Tag Archives: chapel car

Extinction of Western Religion?

Flickr photo by moominsean

CNN reports the projected extinction of western religion.

A few major caveats:

1) The underlying paper on which this report is based only focuses on Western Europe (which has seen rising rates of secularization much faster than in the US).  While rates of “nonery” (those saying “none” to a question of what their religious tradition is) have risen dramatically in the US (see “American Grace“), most of these “nones” still actually believe in God, they just haven’t found the right church; and

2) Relatedly, these projections assume that people flip to be “secular” to mirror the populations around them, but assumes that the religious environment itself doesn’t change to attract these seculars.  U.S. history is rife with examples of religious entrepreneurship — religious leaders inventing or reinventing religion to meet changed needs.  “American Grace” in Chapter 6 discusses a host of these like megachurches, Mormonism, circuit riders, the chapel car, cyber- religion, televangelism, etc.

Excerpt from “American Grace“:

In the nineteenth century, the American frontie4r presented a problem for religious leaders.  People, especially young people, were spread out in far-flung communities, many of which were too new to have churches.  And so both Protestant ministers and catholic priests came up with an ingenious solution — the chapel car.  Clergy would use these train cars repurposed into mini-chapels to travel from town to town, holding services for the otherwise unchurched settlers on the frontier.  They are largely forgotten today, but in their day chapel cars represented the state of the art in bringing religion to remote areas.

The paper by Abrams et. al, summarized in the CNN story, ignores this entrepreneurship and assumes that religious leaders and entrepreneurs will sit idly by and watch their denominations dwindle rather than invent new ways of helping to attract new converts.  This seems extremely short-sided in making predictions of the future.

The quote from Peter Berger at the end of the CNN story is telling.

Peter Berger, a former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, once said that, “People will become so bored with what religious groups have to offer that they will look elsewhere.”

He said Protestantism “has reached the strange state of self-liquidation,” that Catholicism was in severe crisis, and anticipated that “religions are likely to survive in small enclaves and pockets” in the United States.

He made those predictions in February 1968.

Obviously Berger’s prediction hasn’t materialized.

For more detail, see paper by Daniel Abrams, Richard Wiener and Haley A. Yaple called “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation,”presented it this week at the Dallas meeting of the American Physical Society.

For more blog posts on “American Grace”, visit here.