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Understanding Religion From a Sociological and Economic Perspective

cost benefit analysis

Atheists of every stripe agree that all the gods of human religions are false; that they do not have magical, supernatural powers; that these gods do not answer prayer, heal the sick, or raise the dead. These gods are made and shaped by human hands, and do not, as many religionists suggest, live beyond the space-time continuum.

Atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of gods. While it is possible that there is a God that has not yet revealed itself to us, such a possibility is extremely unlikely. Most atheists are comfortable living their lives with no thought of God or religion. Living such a life perplexes religious people, particularly Evangelical Christians. Unable to rationalize why anyone would ever reject the wonderful love and grace of Jesus, some Evangelicals make inflammatory, false statements about atheists: atheists are immoral, atheists secretly desire to commit sexual sin, atheists hate God, atheists are servants of Satan. While it is certainly true that atheists can do bad things, I know of no study that concludes that atheists act better or worse than Evangelicals. People are people, and humans can do awful things, regardless of what they believe about the existence of God.

Many Christians believe that Christianity gives them a one-up morally on the rest of the world. Evangelical are, according to their core beliefs, saved and sanctified, and have the Holy Spirit living inside of them. Not only that, but God has given to them a divine road map for life — the Bible. Evangelicals, then, SHOULD be morally superior to the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world. That they aren’t reveals that many Christians don’t practice what they preach.

A religion need not be true for people to benefit from it. I would be the first to admit that millions of Americans find great value in religious beliefs and practices. While it could be argued that — for Christianity in particular — the removal of God’s judgment and fear of hell from the equation would empty Christian churches overnight, many religions do not have such beliefs, yet millions of people devote themselves to their teachings and practices. I am more inclined to believe these days, after ten years of interacting with progressive and liberal Christians, that people can intellectually abandon (or compartmentalize) many of the teachings of Christianity, yet hang on to a spiritualized form of Christianity that focuses on a cosmic Christ and doing good works. This brand of Christianity bears little resemblance to historic Christianity, yet it “works” for millions of people. Why is this?

The best way to understand religious belief in general and Christianity in particular is to view both from a sociological and economic perspective. Strip away all the dogma and what’s left? A group of people joined together with common wants, needs, and desires. Years ago, Polly and I visited the Episcopal church in Defiance, Ohio. One member came up to us and let us know that the church didn’t care what we believed. Coming from an Evangelical and Baptist background, we found such a notion shocking. Beliefs matter! Right? In Evangelical churches, beliefs matter, but outside of Evangelicalism, there are thousands of churches who are indifferent to the internecine wars fought over doctrine. These churches just want to love God, love others, be happy, and do good works. For them, church is a social or family gathering, a place where people are accepted as they are.

Humans tend to be social animals, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that one of the biggest draws for religious groups is the social connectivity they offer to attendees. From this perspective, churches aren’t any different from humanist or atheist groups, nor are they any different from clubs such as the Lions Club, Kiwanis Club, Moose Lodge, Amvets, VFW, Facebook, or any of the political parties.

We humans tend to gather together based on shared beliefs, practices, and ideals. We enjoy hanging out with like-minded people. When we view religions from this perspective, it becomes easy to see why most Americans are church members or part of a religious group. When we throw in the fact that religion gives people a moral framework to live by and answers the two big questions of life -What is my purpose and Is there life after death? — it is not surprising that religion continues to flourish.

One of the weaknesses of atheism is that it doesn’t provide social connection (nor is it meant to). One of the things that former Christians miss is that sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Former believers also miss the communal fellowship found in churches. More than a few former Evangelicals have written me expressing how lonely they felt once they became unbelievers. While there are atheist and humanist groups that provide social connectivity, for the most part, particularly for people who don’t live on the east/west coast or in a major city, atheists and humanists are on their own.

Let me conclude this post by looking at religion from an economic perspective. To properly understand why people are members of a particular religion/church, we must do a cost-benefit analysis. Being a part of a religion/church costs something. This is what I call the price of admission. One of the hardest things to get Evangelicals to admit is that to become a Christian/church member requires some sort of payment, be it a denial of self, a repudiation of certain behaviors, financial contributions, or as pastors are fond of saying: God wants you to give your time, talent, and money.

church shopping

People attend church Sunday after Sunday, oblivious of the fact that every time they walk through the doors, a membership fee is required of them. It’s only when congregants become unhappy or disgruntled that they do a cost-benefit analysis. What am I getting out of this? they ask. They begin to wonder if the price of admission is worth it; are they getting more in return than what is costs? If unhappy Evangelicals conclude that they no longer are receiving what they should be for their payment, they begin a process called “church shopping.”  Feeling that their needs are not being met or they aren’t being “fed,” Christians visit other churches hoping to find a congregation that will better suit their needs. In other words, they are looking for a religion/church where the benefits outweigh the costs.

