NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Does Religious Tolerance Destroy Faith?

March 29, 2001

Mainstream sociologists have held that the religious pluralism following from tolerance of differing sects undermines belief. In Western Europe, as the dominance of state churches eroded, religious observance and belief declined. Some sociologists expected religion to just disappear.

But they could not explain the American experience:

  • In the U.S. today, some 40 percent of adults claim to attend church weekly, compared with 10 percent in Britain and 4 percent in Scandinavia.
  • With some 1,350 denominations and sects, the United States is at once one of the most pluralistic and one of the most religious modern societies.
  • This discrepancy has forced sociologists to rethink the idea that religion withers without conformity.

Drawing on the insights of economics, some American sociologists says pluralism actually promotes belief, because competition requires religious sects to recruit members, and also means there is a greater likelihood that differing tastes in religion will be satisfied. Sociologists Rodney Stark, of the University of Washington, and Roger Finke, of Pennsylvania State University, are proponents of this "religious economies" theory.

Drawing on Census data from 1906, and contrary to the theory that urbanization discourages religious observance by creating neighborhoods of people with differing beliefs, they found:

  • While rural areas of the U.S. had church attendance rates of 50 percent, some urban areas had rates as high as 60 percent.
  • And in towns of similar size, church attendance was highest when there was a choice of worship.

In reply to critics who point out that in Poland, Ireland and Quebec the Catholic church has few competitors, yet faith and attendance at Mass are very high, they counter that even churches with a virtual monopoly thrive when religious observance is a form of political dissent, as in Poland under the Communists and Ireland and Quebec under English rule.

Source: Chris Shea, "Supply and Demand Among the Faithful," New York Times, March 24, 2001.


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