A few years ago there was a lot of discussion in the Bloggernacle about the fact that highly-demanding religions (like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) are currently retaining members better than low-demand religions (like Catholicism). Both types are shedding members, but the more demanding denominations are apparently not shedding them quite as quickly.
I think this claim about the differing rates of attrition is probably true — here‘s an article from a Catholic perspective on how grave their situation is — so let’s analyze the advantages and disadvantages of the two strategies!
Catholicism offers the possibility of choosing pretty much any level of devotion, from full-time (becoming a nun or monk) on the one end of the spectrum down to zero-time (not giving the church a second thought after your parents have you baptized as a baby). My husband, for example, identifies as Catholic despite the fact that he also identifies as atheist (and did not want our kids baptized). Although that particular combination is not common, I think it is pretty common (especially in Catholic-majority countries) to consider oneself Catholic despite going to mass essentially never. I understand my husband’s brother is planning to have his new baby baptized Catholic, even though I’m pretty sure he and the mom aren’t married, I don’t think they attend mass, and who knows what they believe. Viewing the church as simply a set of cultural rites-of-passage doesn’t really disqualify people from embracing a Catholic identity.
On the other hand, with Mormonism (particularly in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints branch of Mormonism), there’s a very strong sense of “you’re in or you’re out.” If you’re in, then you’re expected to fulfill a calling (a job helping to run some aspect of the local congregation) in addition to some additional calling-like tasks: home/visiting teaching, cleaning the church building, and attending temple sessions (in addition to the 3 hour block of ordinary church services every Sunday). You are also expected to pay at least 10% of your income to the church (otherwise people will know you didn’t because you can’t go to the temple!) and wear special underwear and you’re expected to follow the “Word of Wisdom” — that is, to abstain from coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol. That’s a lot of work! And it helps keep your social circle confined to the Mormon community.
There exist people who believe the tenets of Mormonism but simply don’t practice (called “Jack Mormons”), but they’re really not integrated or accepted as members of the community the way similarly non-practicing Catholics are. The fact that there’s a separate name for such people is an indication that they’re not really seen as just Mormon — they’re kind of a weird, suspicious alternate category. And if you neither practice nor believe the tenets of Mormonism anymore, then you are actively discouraged from continuing to consider yourself Mormon.
An obvious advantage to the low-demand strategy is that those people who are simply going to participate very little or not at all are at least still members of the community. Of course, the less they participate, the less they are likely to miss the religion if they leave. A high-demand religion, on the other hand, relies on the strategy that people value things that they’ve invested time and energy into. Mormonism gives you not only a community but also a purpose, and it fills your day with stuff to do. And Mormonism encourages people to care a lot about how invested their friends and relatives are in practicing Mormonism. So abandoning Mormon practice can have a huge social cost in addition to leaving you wondering what you’re going to do instead of all that Mormon stuff you were doing — plus it makes you feel like all the sacrifices you’ve made in your life so far were completely in vain, something not many people want to feel. With a low-demand religion, it’s possible to leave incrementally, just by shifting your social circle — hardly noticing that you’ve left.
One of the biggest differences in the two strategies is the amount of polarization. A super-devout multiple-mass-per-week Catholic can be married to a nominal Catholic and still feel like they’re both essentially on the same page. And, from the church’s member-retention point-of-view, the kids get raised Catholic without it being a source of contention or conflict within the family. In majority-Catholic communities, you can easily have whole families that are participating only marginally, whose kids end up later taking a more active interest in the faith — without that being seen as anyone rejecting anyone else’s values or cultural identity.
In the CoJCoL-dS, such a dynamic is really not possible. Varying levels of Mormon belief and practice are typically a huge source of conflict and contention within families. As more people are leaving the situation has been improving (for leavers), but traditionally it has not been uncommon for devout Mormons to cut off, shun, or divorce family members who stop believing. From the church’s member-retention point-of-view, the threat of such social consequences is a major incentive that keeps people from leaving. But there’s a flip side. You can have devout, extremely devoted members who love Mormonism and who — left to their own devices — would never have left, but who start questioning when they realize that the church itself is the source of the conflict in their home. Contrast this with a similar family in a low-demand religion: the devout member doesn’t face the same pressure from the community to “fix” the (possibly non-believing) spouse, and the kids don’t grow up with the impression that the church is a conflict-creating monster that wrecked their family.
Now you’re probably detecting a bit of bias on my part in favor of the low-demand strategy. Yep, it’s true. Each strategy has its pros and cons when it comes to helping the organization retain members. But, naturally, I think that avoiding pointless, family-wrecking conflicts is a much better goal than retaining members.
As a post-script, the hilarious part is that I’m apparently not the only atheist who has made this same calculation. According to this 2008 Pew study, atheists have by far the worst retention rate (in terms of kids raised in atheist households growing up to identify as atheist). The negative interpretation is that kids raised in atheist households are very unlikely to want their own kids to have the same experience. The positive interpretation is that atheists really are serious about not brainwashing their kids but rather honestly expect their kids to make up their own minds — even if that means choosing a different path than the way they were raised. There’s something to be said for not believing in hell — you may be annoyed when your kid starts believing in Jesus, but at least you’re not worried that your kid’s annoying beliefs are going to get your kid tortured for eternity…
But seriously, I think the biggest reason for atheists’ lack of kid-retention is that it’s a world-view without being a culture — it’s not a cultural identity in the same way that being a Mormon, Catholic, Christian, Muslim, or Jew is a cultural identity. Atheism doesn’t have the organizational apparatus or cultural rites-of-passage. So once your beliefs change, there’s really no community or culture to feel a continued connection with.
Anyway, more on polarization in the next segment, one fortnight from now! Stay tuned! 😀