REGINALD BIBBY AND THE CANADIAN RELIGIOUS MARKET
Presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Washington, D.C., August 1995. Slightly modified version published in The Ecumenist (January-March 1996), pp. 5-8. Published on the web, August 2003.
In 1975, writing a comparative analysis of religious organization in Canada and the United States, I wanted to emphasize a sharp difference between the two countries, sharper then than now: that while the American population is divided among dozens of religious bodies, just three denominations embrace the bulk of Canadians. I therefore searched for a metaphor to drive home the point.
If I had found my metaphor in religion itself, I might have written something like this: "American society presents a whole pantheon of denominations, and Americans worship at whichever one they please, whereas in Canada the holy trinity of Roman Catholic, Anglican and United Churches has hegemony."
Alternatively, I might have tried to get my point across with natural imagery: "Religion in the United States is a lilac grove composed of myriad independent stems and offshoots that together form the national sacred canopy; religion in Canada, by contrast, is a clump of three large birches with some small saplings growing alongside."
In fact I drew the metaphor from neither religion nor nature, but from the capitalist economy. The actual sentence in my article (Westhues 1976, p. 211) ran as follows: "If Canadian churches exist in a free market, it is a market like that of North American auto companies, a handful of which account for the bulk of sales."
Reginald Bibby liked that line. He paid me the compliment
of quoting it in his own analysis of Canadian religion in a 1984 article in
Social Compass. Since that time, most clearly in his books Fragmented
Gods (1987) and Unknown Gods (1993), Bibby has adopted the language
of the market steadily more for interpreting the Canadian religious situation,
and for advising Canadian ecclesiastics on how to stop the organizational free
fall in which the three big religious bodies and many smaller ones now find
themselves. In Bibby's recent books, the market is more than metaphor. It is
the real thing, no less in religion than in soft drinks. Consider chapter and
section titles like these:
Servicing religious consumers;
The dominant companies;
Competition for consumers;
Keeping the customers;
The religious market;
Some questionable product lines;
Promotion problems; and
The erosion of traditional customer bases.
Accused of turning religion into a business, Bibby cheerfully confesses to the charge, claiming that stewardship requires as much in the culture at hand. "In another era," he writes, "the metaphor of the day resulted in Jesus' phrase `the harvest is plenteous.' In the thought-forms of our day, it's clear that `the market is extensive'" (1993, p. 314).
My purpose here is to question Bibby's use of this "thought-form" as a means of understanding religion, to question it all the more as a guide to action and policy. In his 1990 book on Canadian culture, Mosaic Madness, Bibby takes a cue from Habits of the Heart (1985), by Robert Bellah et. al., and insightfully identifies excessive individualism as a basic contemporary problem. Failing, however, to see the origin of this problem in the excesses of the capitalist market, he carries the market to further excess, proposing even that churches can help remedy the problem by adopting more of a market mentality. I think he is wrong, and am obliged to say so, in view of how prominent his work has become and how well it represents the recent spate of market-oriented writing about religion—works like Finke and Stark's The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (1992; see Kelly 1993).
Bibby as Public Intellectual
My critique is mixed with the high professional and personal regard I have felt toward Reg Bibby since the fall of 1975, when as an ambitious department chair, I tried to engineer his removal from Lethbridge to Waterloo. He was at that time in the midst of his first national survey on religious attitudes and behaviour. He had cobbled together tiny grants from the United Church, the CBC, the Solicitor General, and his home university to pay for mailing self-administered questionnaires to a random sample of 4,000 Canadian adults. He was unattracted by the statistical elegance of what C. Wright Mills called abstracted empiricism, and undeterred by methodological purists wrinkling their noses at his 52-percent response rate. What moved him was not the scholastic priority on technical formalities, but his own passion to find out what Canadians were thinking and doing about religion. His strategy of inquiry was rough and cheap, but it worked. His demonstration of the representativeness of his sample was convincing, and his analysis yielded a broadly accurate picture of religious behaviour and belief in Canada. Bibby repeated the survey in 1980, 1985, and 1990, thereby accumulating a store of data on the direction of change.
