Religion and Identity: The Canadian, American, and Brazilian Cases

By Bibby, Reginald W.; Hewitt, W. E. et al. | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Religion and Identity: The Canadian, American, and Brazilian Cases


Bibby, Reginald W., Hewitt, W. E., Roof, Wade Clark, International Journal of Comparative Sociology


Since at least Comte, advocates of what has come to be known as 'the secularization thesis' have maintained that science, and the specialization associated with advanced societies weaken the role of religion. The likes of Comte and Freud felt that religion would imminently disappear, while Durkheim was among those who saw its retreat as unmistakable but somewhat more gradual. In Durkheim's (1965) words, the old gods are dying or are already dead. But this is not to say that society is incapable of creating new ones.

Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge (1985), of course, have radically challenged the secularization thesis. They maintain that, over time, established religions may falter. However, rather than religion as a whole losing significance, say Stark and Bainbridge, secularization actually stimulates religions innovation. New sects and cults are born. As conventional types of religion crumble, the religion marketplace becomes all the more lively. The market demand remains fairly constant; what changes over time are the companies that service the market.

What disturbs us about both the secularization thesis and the secularization-innovation argument is that their advocates are minimizing an empirical reality that is readily apparent to us as we carry out research in varied cultural settings: established organizational forms of religion do not readily disappear as societies change. Despite Durkheim's observations concerning Christianity in Europe in his day, the Christian Church - mainline style - is still very much in evidence. And despite Stark and Bainbridge's observations about the demise of the established churches in North America and elsewhere, groups that have their own roots in the earliest years of American and Canadian settlement continue to operate. Through affluent and turbulent 'religious economic times,' few have actually gone out of business. Indeed, competition-wise, they continue to dominate the religious markets of their societies. Significantly, the ongoing presence of the established religious companies in Europe and North America for the most part stands in sharp contrast to the short-life spans and limited followings that have characterized most of their would-be competitors. The exuberant interest researchers have shown in an array of religious expressions that allegedly are replacing conventional forms may well be both premature and, from the standpoint of relevance, largely ill-placed. What frequently may, in fact, be changing is not so much the dominant companies as the kind of products that are being provided. Put another way, there is good reason to believe that the dominant religious companies tend to prevail over time. However, their roles change as their host cultures change.

In this paper, we explore the persistence and changing roles of established religious groups in three settings - a highly industrialized Canada, an increasingly post-industrial United States, and an industrializing Brazil. Briefly stated, what the investigation reveals is the existence of very tight religious markets in all three countries. This finding, it is argued, clearly Speaks in rebuttal to those who foresee the demise of the established churches in the western world generally.

The Canadian Case

The Challenge

Canada has experienced a dramatic downturn in religious service attendance since at least the end of the Second World War. Gallup polls reveal that approximately two in three Canadians were attending services weekly in 1946. At present that level has dipped to one in three. In Quebec, the post-1960s emphasis on the modernization of that predominantly French-speaking province has been accompanied by a sensational drop in service attendance - from 85 percent in 1965 to a current 30 percent. Obviously such a pronounced attendance decline has led observes to raise the question as to where all the people have gone. Yet extensive searches into hypothesized places - the Conservative Protestants, electronic church, new religious movements, invisible religions, and 'religious nones' have found relatively few alleged recalcitrants in 'foreign' locations (see Bibby, 1987). …

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