Strictness is the Strength of ISKCON
By Sita Rama das
It seems most devotees in ISKCON rely on intuitive assumptions regarding the psychology of the audience we preach to; however, our assumptions can be erroneous. Strictness increases the attractiveness of religious organizations. This paper presents the logic behind this assertion and some recent empirical research on the role strictness plays in religious organizations. I believe the data below is valuable information for the leaders of ISKCON as well as for devotees in general.
In “Why Conservative Churches are Growing” (1972) Dean Kelley presented data which showed that since the 1960’s, “liberal/mainline”, churches had been declining but conservative churches were growing. [This overall trend has continued into the 21stcentury]* This precipitated a large amount of research into the causes of growth and decline in religious organizations. The 1st section of this paper is a partial review of recent literature on church growth/decline. The 2nd section is a summary of a paper by Sociologist Laurence R. Iannaccone, “Why Strict Churches are Strong”, in which he presents a theory supported by later empirical studies. The 3rd section is a summary of one such, large scale, empirical study combined with some suggestions on how ISKCON should view strictness.
Section 1: Partial summary of a literature review:
According to the literature review found in, “Testing the Strictness Thesis and Competing Theories of Congregational Growth” (Thomas & Olson, 2010) published in the, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Kelly’s thesis in, “Why Conservative Churches are Growing” (Kelley 1972) is that the growth of evangelical /conservative churches is a result of, “strictness” which satisfies a, “quest for meaning”. There is a casual chain -the quest for meaning produces strictness, strictness produces congregational strength, and this produces congregational growth. This was received well by executives in evangelical/conservative churches but less favorably by sociologists.
Many sociologists asserted that the growth in evangelical/conservative churches is more likely attributable to demographic factors; others claimed the concept of strictness is too abstract for empirical research, while others claimed evangelizing is more important than strictness. As a result the strictness theory was considered basically debunked until Laurence Iannaccone wrote, “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.”(Iannoccone, 1994).
Summary of, “Why strict Churches are Strong”, by Laurence R. Iannaccone, Sociologist at Santa Clara University, published in the American Journal of Sociology (1994).
In 1994, Iannaccone noted that after twenty years the trend, which was noted by Kelley 20 years earlier, had continued unabated, “…so much so that "small sects" such as the Mormons and the Assemblies of God now outnumber "mainline" denominations such as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ.”(p. 1181). Iannaccone summarizes Kelley’s causal thesis to be- conservative church growth is attributable to demands for, “strict loyalty, unwavering belief, and rigid adherence to a distinctive lifestyle.”(p.1181). Iannaccone says he and Kelley agree that strictness increases commitment, participation, and resources; growth is a byproduct of these factors. He acknowledges that too much strictness may have a negative affect and gives a straightforward means for religious organizations to determine their optimal level of strictness.
Iannaccone states that Kelley describes strict/ conservative churches as those which:
… proclaim an exclusive truth-a closed, comprehensive, and eternal doctrine. They demand adherence to a distinctive faith, morality, and lifestyle. They condemn deviance, shun dissenters, and repudiate the outside world. They frequently embrace "eccentric traits," such as distinctive diet, dress, or speech that invite ridicule, isolation, and persecution (p. 1182)
For the purpose of his analysis Iannaccone defines strictness as- “…the degree to which a group limits and thereby increases the cost of non-group activities, such as socializing with members of other churches or pursuing "secular" pastimes.”(p. 1182). He acknowledges that attraction to greater cost seems to go against the, “essence of rationality”, which is to seek benefits and avoid costs. He notes that the Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Moonies and Krishna’s all have costs that are not required by the Methodists or Presbyterians; “Pleasures are sacrificed, opportunities forgone and social stigma is risked, or even invited.” One might ask, “How can burnt offerings and their equivalents survive in religious markets when self-interest and competitive pressures drive them out of most other markets?”(p. 1182). Iannaccone claims the answer is strictness increases commitment, raises levels of participation, allows a church to offer more to members, and reduces problems caused by, “free riders”.
Iannaccone says, much social scientific research has been done on the, “free-rider” problem. Religious experience is a very personal thing but it is a, “commodity” that people produce collectively. The spiritual satisfaction an individual experiences is an effect of the number of others in attendance, as well as their enthusiasm and commitment. The free riders do not contribute to this yet they use the resources of the highly committed. Direct monitoring or requiring contributions, attendance, etc, goes against the concept of voluntary following. But, seemingly unproductive costs of behavior regulations screen out free riders. (p. 1183 1184).
