On one hand, among U.S. adults overall, higher levels of education are linked with lower levels of religious commitment by some measures, such as belief in God, how often people pray and how important they say religion is to them. On the otherhand, Americans with college degrees report attending religious services as often as Americans with less education.Moreover, the majority of American adults (71%) identify as Christians. And among Christians, those with higher levels of education appear to be just as religious as those with less schooling, on average. In fact, highly educated Christians are more likely than less-educated Christians to say they are weekly churchgoers.
An interview in the latest print issue of Christianity Today could provide insights for a lot of religious congregations: here is part of the lesson regarding geographic inequalities.
For me, geography is never passive. Why does a new freeway cut through a certain neighborhood? Who lives near that freeway, and why? Those are not just decisions of urban planners or politicians. There are a million little decisions that go into that process—public and private.
It’s impossible to live in a place, or move to a new one, without getting tangled up in the history of its particular structures—who they benefit and who they exclude. That’s a hard reality, because most of us didn’t pave the streets we live on. Yet someone designed those places, and that design will either encourage the flourishing of society or lead to patterns of exclusion…
So many churches, frankly, just don’t know their communities at all. Two or three days a week, a whole bunch of cars come in and then go somewhere else—and that’s the only relationship a church might have with its surrounding neighborhood. That’s more of a suburban reality, but it’s increasingly true of cities as well. The first step, for churches, is just asking, Who’s here? Who are the immediate neighbors that we serve? What populations are underserved? If churches begin to have that conversation more often, then they can look to their congregations and say, “Are we representing the people in this community, and why or why not?”…
The next step is asking, “How can our congregation use its resources—whether that’s a building, a program, or a professional with certain skills—for the sake of others?” Church buildings, for example, are notorious for inefficient usage. They’re filled up a couple times each week, but otherwise the heat is off and they’re just vacant. What a gift it would be for churches to think of their physical structures as resources not just for themselves but also for their surrounding communities. Especially in dense, gentrifying urban areas, where space is really at a premium.
Some related thoughts, many based on findings from the sociology of religion:
- A lot of religious congregations seem more interested in internal homophily – being with like people during church activities – rather than turning their attention to their actual neighbors.
- Many congregations do little in terms of local outreach – see Congregations in America and the ongoing data of the National Congregations Study. It is not as if they are doing misinformed outreach; little is being done in the first place so getting churches to care about their local community may be harder than it looks.
- I agree that urban design can certainly contribute to flourishing or exclusion but it is not necessarily a guarantee of either. Take the highway example given here (and famously illustrated by the Dan Ryan Expressway on the South Side of Chicago): it reinforced existing boundaries.
- Why can’t religious groups construct and maintain “cosmopolitan canopies” rather than leaving it to private commercial interests or the efforts of local governments?
- I assume there are some differences today in how different religious traditions and denominations approach the local community. This was certainly true in the past where Catholic churches did not disappear when the parishioners moved to the suburbs but rather transitioned to the newest waves of immigrants. Today, who takes their local context into account more and what could they teach others?
I saw this list of 25 stunning churches, mosques, and temples around the world and wondered: how do people decide on a list like this? Even the introduction of the article seems to recognize this:
The architecture of houses of worship varies according to time and place, ranging from hilltop chapels built in the 10th century to geometric modernist designs of glass and steel…
A tour around the world in search of the most beautiful houses of worship shows that despite the immense differences in architecture, the ability of humans to create beautiful, holy places transcends geographical and sectarian boundaries. Behold, 25 of the world’s prettiest churches, mosques, and temples.
I would be interested in reading more about how each of these buildings lead visitors to feelings of beauty and holiness. Is it because of the exterior? (Clearly marked as a religious building, difference from or convergence with the surrounding landscape, it took a long time to build.) Is it because of the interior? (A number of these captions mention that the buildings invoke certain feelings inside.) It is because it is old and/or cultural important? Ultimately: is there a common feature across religious buildings of different faiths and times that generally moves humans toward feelings of transcendence?
(This isn’t exactly what my coauthor Bob Brenneman and I were getting at in a recent Sociology of Religion article titled “When Bricks Matter: Fourt Arguments for the Sociological Study of Religious Buildings” but this would be interesting to consider alongside our thesis that we should pay more attention to how religious buildings affect the people within.)