Bibby did not move to Waterloo but remained at Lethbridge, far from the centres of professional sociology. The location says a lot, mostly in Bibby's favour. He has not succumbed to the trend Russell Jacoby (1987) has called the academization of the intellectual life, wherein writers and researchers orient themselves increasingly toward pleasing one another within the ivory tower. In Bibby's affections, colleagues take second place to the public. He writes with no jargon or professional pretense. With grace and candour he admits his own biography and values, and invites feedback from lay readers. Bibby has noted (1987, p. 84) that he takes seriously Howard Becker's wise comment, that something is wrong if people cannot recognize themselves in reports of research done on them. His books do not show contempt for other sociologists, on the contrary generosity in acknowledging intellectual debts, but at the same time a mindfulness that we takers from the public purse are obliged first of all to produce public knowledge, and that the essential dialogue we carry on among ourselves must serve that higher purpose.
Reg Bibby deserves nothing but applause for flying in the face of the trend Jacoby identified. By training his eyes and ears in a disciplined way on Canadians' religious lives, and then reporting back his observations in tables so clear and prose so fluent as to win him a wider readership probably than any other Canadian sociologist, Bibby has made himself a living, breathing example of the type of public intellectual that Jacoby says is nearly extinct. The criticisms I make of his work are in the context of admiration for his imaginative research strategies, his assiduity, his intelligibility, and above all his engagement with the broader community.
Bibby as Agent of Marketization
The question is which analyses of current data best enable us to create a future worth living in. To be sure, anything called sociology has to be empirically grounded. Bibby cannot be faulted on this score. But data do not speak for themselves. Diverse interpretations can be placed on them. People can recognize themselves in more than one kind of research report. Attending an accident victim, one physician says, "You are bleeding profusely; at this rate you'll be dead in half an hour." The patient replies, "Yes, doctor, I recognize myself in what you say." A second attending physician says, "If I suture your wounds and set your broken bones, in a few months you'll be dancing." The patient answers, "In the shape I'm in, I find it harder to recognize myself in your words than in your colleague's, but let's act on the basis of yours."
Bibby's surveys are a trove of evidence that Canadians, as he says, are intrigued by mystery. They talk to one another about strange, unexplained occurrences. Half say they are at least somewhat troubled by their own impending deaths, and 90 percent report giving some thought to what happens afterward. Half claim to be bothered by questions of life's purpose. But these data do not constitute what Bibby calls a "consistent finding," that "over the years, a rich market for supernatural and spiritual matters has persisted in Canada" (1993, p. 197). This is not a finding but an inference, not the data but the researcher. By my reading of Bibby's tables, when it comes to religion, the market mentality holds little appeal to Canadians. In this dimension of their lives, they think more like James Redfield (1993), Matthew Fox (1988), Starhawk (1988), Scott Peck (1978) or the authors of the Bible, than Milton Friedmann. It is Bibby who, in reporting back to Canadians in his books, invites them to think of themselves as consumers of religion. It is not the respondents but Bibby who dangles before desperate clergy this tantalizing thought: "Religions that start with the gods and proceed to embrace self and society provide their host societies with a powerful product" (1993, p. 239).
For a 1995 address at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, and less explicitly in his co-authored book The Good Society (1991), Robert Bellah relied heavily on Jürgen Habermas's distinction between systems and life-world, agreeing with Habermas that in our time the market system is invading and colonizing innumerable aspects of people's everyday lived experience that have until now been exempt. The image is of a diverse, complex cultural legacy, composed of people's intersecting biographies and shaped by millennia of varied folkways, languages and customs, now being piece by piece subsumed, even straightjacketed, by an overarching rational system. Habermas's and Bellah's characterization captures the single most important development in world history in these final decades of the twentieth century (for an excellent if bleak overview, see Teeple 1995). Let me note just four startling advances in this colonization by the market, what could be called the marketization of everyday life.
1. Since the late 1980s, the only major competing system for colonizing the traditional life-world has collapsed. No longer do managed communist economies bear down on the lives of half a billion Eastern Europeans, but instead the full force of international capitalism.
2. Ever since capitalism was born, more or less sovereign nation-states have kept the system within explicit political boundaries: by tariff barriers, import quotas, currency controls, subsidy programs, and so on. Now, through mechanisms like GATT and NAFTA, these boundaries are being erased with breathtaking speed.
3. The natural boundaries on the market imposed by physical distance have been transcended by technological advances in transportation and communications, allowing for the first time a genuinely global market in commodities ranging from oil to shoes, wheat to microchips.
4, For all of capitalism's history until the last 30 years, the female half of our species remained largely outside of it, women's work in child care, home maintenance, and community service unpaid and uncounted in the calculation of GNP. By now in North America, the majority of women, most wives and mothers, are in the paid labour force, and much of their formerly priceless work now has a price-tag attached.