Conversely, in some organizations the average level of commitment is too low. He writes, “… case studies of cults and communes provide more striking examples. In such groups, which can only survive with high levels of commitment, the costs of free riding are laid bare.”(p. 1185.) He cites individuals who studied 19th century communes:
Charles Guide's observation, quoted by Kanter (1973, pp. 157-58), is particularly apt: "Perhaps the gravest [peril] of all lies in the fact that these colonies are threatened as much by success as by failure. . . . If they attain prosperity they attract a crowd of members who lack the enthusiasm and faith of the earlier ones and are attracted only by self-interest." This perverse dynamic threatens all groups engaged in the production of collective goods, and it applies to enthusiasm, solidarity, and other social benefits no less than to material resources (p. 1186).
Strictness, in terms of behavior guidelines, “increases the price” of prohibited activities. On page 1188, Iannoccone claims this increase in price reduces the demand for the prohibited activities and increases the demand for its substitutes. Although restrictions cannot be forced, deception in this regard has costs; “A secret sexual liaison is not at all the same as an open relationship, private drinking from a hidden bottle is a poor substitute for social drinking at bars and parties, and a concealed smoking habit may be more trouble than it is worth.”
The seductive middle ground is eliminated, and, paradoxically, those who remain find that their welfare has been increased. It follows that perfectly rational people can be drawn to decidedly unconventional groups. This conclusion sharply contrasts with the view, popular among psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and the media, that conversion to deviant religious sects and cults is inherently pathological, the consequence of either psychological abnormality or coercive "brainwashing" (Robbins 1988, pp. 72-89)
Iannaccone argues that his model based on the cost and benefits of strictness rationalizes, so called, deviant behaviors, extends Kelley‘s thesis, predicts empirical correlates of strictness, and spreads new light on the traditional church/sect perspective. Most noteworthy is his claim that theories on American Protestant growth are applicable to religious organizations in general.
Church to Sect theory is an abstract ,concept which sets sects apart from churches based on the level of distinctiveness or tension they have with the culture wherein they exists; with sects maintaining the highest level of tension. This typology is too idealistic and abstract for empirical study. Iannaccone argues that his cost based “scheme”, “… makes formal theory of church and sect more elegant, general, and empirically fruitful than its predecessors”(p.1192).
The cost-based theory of church and sect rebuts the complaint that religious typologies are inherently ad hoc, rooted in the particulars of Christian theology and European church history and inapplicable to other religious traditions (Roberts 1984, p. 225; Eister 1967). The theory grows from abstract considerations of collective production, rationality, and free riding and should therefore apply to other, collectively oriented religions, such as Judaism and Islam. This proves, in fact, to be the case. Data from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey reveal patterns of interdenominational variation virtually identical to those observed within Protestantism (p. 1194).
He begins his substantiation of these claims with a description of a study by Hoge and Roozen(1979) which operationalizes measures of strictness. They did a study which asked respondents to rate various protestant denomination according to the following criteria: "Does the denomination emphasize maintaining a separate and distinctive life style or morality in personal and family life, in such areas as dress, diet, drinking, entertainment, uses of time, marriage, sex, child rearing, and the like? Or does it affirm the current American mainline life style in these respects?" The results justified the labeling of certain churches as mainline and others as conservative by the National Council of Churches.* Consistent with this labeling, the “liberal” Episcopal, Methodists, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ scored least distinctive from the American lifestyle and the fundamentalists, Pentecostals and sects (Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mormons) scored most distinctive (p. 1191). According to membership numbers of the National Council of Churches, overall, the most distinctive denomination continue to grow while the, “mainline” churches continue to decline*.
In regard to other religious organizations, Iannaccone gives a detailed analysis, including graphs, from a 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. Iannaccone, as a respected academic, claims the data justifies a firm conclusion:
We thus arrive at a persistent and powerfully sociological finding. The character of the group-its distinctiveness, costliness, or strictness-does more to explain individual rates of religious participation than does any standard, individual-level characteristic, such as age, sex, race, region, income, education, or marital status. The impact appears across both Christian and Jewish denominations, and it remains strong even after controlling for personal beliefs. 24(p. 1200).
Footnote 24 argues that the data presented disputes the claims of several specific criticisms of Kelley’s thesis.
