My venerable old 2G iPod -- “ohmigod,” she gasped, “it’s so, so ... huge” -- has been giving me gyp in the headphone socket department, and just when I was becoming addicted to my podcasts. After one too many sessions of jiggling the plug just so, and knowing I won’t be able to handle delicate soldering repairs for a good long while, I decided to resurrect my old Palm. That can play MP3s. Simple, then. Just sync up the downloaded podcast files with the card in the Palm and off I go.

You couldn’t possibly be interested in the details of how I lost about six hours of my life, six hours that I’ll never see again, that I could have done so much with, wrestling with Palm’s own debil-driven software, on Mac and PC. In desperation, I turned to The Missing Sync. Bingo! Done deal, after only one false start. Worth every penny.

Which is how I came, finally, to hear Professor Rodney Stark’s fourth and final lecture: Christian Establishments and the Neglect of Faith. Hard though it is for an atheist to say this, someone had been listening to my prayers. Audio quality was absolutely excellent. (Which makes it rather a shame that there is apparently no record of No. 3, Religious Competition and Roman Piety, unless Nashville Public Television has a copy.) Stark makes a pretty compelling case that Europe’s empty mainstream churches reflect lack of participation rather than lack of faith, and that it started when Constantine made Christianity the state religion. Along the way he more or less murders the simplistic notion that supporters of the Reformation had any desire to return to some, pure unsullied notion of religion. They wanted the power and the cash. Those states that already controlled the church had nothing to do with it, while Luther’s top supporters were rulers who were out to grab what they could.

Let people go to hell in whatever handcart they choose

Stark mentioned some research he had done with colleagues on the impact of a change in Italy’s approach to religion. In 1984 Bettino Craxi reached a new deal on the salaries of Catholic priests. Instead of being paid directly by the government, 0.8% of local taxes are “donated” directly to the Catholic church or, and this is the important part, to another designated religious group. (One cannot avoid the tax by declaring oneself agnostic or atheist, but one can, even if religious, give it to the state for cultural works.) Thus since 1984 there has effectively been a market in religions, one result of which is a remarkable flowering of delightful adverts -- “I give my otto per mille to the Waldensian church because I am not a Waldensian” -- to persuade those who “believe without belonging” to give to one of the named churches.

The results are really interesting. There has been a flowering of new evangelical movements. Between 1984 and 2001, 127 new religious movements started activities in Italy, compared to 212 between 1947 and 1984. Belief in God, belief in an afterlife and church attendance have increased, especially in young adults (18-29). (For details, see a paper by Massimo Introvigne, a colleague of Stark’s.)

A second interesting section concerned Stark’s proof that freedom of religion in Europe is a mirage. He listed the many ways in which “other” religious movements find their way blocked by the state in Europe, from the fact that until very recently Protestant Minister was not a recognized profession in Portugal to the criminality of all forms of mind control in Germany, in which belonging to a proscribed cult is evidence of mind control. Stark then said that on a world index of religious freedom (which I have been unable to trace) Afghanistan and Syria offered more religious freedom than most of Europe.

This I find hard to swallow. I guess that it hinges on how a country defines “cult”. For my money they are all the same. But a state that seeks to protect you from your own stupidity and gullibility in some contexts but not others is asking for trouble. Let people go to hell in whatever handcart they choose, I say.

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