Findings & Footnotes – August 2019

The current issue of the Review of Religion and Chinese Society (6:1) is devoted to “negotiations and diversifications of China’s Christianities.” The stress on “negotiation” among these articles suggests that church-state outcomes in China are far from uniform, varying by the resources and strategies that churches employ in bargaining with officials for various privileges and freedoms, as well as regional differences. This is most clearly seen in the case of the Vatican’s back-and-forth relations with the Chinese government (although an article by Richard Madsen suggests that “grassroots Catholics” in the unregistered church are losing their agency), but also in the shifting relations between Protestants regarding the official Three-Self-Patriotic Movement. Based on a symposium last year, the updated and revised articles in this issue showcase the new fieldwork that has been undertaken in China during the past 15 years among Christians in the country. But the editorial to the issue notes that this research has been uneven; field studies on the Catholic Church are still far less numerous as compared to studies of Protestants.

The articles look at how different church-state positions in various regions of China shape the ministries of churches. One example is the way Protestant churches in southern Fujan appropriate ancestral halls for Christian burials while non-Christian elites and state actors showcase Protestant heritage to encourage economic growth and promote local pride. But the editor notes that the role of centralization remains significant, particularly as “Xi Jinping has so forcefully imposed the Party on state and society,…[doing so] in the sphere of religion to the point of dissolving the state’s religious affairs offices into the Party’s bureaucracy.”  For more information on this issue, visit:

 The demographics of religion has been the subject of an increasing number of books and articles in the last several years, and with the publication of the new Journal of Religion and Demography, the field now has a regular outlet for such research. Although the inaugural issue was just published, the publication had a previous incarnation as the Yearbook of Religion and Demography. The new journal format will provide research and analysis more frequently (two times a year) and in briefer form. The first issue features the ongoing statistical portrait of the world religious population that was first reported in the World Religion Database, drawn from several different formal and informal sources. The most recent count (2018) shows that, after North Korea and other communist nations, the U.S. has the next largest number of agnostics, mainly due to the rise of the non-affiliated, at 53.8 million (though this number can also include non-institutional believers); that the fastest-growing religious populations are in Asia; that because of the influx of guest workers, the fastest-growing Muslim populations are now in Finland and the Czech Republic; and that Zoroastrians are the only religion in the world likely to have fewer adherents in 2030 than in 2018 (falling to an estimated 184,000 members). Other articles in this issue include projections of Europe’s Muslim population and a study of how Jewish millennials tend to identify with Judaism more as a religion than an ethnicity, which is a departure from the growth of non-religion within this age group. For more information on the journal, visit:

 Stephen Bullivant’s new book Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II (Oxford University Press, $32.95) is an engaging yet sobering analysis of the widespread pattern of disaffiliation that has impacted almost all the Catholic churches in Western countries during the last four decades. Bullivant, a British Catholic theologian and sociologist, uses quantitative and qualitative data as well as historical records to show that the church’s loss of Catholics is far from a life-cycle effect (with older people returning to the church) but more of a long-term change among cohorts, with each generation further weakening its ties to the institution (and the author makes it clear that these are not “cultural Catholics,” but people who no longer consider themselves to be Roman Catholic). The author is especially adept at analyzing accounts of disaffected Catholics, putting to use his wide experience in studying atheists. Bullivant writes of the unpleasant irony that the church’s Second Vatican Council actively sought to counter the small yet growing number of disaffected Catholics in Europe and even the U.S. in the mid-twentieth century (the main reason the council even focused on liturgy) only to accelerate the process of such church disaffection, leading to steeper and more serious kinds of decline. Just how the council had these unintended consequences is the subject of much of the book, with Bullivant focusing on the UK and U.S. as case studies of Catholic disaffiliation.

