Studying church decline via evolution

David Sloan Wilson started studying the varieties of human living environments by trying to understand why some city neighborhoods are “good” and some are “bad”. He quickly determined that good or bad have nothing to do economic status, at least not directly. Some neighborhoods are just, as he calls it, “prosocial” and some aren’t. The ones that are have people who look after each other and are “good” places to live. The ones that don’t, aren’t.

That led him to thinking about ways that people might work to change places that aren’t prosocial into places that are. He’s been working with local schools in Binghamton NY to put programs in place that might make the difference. He’s also started looking at the roles that local religious communities take within the neighborhoods.

“Wilson has also been studying Binghamton’s religious institutions through an evolutionary lens. He is an atheist, but sees religion as a potentially positive source of community cohesion and a centre of meaning in people’s lives. He has written extensively about religion as an adaptation of groups4, and has been funded by the Templeton Foundation in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, to study its effects. At the moment, he is trying to find out which of Binghamton’s 100 or so congregations are the most and least likely to flourish in the current cultural environment.

Wilson’s trait of interest is the ‘openness’ of churches. Traditional protestant denominations, of which Wilson is fond, tend towards openness: details of belief and moral codes are individual, arrived at after prayer and discussion. Newer, conservative churches that adhere strictly to the Bible as a literal text would be considered less open.

Wilson would like to understand from an evolutionary perspective why the membership of open churches in Binghamton is currently declining, but ‘closed’ churches are booming. Perhaps uncertain times create a fearful and socially isolated populace, interested in firm and clear guidance. Or perhaps closed churches uplift their members or focus on group solidarity and recruitment. When people’s economic and educational situations are better they may become attracted to more open churches. And Wilson says it is possible that the open churches, by allowing congregants to draw their own conclusions in matters of faith, predispose them to losing faith altogether.”

Lots more here.

Of course any attempt to observe a system or set of behaviors is likely to change them. And that’s been the experience of Wilson and his researchers; and the congregations they’ve been studying.

Worth a read.

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