On page 1202, regarding the question of too much strictness, Iannaccone cites Stark and Bainbridge (1985, p. 184):
"Many sects fail to grow (and are never transformed into churches) because their initial level of tension is so high as to cause their early social encapsulation. Once encapsulated, a sect may persist for centuries, depending on fertility and the ability to minimize defection, but it will rarely be able to recruit an outsider."
A group must not lose its distinctiveness but too much strictness can be fatal. How does a religious organization know which strict demands will benefit the group and which ones will backfire? Iannaccone claims the answer is straightforward:
successful strictness must involve the sacrifice of external (non-group) resources and opportunities that the group can itself replace. In other words, a group can afford to prohibit or put out of reach only those "commodities" for which it offers a close substitute (p. 1204).
This would be a good point to discuss optimal levels of strictness in ISKCON but first other empirical data will be presented and then suggestion on what devotees can learn from it will be given.
Section # 3:
A summary of, “Testing the Strictness Thesis and Competing Theories of Congregational Growth” By Jeremy M. Thomas, and Daniel v. A. Olson Sociologists at Purdue University published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
The literature review from the study was partially summarized in section#1 above.
Data Source for Current Study.
The authors of the study state that no previous study was known which simultaneously: “(1) measured at the congregational level; (2) was randomly drawn from many congregations across many denominations; (3) reported on direct measures of strict rules as actually practiced by local congregations; or (4) provided records that allow for the calculation of congregational growth as the main dependent variable.” Accordingly, none of the previous studies has produced results that both represented all American congregations and accurately evaluated the conceptual relationships hypothesized.” In contrast, this study used data from the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey (USCLS) which gathered information from over 300,000 parishioners in over 2,000 American congregations. Evidence is given which supports the claim that this data allows for the four necessary calculations stated above.
Constructs Empirically Defined:
The following constructs were, “operationalized” to render them sufficiently precise for statistical analysis:
Is operationalized from two questions on the USCLS. A, “Likert Scale” response to ones level of agreement with; ‘All the different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth’?” (greater agreement shows weaker Evangelical Theology). The second question was to choose a statement that showed how one saw the Bible, on a continuum of responses from the two poles of accepting it literally to seeing it as, “an ancient book with little value [for] today”(accepting the Bible literally indicates strong Evangelical Theology)
Was operationalized by questions of whether the congregation had any, “special” rules or prohibitions regarding, smoking, drinking alcohol, what people eat, dancing, dress, hairstyle, jewewlry/ makeup, gambling, unmarried adults cohabitating, or homosexual behavior.
[ The authors of the study note that Iannaccone had argued that prohibiting these 8, “alternative activities” is useful for filtering out free riders. ]
Was operationalized by measuring the amount of money and time parishioners gave to the congregation.
Parishioner Recruiting Activity:
Was operationalized by an interval level response to the question of how often parishioners invited friends and relatives to attend services.
Parishioner Perception of Value:
Was operationalized by asking survey participants if they agree/disagreed with three questions:
1. My spiritual needs are being met by this congregation. 2. I have a strong sense of belonging to this congregation. 3. Are you satisfied with what is offered here for children and youth?
Was operationalized by calculating the mean percent change for five intervals over a six year period.
Demographic and Denominational Control Variables:
A significant amount of analysis was done to ensure that demographic and denominational factors did not act as confounding variables (factors outside of the ones operationalized which might affect one or more of the variables defined) including demographic and denominational factors.
The hypotheses of the study are: “(1) Evangelical Theology will be significantly and positively related to Congregational Strictness; (2) both Evangelical Theology and Congregational Strictness will be significantly and positively related to Congregational Strength; (3) Congregational Strength will be significantly and positively related to both Parishioner Recruiting Activity and Parishioner Perception of Value; (4) both Parishioner Recruiting Activity and Parishioner Perception of Value will be significantly and positively related to Congregational Growth; and (5) all other relationships will be non-significant.”
The study found a significant bivariate correlation between Congregational Strictness and Congregational Growth .238 (p ≤ .001). The authors of the study assert, “Together, then, these observations provide some initial support for the basic claim that in opposition to the evangelical theology critique, the demographic critique, and the denominational identity critique, strictness does have an independent relationship to growth, which, no doubt, deserves further investigation.”
