European market for religion

As an American living in Europe, I am at times accutely aware of the differing levels of religiosity between my country of origin and my current residence. But an article from this past weekend's edition of the Wall Street Journal suggests that the disparity may be starting to decrease. Surveys show that, particularly among young people, reported belief in religious concepts (heaven, hell, the soul) is rising, as is church attendance.

All the usual suspects are trotted out as possible explanations for this spiritual upswing: immigration from more devout countries, anxiety over erosion of cradle-to-grave welfare systems, fear of "Islamization" of Europe. But one surprising new explanation has been floated as well: supply side economics.

The story is something like this. Unlike in America, where the War of Independence ended "ecclesiastical hegemony" in the colonies (got rid of state-established churches and opened the religious market up for competition), European countries have clung to the government-supported (and often -controlled) state churches, effectively creating and sustaining religious monopolies. Nowadays, many of these centuries-old churches are losing their monopoly power, either because state monies for religious organizations can flow to any group voters choose, or because of the rise of more fervent, impassioned churches imported from elsewhere (notably, the US).

Upstarts are now plugging new spiritual services across Europe, from US-influenced evanglical churches to a Christian sect that uses a hallucinogenic herbal brew as a stand-in for sacramental wine. Niklas Piensoho, chief preacher at Stockholm's biggest Pentecostal church, says even sometimes oddball, quasi-religious fads "tell me you can sell spirituality." His own career suggests that a free market in faith is taking root. He was poached by the Pentecostals late last year after he boosted church attendance for a rival Protestant congregation.

Europe's upstart churches aren't yet attracting anywhere near enough customers to offset a post-World War II decline. But they are shaking up and in some places reviving the market for religion, argues Rodney Stark, a pioneer of religious supply-side theory at Baylor University in Texas.

Mr. Stark first developed the notion of a "religious market" in the 1980s as a way to explain America's persistent faith. It posits that people are naturally religious but that their religiosity varies depending on the vigor of what he calls religious suppliers. "Wherever churches are a little more energetic and competitive, you've got more people going to church," he says.

The notion that Adam Smith's invisible hand reaches into the spiritual realm has many detractors. Steve Bruce, a professor of sociology at Aberdeen University in Scotland, says market theory "works for cars and soap powder but it does not work for religion." ...

The Church of Sweden is also skeptical of the supply-side view. "We don't sell a product," says archbishop Anders Wejryd.

In contrast to what Prof. Bruce and Archbishop Wejryd claim, religion is most definitely a product. Or perhaps I should hedge my semantic bets and say that participation in a particular religious community is most definitely a product. And as such, it makes sense to argue that if people can't find the product they want in a monopolized market, they simply won't consume it, whereas given a choice between many differentiated versions of the product they very well may partake.

I don't know if supply side factors are responsible for the rise in religiosity in Europe, but I think this posited explanation brings up a whole lot of questions about the role of market forces in religion, which is unfortunately a notoriously slippery research topic. I'll end with one question that occured to me while reading the piece. It comes from one of Mr. Stark's points: if the different levels of religiosity are mainly or even in large part due to a lack of competition in European markets for religion, that implies that Europeans have always been more religious (in terms of inclination to belief) than we thought, possibly even no less so than Americans. What then happens to traditional explanations of why European society is regarded as so secular when contrasted with US society?


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The news media keep reporting -- religiously -- that the US is highly religious.

But Sunday morning, where is all the church traffic?

I live in Alhambra, a suburb of 85,000 in Los Angeles County, where parking is a serious problem all week long, including Sunday mornings. If church attendance reports were even close to being true, a lot of parking spots would free up approaching 11:00 and there would be a frenzy to grab the good spots. Instead we get -- guess what -- a big nothing. I can walk around looking for churchgoers, but the traffic isn't there. Churchgoers don't walk to church (not in California), so if they don't use their cars, how do they get there?

The media present the biases imposed by their corporate sponsors, obviously. And I think most people are afraid to offend the religious nuts, simply because they're notorious for being vengeful and violent.