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Another look at the success of strict churches

November 20, 2009

When I first read Laurence Iannaccone‘s “Why Strict Churches Are Strong” (PDF alert), I was quite enamored with it. I guess I don’t know why I haven’t written a post on it (or maybe I have, but can’t find it). Anyway, I was reading an article from the St. Louis Today that referenced this research.

Iannaccone compared churches along a continuum of strictness, which he sometimes calls “distinctiveness,” and which includes among other items dietary guidelines, dress and grooming practices, time commitments, and standards of sexual morality.  The result of these distinctive membership requirements is that members tend to orient their lives fully around the institution, sometimes crowding out other pursuits and relationships. For the Jehovah’s Witnesses, this separation is a direct goal: the young Witness in my home explained how his family socialized primarily with other Witnesses and avoided interreligious activities.   For Mormons, the separation is an indirect effect: we’re strongly encouraged to make personal connections in our neighborhoods, and many of us do, but our distinctive way of life and the time we devote to serving in the church mean that often—not always—our social lives center mostly around our ward, or congregation.

What Iannaccone found was that the strictness of a church correlated positively with increased commitment, greater contributions of resources and time, and closer ties to the group.  The strict behavioral guidelines yielded higher benefits to members.  To understand why this is so, consider how much of a person’s experience at church depends on what others bring to the board: friendly greetings, musical gifts, excellent teaching, social support, solidarity, enthusiasm, love.  Strict behavioral requirements have the effect of retaining only the members who are most committed, most enthusiastic, most engaged.  Those who choose to participate fully reap the rewards of a vibrant community life.

Of course, the author disagrees with one area:

…while Iannaccone’s “rational choice” model has the advantage of explaining religious behavior from the outside without labeling believers deluded or misinformed, it’s not able to capture the experience of religious membership from the inside.  So Mormons (and, I venture to guess, Jehovah’s Witnesses) don’t base their commitment to the church on an expectation of social benefit, but rather on the spiritual conviction—what Mormons call a testimony—that sustains their faith and motivates their works.

I agree that Iannaccone does not capture the “testimony,” but I would also say that in its stead, Iannaccone accounts for something that perhaps is as important. When people are part of a religious community, why do they remain committed for so long even after they’ve lost their testimonies? Why does it reach so deeply within them? Why does it torment and torture? I think it’s because people come to realize all of the costs of the strictness.

As Hypatia wrote in response to my last article, the strictness of specific churches creates a field of broken glass and thorns that the disaffected member must walk and climb through to get out. But this thorny envelopment…this broken glass field…isn’t just anything…it is the community we have been a part of…it may even be our families.

I can see now (I couldn’t before) why some people become so angry after leaving. It’s not the lies, the cover ups, the sheep mentality, it’s when your family looks down on you, treats you like the anti christ, and will never try to understand who you really are and what you believe.

I’ve been in discussion over the past two days with a Muslim friend…we are both part of this religious discussion group I’ve mentioned before whose lofty goal is to try to find a way to harmony among the religion.

He pointed out:

We agree, harmony does not exist between religions. But for the most part, within religions, and I can only speak of my own–the harmony you are talking about is present. Now, I realize not 100%, but I can honestly say–that I do feel a sense of the “harmony of souls” in my prayers with the whole group or in my being with other members of the community.

So perhaps you should take a look at how religions themselves foster that brotherhood. As in: harmony exists, within religion between different ethnic groups, socioeconomic groups, education levels–so how can we spread harmony between religious groups?
Looking at how Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was able to create that kind of harmony within the community who followed him might be an example.  What happened in Arabia– is that prior to Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) preachings, the groups of Makkah were completely warring tribes. Not only did individuals from each of the tribes join together… but at some point he leads them away from Makkah to avoid persecution and finds a way to bind them to the people of a completely separate city of Medina. I’m not saying this has to be seen as unique…. but you have to admit its somewhat impressive. Particularly the fact that the sense of  “brotherhood” is maintained today with a far larger audience. All you have to do is watch clippings from the Hajj, 3 million people coming together to pray together, seeing themselves in a unified cause–to know some “harmony” does exist.

I thought about this…and I said…so this has happened. And isn’t this also what Paul was going for in Galatians, when he said “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ”? So isn’t there commonality?

The issue is that the religions cut down one set of barriers (tribe…ethnicity…etc.,) and create new barriers (one in Christ…or submitted to God.) These “barriers,” the more successful, create the stricter, securer religions. But they do so at the risk of creating fields of broken glass and thorns to those who might want to exit.

This field of broken glass…this thorny entanglement…it creates a level of solidarity and success within the religion…but what about the outside of religion? Between the religions? How about our overarcing humanity?

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3 Comments
  1. Sofal permalink

    I’ve got the solution.

    We just need to be attacked by aliens from outer space.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. Tribalism is an inconvenient, but inevitable by-product of human sociology, and when you throw salvation or eternal damnation in the mix, it makes things even more vitriolic. If only our brains could be hard wired differently. 😦

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