By citing Vatican II as a significant factor in Catholic disaffiliation, the author is likely to run into a torrent of criticism, such as the view that it was conservative counter-reaction to the council, as expressed as early as 1968 with the reinstatement of the prohibition on birth control, that was a trigger for church disenchantment. Bullivant doesn’t discount the role of dissent in leading to the perfect storm of disaffiliation, but notes that it was a more gradual process that dovetailed with other factors (the loss of Catholic subcultures and neighborhoods, the sexual revolution in the wider society, and the failure of parents and older Catholics to serve as role models for the younger generation). Bullivant pronounces the main goal of making worship more meaningful and attractive to the average Catholic a failure, even if the above factors would still have created alienation between Catholics and the church. The attendance patterns of the British and U.S. cases are very similar, with 35 to 37 percent no longer considering themselves Catholic.

Bullivant does note that “leavers”—those who depart from the church and join no other religion—predominate in the UK, while “switchers”—those leaving for other churches, especially the evangelicals—are more common in the U.S. (although he puts too much emphasis on megachurches drawing Catholics during the evangelical revival of the 1970s, as these giant congregations were not so widespread back then). He delivers more bad news toward the end of the book, as he delves into the effect of the priestly sex abuse crisis on disaffiliation. It seems that greater distance from actual abuse (usually it was highly committed Catholics who suffered the most abuse given their greater frequency of contact with offending priests) has had more negative effects on affiliation; even those traumatized by abuse often retain some form of Catholic identity. The crisis has provided a powerful impetus for those already alienated from the church to actually disaffiliate and no longer call themselves Catholic, with some even viewing their nominal connection to the church as complicity with a tarnished institution.


High on God: How Megachurches Won the Heart of America (Oxford University Press, $24.95), by James Wellman Jr., Katie Corcoran, and Kate Stockly, is an intriguing examination of the social and cognitive psychology of these large congregations that takes the accent off beliefs and puts it on bodily practices and emotions. Drawing on the work of Emile Durkheim and Randall Collins, the authors theorize that it is the strong emotions generated from crowded services and feelings of bonding with fellow attenders and the pastor that keep people coming and eventually getting more involved in church and community life. Wellman, Corcoran and Stockly find that it is a confluence of emotionally significant factors that drives this appeal, involving the charismatic leadership of the megachurch pastor, acceptance by fellow members, feelings of deliverance and certainty, a sense of purpose gained through church service, and what they call “re-membering,” a process that takes place in smaller groups where a bridge is created between the larger church’s service and people’s personal lives. The book, which is based on a study of 12 megachurches, stresses how cultural relevance and informality in worship styles marks the megachurch’s appeal. But there has also been a trend of prominent megachurches embracing some forms of liturgy and sacramental worship [see RW, Vol. 34, No. 8], and it will be interesting to see if these congregations retain such high rates of loyalty.


While the economic study of religion has taken a lower profile in the last few years, this approach makes an impressive comeback in The Wealth of Religions: the Political Economy of Believing and Belonging (Princeton University Press, $29.95) by Harvard University’s Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro. The book, based on the duo’s research for the past two decades, does a good job of unpacking economic concepts and how they apply to religion, as well as providing interesting case studies of the interplay between these two fields. Interestingly, McCleary and Barro support the secularization thesis—interpreting it as referring to the strong negative effect on measures of religiosity of higher economic development—which market theory has tended to criticize. But the authors argue that “secularization” is vague enough to allow for other prospects aside from the irrelevance not to mention the disappearance of religion.

The most interesting chapters are those where McCleary and Barro look at the way religion remains an “independent variable” in affecting economic outcomes. They re-examine the Protestant ethic thesis of Max Weber and find that religion does positively affect economic growth, though more in the way of generating moral values than promoting social interactions. In their chapter on Islam and economic growth, the authors seem to think it is more practice than beliefs that are important, though not always in the expected direction. For instance, observance of Ramadan appears to depress economic activity, yet this celebration is found to increase the happiness and wellbeing of Muslims. Other chapters include discussions of state regulation and religion (showing both that state religions increase participation in formal religious institutions and that regulation of the religious market drives down such participation), and a pioneering and fascinating look at the economy of saint-making, showing how competition and religious context (for instance whether it is a Protestant or Catholic society) shape the quantity and quality (they ask whether blessing too many saints weakens their effect on the church) of the beatification and canonization saints.