God Is Back, John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge don't know what they're talking about

Rod Dreher points me to a John Gray review of God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. He criticizes the supply-side model of religion which John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge are promoting and assume as a given. The model’s exemplar is the American South, where people basically “shop” for a church, which can be considered a “firm,” offering a unique set of particular services which allow for brand differentiation (if you’re poor and like to be entertained, join the Holy Rollers, if you’re rich and want to network, join the Episcopalians). The model hasn’t been totally supported, it’s a theory, so you need to test it. It doesn’t seem, for example, that Eastern Europe has been converted to it despite the post-Communist boomlet in evangelical Protestantism. Rather these societies have remained staunchy secular (e.g., Czech Republic) or shifted to a cultural-cartel based system common in much of the world (e.g., Russia). In societies where the supply-side model has flourished, such as South Korea, it turns out that the logistic curve hit “saturation” around ~50%, which was not a prediction of the model since denominations will emerge to fill the preferences of nearly everyone in a society.

In any case, that’s not the main reason I’m posting this. Micklethwait and Wooldridge know about publishing and selling books, the thesis is what one could charitably term as “provocative,” and surely angry secularists and heartened religionists might make impulse purchases at the bookstore to see what the authors are claiming. But there’s a problem: the authors don’t have a good grasp of the topic they’re presuming to cover. They seem to have the same level of fluency as someone who reads the religion sections of major world newspapers, or makes sure to jot down the religious affiliation of a newsworthy individual or group. If this is your level of understanding you’ll be mislead, since you won’t know enough to figure out that they’re out of their depth. A scholar such as Philip Jenkins produces much better popularization of the topic because religion is something he actually knows in depth, as opposed to being the current flavor of the month he’s reporting on. If you read a Philip Jenkins book you’ll encounter data which you can’t find in The New York Times or The Economist. Also, it’s important to remember that Wooldridge and Micklethwait are pushing foward an American model of religiosity when the United States is going through a wave of secularization. The data were obvious as far back as 2000, when the American Religious Identification Survey showed an enormous amount of disaffiliation, but it’s been verified by a lot of work in the past few years. I suspect that Micklethwait & Wooldridge started writing the book before the more well known results, and so had to run with the ball. Of course it could be that they know their simplifications are going to mislead people. But I doubt it.
Note: I do agree that the American/supply-side model is becoming more common across the world, but that doesn’t mean it will become ubiquitous in the coming years. There are regions of the United States even, such as Utah, parts of the Upper Midwest and New England, which seem to follow different systems.

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