Evangelicalism is numerically in decline. The reasons for this are many: exclusionary practices, right-wing politics, support for Donald Trump, anti-abortion rhetoric, Puritanical sexuality, and homophobia, to name a few. In particular, Evangelical churches are hemorrhaging millennials, losing the very people who are supposed to be the future of Evangelicalism. These millennials have decided that the cost of being Evangelical church members outweigh the benefits. And so they leave, swelling the ranks of Americans who are indifferent towards organized religion — the NONES.

As the United States becomes more secular and less religious, religious leaders and pastors think that the solution to this change is to double down on their particular beliefs and practices or develop programs that will attract unbelievers or help to retain church members. These approaches have failed spectacularly, and until an honest accounting is given as to why people stay or leave, sects and churches will continue to see membership (and financial) loss. Until sects admit that their church planting efforts do little to “reach the lost,” but, for the most part just cannibalize already established churches, they shouldn’t be surprised when new members gained at one point leave when the latest, greatest church with the most awesome pastor ever comes to town. Christians are no different from anyone else. They seek that which will give them the greatest benefit for the least cost, and as long as the benefits outweigh the costs, their asses will remain firmly ensconced in the pews. But when the equation flips and costs outweigh benefits, LOOK OUT!


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    Good article. I was disturbed to hear a preacher I know claim that we live in a post Christian world because only 43% of people in our country are Christian and white. (What does race have to do with anything?) It struck me how these people claim not to be racist, but really they are. These are the “morally superior” people who claim they are being persecuted but seem to be the ones who are doing the persecuting. They just want everything “good” like healthcare, adequate pay, shelter, and food for themselves because supposedly they are the only “good” people. Maybe they don’t understand the meaning of the word good. I don’t know. It just made me kinda sick.

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    Here’s one thing, I believe there is going to be a church collapse. While I was in the IFB, I visited IFBs, and noticed I was very young for the adults there, and I am very deep into being Middle age myself. The IFB is dying but I also noticed in other mainstream evangelical and other churches how they were emptied out and the members were very old. I even visited a United Methodist, where it seems most people are 70 plus. Around here from the mainlines down to the IFB, the churches are emptying out.

    Gen X and Millennials aren’t joining churches and are leaving. Maybe liberal Christianity is different, but many are bowing out. Some even still believe in God or Jesus. One thing too is the economic factor, 10 percent tithes aren’t going to be accepted among people who can’t barely pay their rent and have no more expendable income. I noticed most churches were comfortably middle class and above. I agree many people seek social connection via church. I am considering liberal Christianity for mostly social reasons, hey I will admit it. I want some kind, sane people who believe in doing good for others.

    However most in the churches have grown very old. I think many younger people this includes me, bowed out from the same Reagan-era supply side economic Republican teachings shoved down all our throats too. The pastors, and elders of the churches are completely out of touch with younger people’s lives and their realities. They have no interest in listening either. Their racism and classism now means they are in dying institutions.

    Young people in the age of the Internet and by young I mean 55 and below here, since Gen X has entered it’s early 50s, want something interactive, and meaningful and real social connections, not people putting on status displays and going to attend a lecture hall like one IFB I visited where it was the pastor 24-7 and I never got to even learn any names or have a personal conversation with anyone.

    I believe Trump is causing an already under-reported exodus from the churches. They showed their hand with extreme hypocrisy there. With millions in debt from student loans, who fear their health insurance being taken away, etc, why should any young person want to go to a church where the people there are more interested in crushing them?

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      You might find Chris Stroop/Not Your Mission Field to be helpful also. Chris is an ex-Evangelcial, who holds a PhD in Russian Studies from Stanford and identifies as queer. He started both #EmptythePews and #YouDon’tKnowEvangelicals on Twitter.
      He has a resource page on his blog designed to help those leaving Evangelicalism and wants to help form a larger community.

      Bruce, I hope it’s ok to mention another blog here. If not, feel free to delete this post.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Exactly right. I’m definitely a “NONE”, as in not involved. And there are some Christian nationalists who want 10% taken, automatically out of all paychecks, to finance churches, so they can take over social services from the government. No more Social Security, Medicare,etc. Just them. Period. I need to track this down online, since I can’t find my notes Forcing people to attend church is one way the Dominionists plan to force people to relate to them if they become impoverished. Because their allies in Washington destroyed the safety net.

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