The Religious Market Theory and Religious Change in the United States and China

An Interview with Rodney Stark and Roger Finke

In: Review of Religion and Chinese Society
Fenggang Yang Center on Religion and the Global East, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA,

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In this combined interview, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke share their thoughts on the development of the religious market theory, religious change in the United States, and Christian growth in China. The interview with Rodney Stark was conducted by telephone in late December 2020 and the interview with Roger Finke by email in early January 2021.

Fenggang Yang: My first question is about your book Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion, which was first published in 2000.1 According to Google Scholar, this book is the most cited among your numerous publications—3,278 times as of today, December 23, 2020, to be exact. I believe this number is an undercount because citations of the book in other languages may not be fully counted by Google Scholar. My question to you is: How many translations of this book have been published and how many copies in total have been sold?

Rodney Stark: I have no idea. Publishers sent me some translated copies of some books. However, publishers don’t always buy the translation rights, and sometimes they buy them but never get around to publishing a translation. So, it’s hard for me to know. I think it’s probably between a dozen and twenty languages for all of my books.

Roger Finke: My best guess is that the total sales are now around 10,000. The lone translation that I know of has been into Chinese, thanks to you.2 I am very grateful for your generous contribution. The Churching of America3 has sold far more copies and has a Korean translation, but has fewer citations than Acts of Faith. Rod’s The Rise of Christianity4 has far outsold either of these books, and has more translations, but has received much less attention in the research community.

Yang: The Chinese translation of Acts of Faith was published in 2004. I heard that the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out quickly, so the Chinese publisher issued a second printing of an unknown number of copies,5 which sold out again some years ago. Therefore, the total number of copies sold must be more than 10,000.

There have been various reactions to market theories of religion in China, which I have reviewed and responded to in a forthcoming chapter.6 Indeed, doing that chapter made me want to interview you both to see where things are. So, my second question is about your theory. In this book you summarized your theory in ninety-nine propositions on religious change at the micro-, meso-, and macro-levels. Twenty years have passed since its first publication. What revisions or new constructions of theoretical propositions have you made since then?

Finke: When I was working on my first book with Rod, The Churching of America, a historian I greatly respect reminded me that books are never completed, only abandoned. Acts of Faith built on much of Rod’s previous work and benefited greatly from his ever-expanding knowledge base, but it is still far from complete. I’ll briefly mention four areas. First, you noted that the book proposed theoretical propositions at the micro-, meso-, and macro-levels. I wish, however, that we had devoted more time to linking the different levels of analysis, explaining the reciprocal influences across the different levels of analysis. I took an initial step in this area when I wrote “Innovative Returns to Tradition: Using Core Teachings as the Foundation for Innovative Accommodation.”7 Second, although the book places importance on competition and regulation, giving less attention to religious diversity or pluralism, I think we should have offered more explanation on the relationship between competition and religious pluralism. This relationship remains poorly understood, despite receiving more research attention than any other area of the theory. In later work, Christopher Scheitle and I demonstrated that along with the restrictions placed on religious markets, diversity of religious preferences and the number of potential adherents also reduces religious pluralism. In short, pluralism is often not a good measure of competition.8 Third, I wish we had given more attention to the state’s regulation of religion. This regulation has important influences on religion at all levels. I addressed this more fully in the Sociology of Religion article “Origins and Consequences of Religious Freedom: A Global Overview.”9 Finally, I am well aware that Acts of Faith does not offer the “thick” description of religion that is appropriately sought by many. However, I do think that our theory is compatible with and even complementary to many of these descriptions.

Stark: I rewrote the theory entirely in my last book, which is titled Why God?, because all theories of religion have to start with an idea of God.10 It’s much more elaborate, much better than before. That came out about three or four years ago.

Yang: You have published so many books since 2000. I have read most of them, but not yet this one. I will get it and see what changes you have made. That’s the book we should read to find the most recent articulation of your theory.

Stark: I think you’ll like it because I made things clearer.