First, Evangelical Theology is strongly positively related to Congregational Strictness with denominational controls (.593) and only somewhat less so without denominational controls (.410). Congruent with Olson and Perl (2005), this suggests that without shared beliefs that justify strict rules, it is harder to implement and enforce congregational strictness. Additionally, this relationship implies that theologically liberal churches are less likely to have strict rules, at least not if one defines those terms as we use them in our measures( p. 632, bold added).
We feel a term other than “Evangelical Theology” could be found that expressed the construct more precisely. At any rate the study showed a strong correlation between greater congregational strictness and greater agreement by members that other groups are not equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth; and a strong correlation between congregational strictness and greater acceptance that the scriptures are literal truth. These facts support the reaffirmation of the, “ old school” ISKCON concept that forbids theological liberalism and boldly proclaims Krishna Consciousness and the Maha Mantra to be the best means for God realization. Without strictly believing in the literalness of the scriptures and the superiority of ISKCON it will be difficult to encourage people to accept strict rules prohibiting materialistic/sinful activities. As will be seen below (contrary to the intuition of some) strictness increases growth; it does not minimize it.
Second, both Evangelical Theology and Congregational Strictness are positively related to Congregational Strength. In particular, the Evangelical Theology to Congregational Strength relationship is moderately strong with denominational controls (.290) and becomes very strong without denominational controls (.553). Alternatively, the Congregational Strictness to Congregational Strength relationship is weak (but significant) both with (.155) and without denominational controls (.139). On the one hand, then, these findings offer validation for Iannaccone’s (1994) and Iannaccone, Olson, and Stark’s (1995) basic claim regarding the causal pathway between strictness and strength. Indeed, the fact that this relationship persists and is significant even after controlling for evangelical theology and denominational identity certainly lessens the likelihood that the strictness to strength relationship is simply a spurious product of either congregational theology or denominational identity.10 On the other hand, though, these results also suggest that Roozen and Hadaway’s (1993) and Hadaway and Marler’s (1996) focus on the central role of evangelical theology is surely on target. That is, in addition to strength being the result of rational choice mechanisms such as filtering out free riders and incentivizing parishioners for reasons predicted by game theory (see Scheitle and Finke 2008), it seems reasonable to assume that strength—measured here in terms of parishioners’ participation and donations—is also the result of evangelicals who simply give time and money to their congregation because they believe it is the right thing to do (p. 632,633).
We believe the conclusion supported by the data above is straightforward. The greater the belief in the literalness of the Vedic Scripture and the superiority of ISKCON and the more people will be willing to accept prohibitions, and this will lead to devotees doing greater amounts of service for the movement.
Third, Congregational Strength is very strongly positively related to Parishioner Recruiting Activity both with (.549) and without (.641) denominational controls. At the same time, contrary to our hypotheses, Evangelical Theology is also positively related to Parishioner Recruiting Activity, though only when denominational controls are excluded from the model (.277). Thus, again, it appears that these findings offer support for Iannaccone, Olson, and Stark (1995) as well as for Roozen and Hadaway (1993) and Hadaway and Marler (1996). That being said, however, the influence of Congregational Strength is much stronger than that of Evangelical Theology, suggesting that although theological beliefs may factor directly into the likelihood of a parishioner inviting someone to church, the bulk of the explanation has to do with the general strength of a parishioner’s congregation, which assumedly supports and encourages such behavior (p. 633,634).
This supports the claim that devotees who are contributing more time to serving the movement are, overall, more likely to encourage others to come to the Temple.
Fourth, Congregational Strength is very strongly positively related to Parishioner Perception of Value both with (.674) and without (.595) denominational controls. Accordingly, this persuasively validates one of the core axioms of Iannaccone’s (1994) and Iannaccone, Olson, and Stark’s (1995) version of the strictness thesis and, no doubt, makes intuitive sense: parishioners value strong congregations, which is to say that parishioners are far more likely to get their spiritual, social, and family needs met within the context of a congregation that has the strength and resources to meet those needs.(634,635).
It seems intuitive that perception of value would be strongly correlated with amount of time devotees serve the movement.
I believe the study has strong validity, in that the definitions, and measures, really measure what they intend to, and 300,000 participants is far greater than the amount required to show, statistically, the tendency of people in general who are involved (like the members of ISKCON )in religious beliefs, following rules, serving their church, preaching, and valuing their religious community. Overall the study supports the assertion that literal belief in the scripture as well as belief in the superiority of ISKCON leads to voluntary restriction of behavior which leads to greater time spent serving the movement, more preaching, and greater appreciation for Srila Prabhupada’s society.