The theory, as you might guess from the title, is that sports, broadly constructed, are a kind of religion. As Chopra intones during the introduction, with images of stadiums and religious pilgrimages rolling by, sports “have believers, priests, and gods. They have rituals, miracles, and sacrifices. Sports unite us. They are a calling.”…
In parsing “the religion of sports,” Chopra and his star-powered co-producers are trying to understand a resilient form of meaning making and community formation in the United States. It seems a little silly to group Chopra and co. with social theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville and contemporary scholars who worry that America’s community structures are fraying. But, incredibly, that’s the project they’ve created: a sort of jock’s guide to civil society. While the series can, at times, come across as a rosy-eyed passion project, its central insight—that sports can be understood as a way that people find belonging—reveals a rich theme for artists who seek to grapple with the strong sense of cultural division and isolation experienced today by Americans of different ethnic, class, and political backgrounds…
Chopra takes this literally: “Sports is an actual faith. It’s not even metaphor. It’s real. You practice these things,” he said. This is debatable—Chopra is looking at religion purely as a matter of practice, while discounting the importance of belief. Sports are not about the metaphysical nature of the universe; they provide no guidebook for the self or community in navigating life.
But, to embrace Chopra’s interpretation of “religion” for a moment, it’s curious to consider the ways in which sports participation has not followed the same trend line as other communal activities. According to organizations like Pew, traditional religious affiliation is steadily declining in the United States; participation in civil-society groups like bowling clubs or parent-teacher organizations has gone down significantly as well. As Americans have pulled away from these kinds of community institutions, their love of sports has stayed relatively constant: According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who call themselves “sports fans” has hovered around 60 percent for at least the last 15 years.
This sounds like a Durkheimian exploration of a functional religion, another area of social life that has some similar characteristics to religion. Sports involve rituals, collective effervescence, totems, and beliefs. This could range from sports (earlier posts involving the World Cup and the belief of some American sports fans that supernatural forces are involved) to following Apple (earlier post here).
I hope, however, this documentary series doesn’t fall into two common traps with this comparison:
- Sports are the magic elixir that can bring everyone together. (In contrast, many argue today that religion divides people.) Being a fan alongside another fan may bring individuals together for a moment but does it really make the world a better place? Does racism really disappear? Are cities healed? My answer: no and see these earlier posts on the effect of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the ability of soccer teams to bring about urban revival, and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. .
- Putting sports fandom and religion side by side suggests that it doesn’t matter ultimately what people believe; it is simply that common beliefs bring people together. Not all beliefs at the same level. Do sports really dictate how most people make major decisions in their life? Do sports provide ultimate meaning? (They may serve this role for a small number of people but religion is still going pretty strong throughout the world.)
The documentary series will reveal how much it gets right about the sociology of sport and religion…
Yesterday, I highlighted a sociological argument about who white evangelicals are. Recently, evangelical leaders came together to provide their own definition for evangelicals. This included input from sociologists, theologians, historians, and others. Here is the four part definition:
The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
This is a theological definition. With a few well-worded survey questions, evangelicals can be separated from other religious and Protestant groups.
From a sociological perspective, what does this definition miss? At least a few things:
- Social/cultural context. Theological beliefs alone cannot capture the cultural dimensions of being evangelicals. If we define culture as “patterns of meaning-making” (a definition preferred by sociologists of culture), making sense of those four theological views and putting them into practice is a whole additional ballgame to consider. What is it like to worship in an evangelical setting? How are evangelicals encouraged to live their day-to-day lives? What kinds of media do they consume? What institutions do they celebrate and contribute to? And so on.
It is not enough to cite a particular religious history for the group that could be dated back to 1600s American Protestants or 1700s-1800s British Protestants. Those theological paths were also significantly influenced by social events including the Enlightenment, evolution and the rise of science, industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of the western democratic state.
In other words, others can hold similar theological views – particularly black Protestants – but they do not share the same social dimensions with white evangelicals.
- Engagement with race. As has been explored in the last two decades, particularly in still-relevant Divided By Faith, American evangelicalism has a sordid history with race. While some evangelicals have fought for the rights of non-whites, many have not. When white evangelicals today are asked about race, they tend to stick to color-blind approaches (“we don’t see race”), argue that talking about race issues makes it worse, and that evangelicals should be united in Christ. The argument in Divided By Faith is that evangelicals have an individualistic approach to all of life – including theology – and can’t see structural issues like racism. If evangelicals do try to address race (or other less popular issues), some evangelicals exercise their individual abilities to join new churches or groups.
- Politics. This has probably received the most public attention since the 1970s as evangelicals emerged as a recognizable group, had their first President (a Baptist and Democrat), and formed their own political groups (The Moral Majority, etc.). Evangelicals do tend to vote a certain way – with Republicans – and have coalesced around certain moral issues (like abortion) while saying little about others that are clearly Biblical concerns (like poverty and immigration, as just two examples).
A recent plenary session at a sociology of religion meeting I was at noted a more recent trend: evangelicals (and other religious groups) as a whole are not really voting with religious convictions in mind. It is all about party identification.
