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Friday, February 29, 2008


On the Web No One Can Hear You Scream

Because I enjoy arguments I’m going to attempt to flesh out a conversation held in class that became drowned in yelling and a myriad of attempts to define the word rational. Hopefully I can be controversial enough here to break the trend and generate at least one comment, or God forbid (an apt choice of words) a legitimate discussion.

I would submit it’s fairly obvious the church, specifically the Christian one because it’s what I’m most familiar with, is a large group, and as thus, under the theory put forth in Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action there’s some question as to how it manages to hold itself together.

We explored previously the idea of social incentives playing a role and I think it’s difficult to miss the logic in that. Churches may not operate exactly like Cheers, where everybody knows your name, but to some extent it’s surprising if you’ve been attending for a fair amount of time and haven’t formed a bond with at least a few other attendees. Moreover every local church I can think of offers a variety of activities throughout the course of the week that could double as a social life for the interested parishioner, or at least help them form a social tie strong enough to require their continued attendance.

What we left largely unexplored, however, was the possibility of the church as a federation, i.e. a large group comprised of a series of smaller groups, which by their very nature are easier to hold together. I’d think this would be a fairly obvious assumption to make as when we make reference to “the church” we’re often referring to the religion as a whole, or at the very least a specific denomination of it, for example Baptists, or Lutherans. But when you ask an individual about their church rarely will they go on a diatribe about the health of the religion in general, instead they’ll make reference to a specific place, perhaps somewhere down the street; they’ll tell you about the pastor and what time the service is on Sunday. This is important to remember. A person’s relation to the church generally isn’t to the entire infrastructure, but to their one, local, piece of it.

Finally, let’s move on to the one issue that’s most likely to get people upset. Olson says compulsion is perhaps the most effective way to hold together a large group, and at the very least you can see it in the church’s past. There was certainly a period where the choice was join up or die in a variety of progressively unappealing ways, and, not surprisingly, membership was quite high at the time. But such things are no longer the case, at least not in this country, I leave you to your own analysis of foreign locales, and befitting Olson’s theory one would note, per capita, membership has fallen off quite a bit as we’ve branched out religiously since those policies were lifted.

Some would argue, however, that compulsion is still at play. It’s been suggested that the threat of hell should you leave the church is compulsive, especially if you’ve been raised to fear such a place, but there is the large caveat that such a threat is only coercive so long as you believe in the ability to back it up, which would require membership in the church to begin with trapping us in a bit of circular logic. So in that regard I leave the question up to you. Have at it boys and girls, let’s hear what you think.

Jaeson Madison

I would just like to comment on the last point; I don't think that all believers are necessarily members of a church.

I have a friend who apparently feels very religious, but he doesn't attend services.
He's pretty much a member of the group because he's a Christian. However, you could say he's a "latent" member because he effectively doesn't participate.

So I guess that it's a very selective coercion because of the wide variety of beliefs termed "Christianity." It might coerce other "latent" members into actually participating.
Actually I’m inclined to agree that the church isn’t coercive, at least not the American version of the Christian church. It simply lacks the ability to force you to act against your will. It may have a startling effect on your opinions, and in that way may be able to convince you to do something you might not have done otherwise, but if that fits your definition of coercion then you probably shouldn’t watch television anymore, because I would submit commercials have largely the same effect.

The truth is, I only brought up the idea of the church as a coercive entity because it seems to engender a great many divergent feelings and a large deal of discussion amongst the class and I was hoping to get some here. Unfortunately, I think this little experiment does more to prove that no one actually bothers to peruse these blogs then anything else.
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