Yang: I remember that around the time Acts of Faith was published, when I was a young scholar myself, there was a lot of excitement and talk and debate about theories among scholars and students in the social scientific study of religion. In recent years the excitement seems to have died down. Do you agree with this assessment of the field? If so, why has the excitement diminished? A more important question for you is: What important theoretical questions should we ask and try to answer now?

Stark: That’s disappointing. I find scholars are lazy. When asking theoretical questions, you should have questions and you should cast them in as theoretical a form as possible. When asking why something happens, one must start with something much more general. Because that way, you’ll find the commonality among things. Many things are really very much alike if you get this.

Finke: I am encouraged that some scholars are borrowing from theories developed in related areas, such as cultural sociology, gender studies, and social movements. I am also pleased that Christian Smith recently published a theoretical book on religion.11 Despite these encouraging contributions, however, I do agree that there has been a decline in the theoretical debates. One of the greatest challenges moving forward is developing testable propositions that apply to the global community and all religions.

Yang: The next question is about religion in America. Your book, The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, is the second most cited publication of yours, 2,930 as of today. With respect to religious change in the United States, the General Social Survey, the Pew Research Center, and many others have reported a continuous decline in the proportion of Christians and a substantial increase of “religious nones” in the population. What do you think of these findings? Has secularization finally arrived in the US? Or, to put it in another way, in your view, where is religion going in the US?

Stark: I have a paper that has just been sent out, in which we analyze the “religious nones” and find that most of them pray and go to church. What does “none” mean? It comes to me that if I’m not a Catholic, or a Lutheran, or a Baptist, then I’m not a Christian. The media are very eager to find religion going away. But what is important to understand is that public opinion polling is no longer any good in the United States. The best people, the really good people like the Gallop Poll, are getting a 10 percent response rate. But you can’t tell anything from that. The people who do respond tend to be those who are least religiously affiliated, so some of this rise and fall is simply a declining response rate. The fact is that church attendance has not declined. Religion in the US is staying. It is not going away. Something else that’s interesting is that they keep talking about how young people are leaving church, because people under thirty are less likely to go to church than people over thirty. But that’s been true for at least one hundred years. Only after they get married and have kids do they go back to church.

Yang: So it is a life-cycle phenomenon rather than a generational replacement phenomenon.

Stark: Exactly.

Finke: Secularization has always been a part of the US. Part of the story in The Churching of America was that early America was far more secular than many believed, and that religious organizations tended to become more secular over time. One of the research goals, of course, is to explain the variation. Why do religious behaviors and beliefs vary over time and across locations? I have given little research attention to American religion since publishing the second edition of The Churching of America, but recent surveys clearly show a sharp increase in religious nones. I don’t view this as an inevitable trend, but I do think this poses an interesting research question, namely: What contributes to this change? For example, John Wybraniec and I found that following the Oregon v. Smith case in 1990, courts were far less likely to rule favorably on religious freedom cases.12 Has this been a contributor? What other cultural and structural changes might have contributed to these changes?

Yang: Now let’s talk a little bit about religion in China, with which the readers of our journal are most concerned. Rod, you published the book A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China in 2015.13 In that book you and your coauthor Xiuhua Wang said that by the year 2030, there could be as many as 295 million Christians in China, which would be more than in any other nation on earth. Since 2015, however, China has imposed numerous new regulations aiming at curbing Christian growth. What is your view of the current situation of Christianity in China? How likely is your projection to come true? What about other religions in China?

Stark: I don’t know. For one thing, I have not collected any data or worked on this question since that book came out. Secondly, predictions are always risky because things change. As you pointed out, China is now more repressive than it used to be. What difference will that make? I don’t know. Sometimes repression strengthens such groups. Sometimes it weakens them. It is hard to know. I have no new information. What do you think?

Yang: I made my own projection, which is similar to your numbers.14 Based on the information I keep getting from China, people are still getting baptized and young people are still growing up in churches. So I see continuous growth.

Finke: Although I should defer to you and Rod on this one, I will say that I think China’s increasing government restrictions on religious organizations and open persecution of the religious will subdue and curtail religious activity. This prediction fits with both the theory and with common sense.

