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

3 responses to “Categorizing Religions in America

  1. He classes Reform Judaism this way? I’m not a Rodney Stark fan, but the bias here is pretty off-putting. Also, based on his market-centric view of the world, I’d think traditions that do so well at recruiting new members might be worth at least of the tip of the hat, especially compared to religions (like Mormonism) that are famous for attracting newcomers, but whose growth is much more based on birthrate than on conversion.

  2. These cohorts seem so arbitrary that I can’t see the value here. I’d much rather see the statistics on “customer loyalty” if we want to use customer relationship management jargon. Is there hard data in the book and is he drawing conclusions from the data, or just imposing these categories on the numbers… if any?

    • Transient and Permanent

      To me, they appear to be doing both. There is indeed a lot of data in Stark and Finke’s work, both in this and other books. At the same time, it isn’t clear to me exactly how they defines strict and non-strict religions: they talk about degrees of tension with the outside world and the cost of holding various beliefs, but there’s no clear rubric for how these are scientifically measured.

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