- Forming their own institutions. Once the modern-fundamentalist split occurred around the turn of the 20th century, evangelicals created a whole new set of institutions: TV and radio stations, colleges, magazines, parachurch ministries (think Focus on the Family), publishing houses, celebrities (from Billy Graham to Tim Tebow), movies, and more. And perhaps the most notable institutions are non-denominational churches as well as the suburban megachurch.
- Limited interaction, engagement, and work with Christians around the world, let alone other Christian groups in the United States. The evangelical tendencies toward drawing boundaries based on theology (as well as cultural characteristics) can make it difficult to work with others.
- Where did the fundamentalists go? They were subsumed under the evangelical umbrella after World War II. Few Christian groups choose to use this name given its connotations today but it can sometimes be hard to determine the fundamentalists (who typically advocate more separation with the world) and evangelicals (who typically advocate more engagement with the world). Insiders can tell you clear differences between Bob Jones and Wheaton College but outsiders may not be able to (and may not care to).
All this said, it is not as simple as defining a religious group solely by their theology. To their credit, LifeWay and others acknowledge that this four point scale only gets at evangelical belief. As sociologists of religion often note, religiosity includes belief, belonging, and behavior. Perhaps evangelicals themselves want to primarily emphasize theological positions but this does not fully capture who they are nor is it the way that those outside the group will regard them.
With all the talk of white evangelicals in the postmortem of the 2016 election, it is useful to return to a 1998 sociological book about this group: Christian Smith’s American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Here is one way we can understand white evangelicals from a sociological perspective:
1. Smith adopts the subcultural theory to explain the group’s success and current standing. This has two dimensions:
“The subcultural identity theory of religious persistence is this: Religion survives and can thrive in pluralistic, modern society by embedding itself in subcultures that offer satisfying morally orienting collective identities which provide adherents meaning and belonging.” (118)
“And the subcultural identity theory of religious strength is this: In a pluralistic society, those religious groups will be relatively stronger which better possess and employ the cultural tools needed to create both clear distinction from and significant engagement and tension with other relevant outgroups, short of becoming genuinely countercultural.” (118-119)
In this perspective, pluralism can actually help religious groups by fostering a sense of shared identity compared to the broader society and also providing opportunities for engagement with others.
2. The vitality of the group often depends on drawing strong distinctions between the group and the outside world.
“The evangelical tradition’s entire history, theology, and self-identity presupposes and reflects strong cultural boundaries with nonevangelicals; a zealous burden to convert and transform the world outside of itself; and a keen perception of external threats and crises seen as menacing what it views to be true, good, and valuable.” (121)
3. Evangelicals want to engage social issues but are ultimately limited in what they can accomplish because of their approach.
“the only truly effective way to change the world is one-individual-at-a-time through the influence of interpersonal relationships.”(187)
“they routinely offer one-dimensional analyses and solutions for multidimensional social issues and problems.” (189)
4. When it comes to political action, evangelicals support government intervention in some areas (like abortion, gay rights, and prayer in schools) but not in other areas. This leads to an unresolvable tension.
“By this we mean, in short, that many evangelicals think that Christian morality should be the primary authority for American culture and society and simultaneously think that everyone should be free to live as they see fit, even if that means rejecting Christianity.” (210)
5. Thus, the problems with evangelicalism come from within.
“Evangelicalism’s problems, in other words, are largely subculturally indigenous, difficulties of their own tradition’s making.”(217)
While the data for this book came from the culture wars era (comprehensive surveys and interviews conducted in the mid 1990s with ordinary evangelicals), a lot of this still rings true today.
A follow-up post tomorrow will contrast Smith’s understanding (as well as other sociological emphases) compared to how white evangelicals understand themselves.
Most research that compares American religion with religion elsewhere emphasizes the high levels of participation in the United States, and treats those high levels as strong evidence that America is exceptional.
If we look at the trends, though, it appears that the US isn’t a counter-example to the idea that modernization causes problems for religion. On the contrary, religious change in the United States is very similar to what we see elsewhere: long-term decline produced mainly by generational replacement.
This process operates slowly, and it can be counteracted in the short term by short-lived revivals, but it is very difficult to reverse…
Figure 2 – Attendance monthly or more often by decade of birth, United States, 1973-2014
Two quick thoughts:
- As they note at the end, the interesting question then to ask is why the United States has been slower to follow the secularization trend than other nations. This is not a small question and at least several suggestions have already been made by researchers including World Wars in Europe and the rise of the welfare state.
- Researchers are in a unique position if they argue any trend is inevitable. Voas and Chaves may be shown correct if religiosity continues to decline in new generations but it could be decades before the conclusive evidence arises. Additionally, societal patterns can change – even if such changes seem improbable at one time. If a researcher is correct in calling out a trend, they can appear prophetic but if they are wrong, their status may be diminished.