Thick and Thin Religions

When thinking about religion it is often helpful to bear in mind a distinction between “thick” religions and “thin” religions. This distinction can help us understand why American Catholicism went into decline about 40 years ago.
By a “thick” religion I mean one that requires its adherents to do and to believe many things. And by a “thin” religion I mean the opposite: a religion relatively undemanding when it comes to belief and behavior. Picture a spectrum: very thick religions at one end, very thin religions at the other end, and religions with intermediate degrees of thickness/thinness in between.
Christian religions of a sect-like nature (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses) are very thick. Not only do they have an extensive list of doctrines that you, a member, are expected to believe, but many of these dogmas an ordinary person will find difficult to swallow. When it comes to behavior, you’ll face not only the usual taboos (no murder, no theft, no adultery, etc.) but a set of further prohibitions that make little sense to ordinary persons (e.g., no coffee, no alcohol, no dancing, no saluting the flag, no voting, no blood transfusions). You’ll be expected to devote large amounts of time, work, and money to your religion. For instance, you may have to tithe in the literal sense of that word (i.e., contribute 10 percent of your income); attend church twice on Sundays and two or three times during the balance of the week; donate your occupational skills (as a carpenter, electrician, plumber, etc.) to the building or improvement or maintenance of church buildings.
By contrast, Christian religions of a liberal or “modernistic” nature are doctrinally very thin. When it comes to belief, these religions are nothing if not tolerant and permissive. If you’d like to believe in the traditional list of Christian doctrines (e.g., the articles of the Nicene Creed), that’s okay; but if you don’t want to believe in them, that’s okay too. Naturally they’d like you to believe in God, but if you don’t . . . well, agnosticism, while a bit unfortunate, isn’t all that bad a thing. It would be helpful too if you believed that Jesus of Nazareth was a fine fellow, but of course we wouldn’t dream of insisting that you go so far as to hold that he was divine. After all, how can a person of modern mentality — somebody who took science courses in high school –believe an ancient metaphysical paradox like that? On the other hand, if you are sufficiently quaint in your Christianity as to believe in the Incarnation, well, that’s fine; and the rest of us, above all the minister, will be courteous enough to spare you pain by not expressly denouncing that hopelessly antiquated doctrine.
On the behavioral side of things, liberal religions have always had a tendency toward thinness. They believed in the second table of the Ten Commandments, but they were tolerant on alcohol, coffee, and tobacco, not to mention dancing. They tolerated divorce, even though they didn’t like it. And beginning about a third of the way through the 20th century, they gave their stamp of approval to contraception: Not only was it a human right, in many cases it was a human duty. However, in more recent times (ever since the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s) they have become more morally permissive. They don’t see that there’s anything essentially wrong with fornication, unmarried cohabitation, abortion, and homosexuality.
Of course, they don’t approve of doing these things in a merely casual way. If you mean to fornicate, shack up, abort, sodomize, etc., you should do these things only in certain morally correct circumstances. For instance, you should commit homosexual sodomy only if you have genuine feelings of respect and even affection for your homosexual partner. And when you have an abortion, you should be motivated not by mere egoistic concerns but by a concern for the ultimate well-being of the aborted fetus (in plain English, you should talk yourself into believing that the unborn baby is better off dead than alive); and it is to be preferred that you have the abortion only after consulting with your clergyperson. As for fornication, you mustn’t do it from merely hedonistic motives; nor may you either coerce or exploit your partner. Do it thoughtfully; and if you can’t do it with commitment or even affection, at least do it with respect.
American Catholicism, until about 40 years ago, used to be a relatively thick religion. It wasn’t as thick as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it lay somewhere toward the thick end of the spectrum. It demanded belief in all the articles of the Nicene Creed, and, somewhat less demandingly, it encouraged belief in a number of other things too (e.g., the Marian apparitions of Lourdes and Fatima). It tolerated alcohol, coffee, tobacco, gambling, etc., but insisted on strict compliance with the Ten Commandments. It was especially strict when it came to sexual taboos: no fornication, no adultery, no contraception, no divorce-and-remarriage; and for the unmarried, not even any impure touches or thoughts. It insisted on attendance at Mass every Sunday, and it expected frequent confession. It had a host of other devotions: the rosary, 40 hours, first Fridays, first Saturdays, Lenten stations of the cross, and parish missions, not to mention lighting candles in church. Further, you were strongly discouraged from marrying a non-Catholic, and you were urged to send your children to a Catholic school.
Now everything is changed. American Catholicism has become a relatively thin religion — not as thin, to be sure, as today’s exceedingly thin liberal Protestant denominations; but Catholicism has shifted toward the thin end of the spectrum. I don’t mean that it has become officially thin; in theory it is still a demanding religion. But in practice it has become far, far thinner than it used to be. Average Catholics today feel themselves far less bound than were their parents or grandparents to conform to Catholic orthodoxy and Catholic sexual morality, let alone to involve themselves in a dozen Catholic devotions.
Small wonder that the Catholic Church in America, like all liberal Protestant churches, is in decline. A revival of American Catholicism (if such a revival should ever take place) will require that Catholicism get “re-thickened.”


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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