There are some senior members of ISKCON who preach that for continued growth we must abandon the idea of accepting the scriptures literally. They also say that activities such as wearing devotional clothes and adhering to values that are inconsistent with mainstream society are detrimental to increased growth. I hope that such devotees will read this article and understand the fallacy of these convictions. Some devotees say we must compromise to grow, and others say it is wrong to compromise in order to grow, but I have never heard individuals argue that compromising will not increase growth. I hope those who argue against ISKCON becoming less distinct from mainstream society will use the evidence above to show that compromise causes decline, not growth.
The concept of too much strictness is also straightforward. ISKCON communities must be able to give something worth more to people than the things they are giving up to pursue Krishna Consciousness. I believe few will deny that, in the past, there have been cases of demanding too much from devotees (creating great numbers of devotees being, “artificial”). But the reaction to this has sometimes been kneejerk and counterproductive. I have, numerous times, seen devotees, in reaction to excessive strictness (often something they never experienced themselves) tell people, in various ways that ISKCON does not dictate everything a devotee must think and do. Such devotees should consider that although ( based on the past ,or rumors of the past) it is positive to them that ISKCON does not demand complete mental and physical obedience, still ,there is nothing about this that will be seen as positive to a newcomer.
People will be willing to accept the scripture as more valid than their personal opinion when they are convinced that what is available through its acceptance (eternal spiritual bliss) is worth much more than the price they pay by giving up their own conclusions as the most valid. We need not (and cannot) say we are the only true path but devotees must boldly say Krishna Consciousness the best path and then prove why that is a fact. If all paths are equal there is no incentive to join one over another. People are convinced that something is valid when they see that others, who have paid a good price for it, are satisfied with the reward. We should counteract over strictness of the past not by telling people what ISKCON does not require; rather we should emphasize the fact that ISKCON is a movement where people are currently giving a lot and are happy doing so. Srila Prabhupada also used economic language to describe true spirituality, “Krishna Consciousness is not cheap”. We should not attempt to counteract previous errors by making it cheap.
* A principal source of the data used by many researchers is the Yearbook from The National Council of Churches which began in 1916. I have the data archive disk which has the yearbooks 1916-2000. In the 1996 Yearbook we read, “The trend of declining mainline denominations continues.” (p. 1). In the 1998 Yearbook we read:
During the past decade and a half researchers have reported frequently on the decline of the classical Protestant churches. The rapid decline in membership of these churches has often been viewed in contrast to a similar rate of increase in the membership of evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Other researchers have noted a rapid decrease in membership in churches viewed as liberal in matters of theology and ethics, while contrasting this with the rapid increase in denomination membership in churches which are perceived as more, “conservative” in these matters (p. 11-12)
The editors of the year book say the above conclusion is questionable because the increase in the conservative, Southern Baptist Convention, had lessened over the past three years, while the decline of the liberal, United Methodists had lessened over the past three years. The editors thus implied a movement toward equilibrium which has not manifested. In 2000 the conservative, Southern Baptist convention reported loses for the first time. On the other hand the conservative Assembly of God showed continued strong growth. In the 2011 yearbook we read, “The direction of membership (growth or decline) remains very stable” It notes a “… continuing decline in virtually all mainline denominations”. As for conservative organizations, two Pentecostal organizations that are among the top 25 protestant congregations in the U.S. reported, “strong figures.” Also outside the mainline, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints both reported increases (Linder, 2011)
Virtually all, mainline denominations continued to decline and the editors of the yearbook found the decline in one conservative church noteworthy; thus, it can be inferred that virtually all conservative denominations remained stable or grew; and the decline in the Southern Baptist Convention is an anomaly within the trend and not a repudiation of it. Anyone interested in doing detailed statistical analysis can check the 2011 News from the National Council of Churches (http://www.ncccusa.org/news/110210yearbook2011.html) the disk with the membership data from 1916 till 2000 is available from this site for a reasonable price.
Iannaccone, L. (March, 1994). Why Strict Churches Are Strong. The American Journal of Sociology. 99 (5): 1180-1121.
Kelly, D. M. (1972) Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press.
Linder, E., Rev. Dr. (Ed.) (2011). News from the National Council of Churches. Retrieved from: http://www.ncccusa.org/news/110210yearbook2011.html
Thomas, J., N., & Olson, D., V., A. (2010). Testing the Strictness Thesis and Competing Theories of Congregational Growth, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(4):619–639
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