Yang: My final question is: What kind of research projects do you like to see happening, either in your own work or in the work of others, especially young scholars?

Stark: I’m eighty-six years old now and I have done very little scholarly work in the last couple of years. I am unlikely to do much more. I spend my time reading and watching football. For young scholars, I think that’s for them to figure out.

Finke: When it comes to methodology and measures, Christopher Bader and I argued in Faithful Measures that there is an urgent need for the use of more creative and innovative measures and methods.15 Even though we administer an archive ( that is primarily composed of surveys, understanding religion and adequately testing theories requires more than surveys can provide. Surveys are limited in assigning causal ordering, addressing sensitive topics, studying small groups, covering earlier historical periods, and so on. I am especially concerned about the limited cross-national measures. Since entering the discipline in the 1980s, I have heard an ongoing plea for more international research. Yet, the lack of cross-national data limits our ability to address this plea. The use of surveys remains an important methodology for generating critical measures, but other research designs are necessary for addressing their limitations.


Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).


The Chinese translation of Stark and Finke’s Acts of Faith, by Fenggang Yang, is published as Xinyang de Faze: Jieshi zongjiao zhi ren de fangmian《信仰的法则: 解释宗教之人的方面》, 罗德尼・斯达克, 罗杰尔・芬克,著,杨凤岗, 译, 中国人民大学出版社 (Beijing: Renmin University Press, 2004). Roger Finke gave a series of lectures at the 2005 Summer Institute for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at Renmin University of China in Beijing and was a keynote speaker at the 2005 Annual Conference of the Social Scientific Study of Religion in China in Kunming, Yunnan.


Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005).


Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).


Wei Dedong魏德东,“Zongjiao shehuixue de fanshi zhuanhuan jiqi yingxiang” 宗教社会学的范式转换及其影响 [The Paradigm Shift in the Sociology of Religion and Its Influence], Renmin daxue xuebao中国人民大学学报2010(3): 61–69,at 67.


Fenggang Yang, “Whence and Whither Religious Markets in China,” in Many Shades of Gray in the Changing Religious Markets of China, ed. Fenggang Yang and Chris White (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers), forthcoming.


Roger Finke, “Innovative Returns to Tradition: Using Core Teachings as the Foundation for Innovative Accommodation,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 43.1 (2004): 19–34.


Christopher P. Scheitle and Roger Finke, “Pluralism as Outcome: The Ecology of Religious Resources, Suppliers, and Consumers,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 5 (2009): article 7,


Roger Finke, “Origins and Consequences of Religious Freedoms: A Global Overview,” Sociology of Religion 74.3 (2013): 297–313.


Rodney Stark, Why God? Explaining Religious Phenomena (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2017).


Christian Smith, Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).


Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of the State of Oregon, et al. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). See John Wybraniec and Roger Finke, “Religious Regulation and the Courts: The Judiciary’s Changing Role in Protecting Minority Religions from Majoritarian Rule,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40.3 (2001): 427–444; Amy Adamczyk, John Wybraniec, and Roger Finke, “Religious Regulation and the Courts: Documenting the Effects of Smith and rfra,” Journal of Church and State 46 (2004): 237–262.


Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang, A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2015).


Yang’s projection has appeared in several articles. See Fenggang Yang, “Zhongguo Jidutu zengzhang bianxi” 中国基督徒增长辨析 [An Analysis of the Christian Growth in China], ft Chinese (Financial Times Chinese Edition), May 4, 2014; “When Will China Become the World’s Largest Christian Country?,” Slate, December 1, 2014; “The Other Chinese Miracle: Great Awakening Shifts Growth of Global Christianity to the East,” GlobalPlus, Association of Religion Data Archives, December 1, 2015; “Exceptionalism or Chinamerica: Measuring Religious Change in the Globalizing World Today,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 55.1 (2016): 7–22.


Roger Finke and Christopher D. Bader, eds., Faithful Measures: New Methods in the Measurement of Religion (New York: nyu Press, 2017).

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