How do I trade with thee? Let me count the ways: on Sundays now, as if six days a week were not enough; at night, the normal business hours now extending long past sundown; in counselling services and other precious goods not formerly conceived of as commodities; in deep-discount megastores unaffected by friendships or loyalties; in the sale of men's sperm and the rental of women's wombs; and with consumer credit, something virtually illegal until after World War II.
Reg Bibby's contribution to Canada's intellectual life, apart
from the adroit amassing of survey data, is to help extend the market system
into a part of life-world that was earlier exempt, to campaign in the avant-garde
of the market's invasion of the religious dimension of people's lives, to be
an agent of the marketization process as targeted on spirituality. Fifty years
ago, Karl Polanyi defined the development of industrial capitalism in terms
of the incorporation of land and labour into the market system. This earlier
colonization of life-world astonished him. To isolate land, he wrote,
and form a market out of it was perhaps the weirdest of all undertakings of our ancestors. Traditionally, land and labor are not separated; labor forms part of life, land remains part of nature, life and nature form an articulate whole. (1944, p. 178)
If Polanyi were alive today, I think he would agree that on a scale of weirdness, our ancestors turning land into a marketable commodity does not even come close to the current turning of religion into one.
Where the Market Stops
Possibly the most basic question at this historical moment is to what extent and in what ways the market system should be extended further, and contrariwise, what boundaries on it should be reinforced. But even to raise this question requires recognition that the market is not synonymous with the economy, much less with life. Humanity is not only what Herbert Spencer made it out to be, a collection of acquisitive, competitive selves craving satisfaction of individual needs, but also what Peter Kropotkin described, an organic whole composed of cooperative species-beings craving the chance to serve. We can recognize ourselves in both these descriptions. Gift-giving (see Mauss 1923) and what Marshall Sahlins (1972) called generalized reciprocity—these, too, are ways by which people can connect with one another and with nature in mutually beneficial ways, and they do not involve competition or calculation of cost.
Like any abstract system, capitalism validates only part of the rich texture of life-world, in this case reducing people to producers, traders and consumers, players in a competitive game, and squeezing steadily more of life into market equations. It bends and compresses religion into non-profit corporations engaged in service delivery, the services ranging from inspirational sermons and comforting creeds to marriage and bereavement counselling. In our legal order, that is what denominations are, and in some respects they do indeed compete with one another to build a better grace-trap and increase market share. My own graduate training taught me to view churches this way, and my early research used theories drawn from business to understand how churches work. That is probably why I chose a market metaphor in 1975, for describing religious organization in Canada.
Only later, when I turned seriously to the study of religion itself (see Westhues 1982, 1992), did I begin to understand that the market mentality is antithetical to it: that the more you think of religion this way, the less there is to think about; and that the more church policy is formed in this way, the more the church's religious goals are undermined. The market lends itself to what can be broken down and divided up, but the spiritual side of life is no more like that than the baby Solomon was asked to chop in half; to what you have less of if I have more of, but meaning for this uncertain life is not a good of this kind; to what you can acquire and carry with you while alive, the very things you can't take with you when you die; to goods you can hold at arm's length from your self and put a price on (maybe even one of your kidneys if you have two healthy ones), but not to your heart or mind or soul.
In its evolution from the primitive bazaar to the complexities of global capitalism, the market has proven its worth. It is by far the most profitable game people play. But religion begins where the game stops. Faustus was damned not because he played poorly, but because he played with stakes that are nonnegotiable. Luther rebelled against Rome not because business was bad in indulgences, but because indulgences are bad business. Jesus himself, among many other prophets and saints, understood the limits the market dare not cross. That is why (Matthew 21) he "went into the temple and drove out all who were buying or selling things in it, and he upset the money-changers' tables and the pigeon-dealers' seats, and he said to them, The Scripture says, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer.'"
My hunch is that the more church functionaries take Reg Bibby's advice on marketing, the less praying will be done in church, and that the more everyday Canadians adopt the thought-form Reg Bibby proposes, the less able they will be to pray at all. By my reading of Bibby's survey results, this is the direction of current trends. With Bellah (1995a), I see "particularly among the affluent and well-educated, what Galbraith calls the contented, a pull toward the loss of religious identity altogether in a celebration of individual self-sufficiency, coping with growing anxiety through psychotherapy not religion."
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