Recent sociological findings: many evangelicals think science and religion can work together, few highly invested in evolution/creation debate

Two recent studies suggest there may be less conflict between religious Americans and science than is typically portrayed.

1. Sociologist Elaine Ecklund on how religion and science interact:

“We found that nearly 50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together and support one another,” Ecklund said. “That’s in contrast to the fact that only 38 percent of Americans feel that science and religion can work in collaboration.”…

  • Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
  • 27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict.
  • Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
  • 48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
  • 22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
  • Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
  • Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
  • Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

RUS is the largest study of American views on religion and science. It includes the nationally representative survey of more than 10,000 Americans, more than 300 in-depth interviews with Christians, Jews and Muslims — more than 140 of whom are evangelicals — and extensive observations of religious centers in Houston and Chicago.

Ecklund comes to similar conclusions in her 2010 book about scientists and religious faith Science vs. Religion.

2. Sociologist Jon Hill on how Americans view the evolution debate:

As part of a recent project funded by the BioLogos Foundation, I have fielded a new, nationally representative survey of the American public: The National Study of Religion and Human Origins (NSRHO).

Unlike existing surveys, this one includes extensive questions about human origins that allow us to develop a more accurate portrait of what the general public—and, in particular, Christians—actually believe. The survey includes questions on belief in human evolution, divine involvement, the existence of Adam and Eve, historical timeframe, original sin, and more. For each of these questions, participants are allowed to respond with “not at all sure” about what they believe. If they claim a position, they are also asked to rate how confident they are that their belief is correct. Lastly, they are asked to report how important having the right beliefs about human origins is to them personally…

If only eight percent of respondents are classified as convinced creationists whose beliefs are dear to them, and if only four percent are classified as atheistic evolutionists whose beliefs are dear to them, then perhaps Americans are not as deeply divided over human origins as polls have indicated. In fact, most Americans fall somewhere in the middle, holding their beliefs with varying levels of certainty. Most Americans do not fall neatly into any of the existing camps, and only a quarter claimed their beliefs were important to them personally.

So what does this mean for the church? I think it shows that most people, even regular church-going evangelicals, are not deeply entrenched on one side of a supposed two-sided battle. Certainly, the issue divides Christians. But Christian beliefs about human origins are complex. There’s no major single chasm after all.

In other words, the average religious American doesn’t have think this issue is a matter of life and death, even if the rhetoric from both sides is that the other is a clear enemy.

Why would atheist groups want to be known for meeting in “mega-churches”?

I understand the interest in wanting to meet together regularly but why exactly would atheists want to call their gatherings “megachurches”?

Nearly three dozen gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors have sprung up around the U.S. and Australia — with more to come — after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.

On Sunday, the inaugural Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles attracted several hundred people bound by their belief in non-belief. Similar gatherings in San Diego, Nashville, New York and other U.S. cities have drawn hundreds of atheists seeking the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual…

Hundreds of atheists and atheist-curious packed into a Hollywood auditorium for a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection, an “inspirational talk” about forgotten — but important — inventors and scientists and some stand-up comedy.

During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” ”Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game that involved clapping and slapping the hands of the person next to them and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they had started in LA.

I’m a little surprised they would want to be known as “megachurches” as these kind of churches tend to attract some criticism. Here are some critiques: they are big, impersonal, more about entertainment than community, don’t require much commitment from attendees, are devoted to money and programs, encourage a consumer mentality, may not lead to much spiritual growth, and can swell their congregations by taking attendees from other churches. (To be fair, there are others who would praise what megachurches do and can do.)

Here are a few reasons why using the term megachurches might be attractive to atheists:

1. They imply a sizable congregation. The median church in the United States is around 75 people (this was according to the National Congregations study a few years ago). Interestingly, the congregations described in this study sound like they had “several hundred people,” which is not exactly megachurch size. Perhaps these groups will have to pursue church growth strategies.

2. Megachurches tend to get an outsized amount of attention even though most American Christians don’t go to churches that size. Congregations like Willow Creek or Saddleback or Lakeland have well-known pastors and are seen as leading institutions in conservative Christianity in America. Atheist megachurches could have a similar influence in the media and the public at large.

It will be interesting to see how these groups, megachurches or not, fare.

The first secular studies department

The subject of secularization has generated much discussion among sociologists and others in recent years (see a recent example with thoughts from sociologist Mark Chaves regarding religion’s decline in America). Now there is news that the first secular studies department will begin in the next academic year:

Starting this fall, Pitzer College, a small liberal arts institution in Southern California, will inaugurate a department of secular studies. Professors from other departments, including history, philosophy, religion, science and sociology, will teach courses like “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Anxiety in the Age of Reason” and “Bible as Literature.”

The department was proposed by Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion, who describes himself as “culturally Jewish, but agnostic-atheist on questions of deep mystery.” Over the years he grew increasingly intrigued by the growth of secularism in the United States and around the world. He studied and taught in Denmark, one of the world’s most secular countries, and has written several books about atheism.

While the field of sociology of religion has spent time in the last few decades discussing the resurgence of religion in the world, particularly the rise of American evangelicalism, perhaps this new major is illustrative of a reversal of study as atheism or non-religiousness (even though Americans who identify as this still may consider themselves “spiritual” or still partake in religious practices) gains attention.

It would be interesting to hear more about the internal discussions at Pitzer about why the study of secularism should have its own major rather than approaching the subject within several already established majors like sociology or religious studies.

The decline of the church steeple

USA Today reports that the church steeple, once a key feature of church architecture, is on the decline:

Nationwide, church steeples are taking a beating and the bell tolls for bell towers, too, as these landmarks of faith on the landscape are hard hit by economic, social and religious change…

Architects and church planners see today’s new congregations meet in retooled sports arenas or shopping malls or modern buildings designed to appeal to contemporary believers turned off by the look of old-time religion.

Steeples may have outlived their times as signposts. People hunting for a church don’t scan the horizon, they search the Internet. Google reports searches for “churches” soar before Easter each year…

Today, he says, people want their church to look comfortable and inviting, “more like a mall.”

The article has some interesting points:

1. Churches look more inviting without a steeple. This is interesting as it suggests that a primary goal of church architecture is that people feel comfortable and avoid symbolic references to “old-time religion.” Several times in this story, the comparison is made to shopping malls: newer churches want to be inviting. I’m not sure that I particularly find shopping malls inviting – they are quite functional in what they intend to do, that is, generate profit – but I can see how they have more relaxed atmospheres. But should this be the major goal of church architecture?

2. Beside this cultural issue, this appears to be a budget issue for many churches as steeples cost money to build and maintain. These sorts of “frills” might be difficult to support in tough economic times. I like the example in the story of churches leasing out this space to cell phone companies: this is American pragmatism.

3. The idea that it was once important for people walking around a community to be able to see a steeple from a long distance is intriguing. What marks the skyline of a typical suburb or American small town today? (And let us be honest: how much can you see from a car, as opposed to walking, anyway? Perhaps this is why we have church signs that look more like signs for fast food restaurants or strip mall businesses. Are these more inviting as well?)

4. If the steeple is no longer a distinctive architectural feature of churches, what does mark these buildings from other typical buildings? Anything beyond a sign out front? But as the article suggests, perhaps this is the point.

A sociologist assesses the Canadian religious landscape

A Canadian sociologist discusses whether Canadian religion has gone down the path of European secularization or has charted a different course:

For years, almost everyone has assumed that religion in Canada has been in a participation free fall. In the mid-1940s, our national weekly attendance level of 60 per cent was higher than that of the United States. When it dipped to 25 per cent in the mid-1980s, many felt it was en route to European-like levels of under 10 per cent.

Actually, that active core of 20 per cent to 25 per cent has not changed very much. The participation losses of mainline Protestants and Quebec Catholics have been offset by the gains of Catholics elsewhere, evangelical Protestants, and other groups, led by Muslims…

These mixed findings about the stability and decline of religion are best summed up as polarization rather than relentless secularization. Simultaneously, the percentage of Canadians who value religion remains sizable and stable, while growing numbers are living life without the gods…

Religion is important for many but, as we all know, large numbers of Canadians are spiritual but not religious.

The research does suggest, however, that growing polarization will produce two casualties. First, while people obviously can be “good without God,” belief in God helps. Religion typically tries to instill interpersonal values such as compassion, honesty, civility and forgiveness. In its absence, we will need to find some effective functional options. Second, religion frequently provides people with a unique sense of hope as they confront death. To the extent Canadians say goodbye to the gods, most will say goodbye to such hope – an admirable decision if the gods are an illusion, an unnecessary and costly choice if the reverse is true.

I must admit that I don’t know much about religion north of the US border. But in some sense, these conclusions don’t sound too different from recent thoughts from Mark Chaves about American religion: some religious decline over time but still a sizable amount of people practicing religion or spirituality.

While both of the possible consequences of religious polarization are at the individual level, it would be interesting to hear about the changing role of religion in Canadian public life. It is suggested in the first paragraph that religion is barely playing a role in a national election. If more individual Canadians are not religious or spiritual, what does this mean for public discourse or values? Is there a Canadian civil religion similar to American civil religion?

Reviewing “American Grace”: it is readable!

The book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us was released this past week. In addition to being co-authored by Robert Putnam (author of well-known Bowling Alone), the study has been hailed by several sources as a (and perhaps the) comprehensive look at religion in American society.

But a feature of a positive review written by a historian in the San Francisco Chronicle struck me as intriguing:

Among the great virtues of this volume is its combination of two features that are all too rarely found in close proximity. One is a commitment to the most rigorous standards of contemporary social science, bolstered by statistical sophistication. Do you like multiple regression analysis? You’ll find lots of it here. The other feature is a commitment to get their message across to educated readers who are put off by the excessive jargon and abstraction of most sociological studies. Only such a combination could make a 673-page tome worth the attention “American Grace” deserves.

Reading between the lines, here is what is being said: sociologists are not often able to combine statistical evidence (regression analysis of survey results is the gold standard for studies like this that claim to be comprehensive looks at American society) and winsome writing. Essentially, the book is “readable.”

A few thoughts come to mind:

1. What exactly about it makes it “readable” or “understandable”?

2. When reading a book using regression analysis, how much should the “typical educated reader” know about this kind of analysis? This might say more about general statistical knowledge, even among the educated, than it does about the book.

3. This is a valid concern for a book that hopes to be read by many people – writers should always consider their audience. However, it still strikes me as a lower-level priority: isn’t the argument of the book much more important than how it was written? The style of writing can detract from the argument but what we should grapple with are Putnam and Campbell’s conclusions.