Saturday, September 24, 2005

As a physics graduate I've always liked numbers and so was fascinated to read some of the results from the sociology of religion about who joins religions and why.

Drawing on Rodney Stark's work, it seems that the people most drawn to cults are not the poor and stupid but the prosperous and bored. Also, it is people who do not consider themselves religious who make up a disproportionate number of new cult members. Secularists applaud how many people answer 'none' when asked by pollsters what their religion is because they assume 'none' means secular humanist. In fact, it often means quite the reverse. The people who say 'none' are the ones who you find in New Age shops, at Kaballa centres and joining the Moonies. This is hardly surprising because those of us with a strong religious affiliation are much less likely to prance off and join a new one. For secularists this is a bit depressing as it seems all the people with no religion are not like them at all. The proportion of actively agnostic/atheist individuals is still miniscule in almost all societies. Indeed, I would expect that the profile and recruitment patterns for strong atheism are very similar to cults like the Moonies and Mormons.

There is a flip side to this. Stark has found that when old religions split into sects, the sectarians tend to be of lower class than average for the church in question. This is something else we can see in the real world. Mainline liberal protestant churches are the preserve of a higher proportion of comfortable, middle class people who don't go in for anything that smacks of fundamentalism. Conversely, the higher intensity Christian sects have a far higher proportion of poor, inner city and ethnic minority members. Now, this is a generalisation but one that the statistics support. Why is it the case? Well, either you believe that the poor are more susceptible to high intensity religion, or it is the sects who have remembered better to whom Jesus aimed his mission in the first place.

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