Monthly Archives: March 2010

Categorizing Religions in America

Last post related to Rodney Stark and Roger Finke’s Acts of Faith.  In this book, they set out a spectrum along which they locate various religions/denominations in the United States.  The scale is:


This spectrum is interesting because it nuances the usual liberal-mainline-conservative categories used in describing American religion.  The ultraliberal category (perhaps unsurprisingly) consists for the authors of: Unitarian-Universalist, Unity Church, Unity, Spiritualist, Reform Judaism, and many New Age groups.  Liberal, meanwhile, consists of: United Methodist, United Presbyterian, Episcopal, Congregationalist, United Church of Christ, and Disciples of Christ.  Note that they also consider “the most liberal” wings of the UCC and Episcopalians to belong in the ultraliberal category, as well as (hearkening back to ancient times) some early Christian Gnostic groups.

According to Stark and Finke:

Groups in this niche typically have little intergenerational stability and must recruit new members each generation. In part this seems to be because they serve as a sort of halfway house on the route to irreligion. And in part it is because, like most of the offspring of the irreligious, their children so often opt for a relatively high-tension faith. These groups also suffer from low levels of participation and an oversupply of free-riders and therefore tend not to be durable.

It is worth noting here that Rodney Stark is a conservative-leaning Christian and personally repelled by highly liberal religion, and thus his writing on the subject tends to be more venomous than necessary (and also evidences errors and misapprehensions at times). But he is also an extremely accomplished sociologist, and thus his voice is worth considering thoughtfully.

Quotes are from pages 210-211 of Acts of Faith.


Filed under Book Notes, Defining Liberal Religion, Unitarian-Universalism

If Unitarian-Universalists were serious about growth, part 2

More insights from sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke: discussing a new religious movement trying to break onto the scene, they note that “the only ones who joined were those whose interpersonal attachments to members overbalanced their attachments to nonmembers. In part this is because, as noted in Proposition 22, social networks make religious beliefs plausible and new social networks thereby make new religious beliefs plausible.  In addition, social networks also reward people for conforming–in this case by converting.  In effect, conversion is seldom about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and family members.”

In other words, people frequently switch into a different religion when they come to have more friends and family members inside that religion than in the one they currently belong to.  This effect is related to distance, not just absolute numbers: when a person comes to have more local friends in a group, even though they may have a large number of friends and/or family who live much further away and are not part of the group, such a person is ripe for recruitment.

There are two implications for growth-minded UUs: first, radical hospitality that genuinely embraces newcomers and enfolds them into the community is likely to work as a strategy for increasing and strengthening the local congregation.  Second, one’s own family and friends are the best possible potential future UUs.  “Witnessing” to such folks in an appropriate manner can often pay off in terms of likelihood over time that they too will come into Unitarian-Universalism.  The first implication relates to a charge often heard from UU pulpits; it is unclear precisely how often it is carried into action.  The second implication is one rarely heard as a strong suggestion; personal aversion to religious evangelism (despite the fact that UUism is utterly unlike more dogmatic recruitment-oriented faiths and “witnessing” would never take the form of the more insistent and divisive strategies sometimes found in such religions) seems to prevent the robust attempt of this proven strategy.

Quote is from Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000: 117.


Filed under Book Notes, Unitarian-Universalism

If Unitarian-Universalists were serious about growth

Why doesn’t Unitarian-Universalism grow at a faster pace? Top sociologists of religion Rodney Stark and Roger Finke think they know why:

All we are really saying is that, other things being equal, effort pays–that to the extent that organizations work harder, they are more successful. What could be more obvious? Moreover, at least in principle, the results of hard work are independent of theology. Thus, we are convinced that many of the declining American liberal denominations, for example, could grow if they could somehow get their current members to work at bringing in new members the way strict denominations do. Keep in mind that, although demand is smaller at the more liberal end of the spectrum than in the more moderate niches, liberal demand also is very underactivated. Hence, if liberal groups such as the Unitarians or Episcopalians could count on most members devoting four hours a month to door-to-door canvassing, they would grow a lot! The trouble is that these denominations are unable to motivate such efforts because in practice religious effort and theology are connected. Contrary to the complaints of disingenuous critics that our approach reduces religion to nothing but marketing, we have consistently argued that the inability of the liberal denominations to market themselves effectively is rooted in their doctrines–only vivid conceptions of an active and concerned supernatural can generate vigorous religious action.

Rodney Stark and Roger Finke. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000: 257-258.


Filed under Book Notes, Unitarian-Universalism

Was a New Religion Founded in 1961, or Not?

Is Unitarian-Universalism a religion? In 1961 the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, two religious organizations that were not themselves religions, consolidated into a single entity, the Unitarian Universalist Association. The UUA is a collection of congregations, most of which belonged to the Unitarian or Universalist denominations/religions. Today, most member congregations of that association affiliate themselves historically with Unitarianism or Universalism or both, as well as in a few cases with Congregationalism, Humanism, Neo-Paganism, or some other variety of liberal religion.

The question is, when and how did the religion Unitarian-Universalism come about? Was it instantly wished into existence when these two organizations–neither of them fully representative of their respective denominations/religions–merged? Did it develop later, out of the shared post-1961 history of Unitarianism and Universalism, such that they become intertwined and basically united? Did it happen when people began to conceptualize themselves as not Unitarian or Universalists, but as Unitarian-Universalists? Or has it not yet happened–is it actually simply that there is a large association of congregations called the UUA, within which are various Unitarian and Universalist congregations?

It was by no means inevitable that we would come to think of there being a definable religion called Unitarian-Universalism. We might have just as easily gone on about our business of being Unitarians or Universalists, who happened to share leadership and organization at the top level of bureaucracy for expediency’s sake. It’s worth pondering the choices that were made to follow this path, to recognize that perhaps improbably the weight of a whole new religion has been asked to balance on a mere hyphen.


Filed under Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism