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Professor Explores the Rise and Fall of Religion

Published: June 28, 2010
Ryan Cragun is intrigued by how some religions fall by the wayside, while others spread like wildfire among dry brush. What inspires someone to convert? What makes one religion spread and another stagnate? After years of research, the UT assistant professor of sociology thinks he has an answer.

“Religion provides existential security, but there are other factors to conversion too,” Cragun said. “The growth of a religion isn’t linear. It has to do with the development of a country.”

“The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists” by Cragun and his colleague, Ronald Lawson of Queens College, The City University of New York, was published online in April and will be published in an upcoming edition of the Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review . Dan Gazzano ’08 helped aggregate data on the Seventh-day Adventists.

Cragun narrowed his research to these three, American-born, 19th-century, actively proselytizing religions because, “these are all relatively young religions that have done quite well,” said Cragun, who was raised Mormon but left the church in 2002.

The research started as a graduate school assignment that evolved through various drafts in the following five years. Cragun’s initial scope was the growth of Mormonism in more than a dozen countries, but the paper now includes Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists in almost every country worldwide.

Previous studies assumed the growth of these faiths was driven by the religion itself. This assumption ignores the demand for the religion, which Cragun illustrates is actually more important.

“If religion is the only fact that matters, than the growth should be the same in the U.S. as in the U.K. as in Botswana,” Cragun said. “But what we find is a huge difference.”

People in pre-modernizing countries like Niger, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone are tight knit, comfortable with the way things are and aren’t searching for answers, so the growth of external religions is minimal. As a country develops and modernizes, the process of change leaves people unsettled and searching for answers. At this point, conservative, proselytizing religions take off.

“If everything you previously knew is now changing and different, and a missionary knocked on your door and said, ‘We have the answers. We can give you purpose in life.’ People find that attractive,” Cragun said.

As a country or culture becomes fully modernized, Cragun argues it passes through a secular transition as people are less likely to seek answers through religion. The growth of religion declines in this phase as the government or governing body is able to provide answers and sustainability, and the people have to search less for security.

Does this mean the death of religion for all modernized nations?

“If more countries modernize and pass through this secular transition, religion will decline even more,” Cragun said. “Will religion ever go away completely? I doubt it.”

Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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