Americans talk differently about faith online

Pew reports that religious faith is expressed differently online compared to offline:

But according to a new report from Pew, the way people talk about their faith online actually is different from how they talk about it in real life. In a nationally representative survey of more than 3,200 Americans, only 20 percent said they had “shared something about [their] religious faith on social networking websites/apps” in the past week. Twice as many said they had talked about faith in person within the same period.

Although people from different religious backgrounds reported different levels of what one might call faith-sharing, this relationship between on- and offline sharing was roughly the same across Christian denominations and the religiously unaffiliated: Twice as many people talked about their religious beliefs offline vs. online…

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that there’s hardly any variation among age groups: People younger and older than 50 were nearly equally likely to say they’d talked about their faith on social media within the last week. That’s remarkable for two reasons: In general, younger Americans are less religious than older Americans, and they’re also much heavier users of social media. Across two demographics who think about both faith and the Internet very differently, the mores of talking about God online seem to be similar.

This survey doesn’t say much what those mores are. But it does suggest that people like talking about their religious beliefs face-to-face more than they do online—or, perhaps, they’re more willing. Broadcasting your faith to all your Facebook friends is a very public act, and religion is a very personal thing; it may be that people feel more comfortable discussing God in communities that exist offline, like youth groups or book clubs. These spaces can feel much less vulnerable: It’s possible to know exactly who will hear you and maybe even have a sense of how they’ll respond. On Facebook or Twitter, that’s impossible.

Having conducted research in this area as well as having been online quite a bit in the last decade or so, I’m not surprised. I remember noticing this in the early days of Facebook. At that point, I believe certain information like your religion was more prominently featured on your profile. A number of my online friends – people of faith from a variety of institutional contexts and often with relatively high levels of education – tended to complicate their religious listing as if “Protestant” or “Christian” wasn’t individualized enough.

I don’t know that people are afraid of judgment when talking about faith online or through social media; we know that people talk about all sorts of other personal things. Perhaps this is all evidence of the increasing privatization of religion. You can participate in the public sphere of the Internet as long as you generally keep broad declarations of faith to an acceptable level. There might be some judgment but it maybe goes even further to indifference or embarrassment for such a user. You might be able to get away with more within certain circles – like white evangelicals who share their faith more online – but it wouldn’t be as welcomed within other online networks and sites.

That said, the figures still suggest some decent levels of religious activity online with roughly 20% sharing about their faith regularly and 46% regularly seeing things regarding the faith of other users. Faith isn’t dead online even if it doesn’t quite match offline activity.


Cardinal George on secularization: it is harder for people to have faith today

Chicago Cardinal Francis George makes a secularization argument by suggesting it is more difficult for people today to have faith:

Cardinal George acknowledged the pope is concerned about faith, and added that all the cardinals are concerned as well. This will be utmost in their minds when they deliberate in Rome…

“The larger question: Is there now such a sea change in Western culture that people can’t believe; that they aren’t open to belief?” he asked. “That therefore you have to be your own god in a way. ‘You have to do just what you want to do in the way that you want to do it. You have to follow your own dream.’

“Well, it’s important to follow God’s dream.

“So we could say maybe (some) people have lost the gift of faith because we’ve created a society where people can’t believe. It’s impossible — well, not impossible, never impossible, but very difficult — to believe because it goes against the grain to say, ‘I surrender my life.’ Maybe it’s why marriage is in such difficulty because when you’re married that’s what you do. You surrender your life to a woman or a man, a husband, a wife. Well, faith means you surrender your life to God.”

George is suggesting social conditions, “we’ve created a society,” make it more difficult to have faith. He doesn’t suggest exactly why this is. Sociologists and others have made arguments over the years for why this has happened: new technologies, demonstrable progress as well as believing in its capabilities, new ways of thinking (from the Enlightenment on) that favor reason and science, the development of the welfare state that takes care of basic human needs, two world wars, and more.

It would be interesting to hear how the Catholic cardinals discuss this topic as they pick a new pope. On one hand, there are over 1 billion Catholics in the world. On the other hand, Catholics and other Christians have been challenged for decades on the relevance of faith and what position it should play in civil society.

What journalists should know about religion

In the last week, several journalists have addressed the issue of how journalists should talk with politicians about religion. Ross Douthat followed up on his August 29th column with a blog post providing examples of what he is trying to address. And last Friday, Amy Sullivan provided a number of steps journalists could take in order to write intelligently about the religious beliefs of politicians.

This brings several thoughts to mind:
1. What happened to religion writers among major newspapers or magazines? I think most of them have disappeared, even respected ones like Catherine Falsani who used to write for the Chicago Sun-Times. At a time when religion is alive and influential around the world, media sources don’t have dedicated people who can comment on these particular issues. Asking political writers to write about topics they don’t regularly cover seems like a problem. I know media outlets have had to make major cutbacks in certain areas but there are repercussions for this.
2. The burden seems to be on politicians who have “non-mainstream” religious beliefs to explain how they are not dangers to society. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Americans have more unfavorable feelings toward minority religions like Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists/non-religious (not quite a minority “religion”). Of course, much of this debate could really be about whether evangelicals are mainstream or not. Their size would suggest they are mainstream as would their political influence since the late 1970s.

The most and least Christian American cities

The Barna group has put together a report that includes the American cities with the most and least residents who identify as Christians. Here are the lists of the most and least Christian cities:

The cities (measured in the Barna research as media markets) with the highest proportion of residents who describe themselves as Christian are typically in the South, including: Shreveport (98%), Birmingham (96%), Charlotte (96%), Nashville (95%), Greenville, SC / Asheville, NC (94%), New Orleans (94%), Indianapolis (93%), Lexington (93%), Roanoke-Lynchburg (93%), Little Rock (92%), and Memphis (92%).

The lowest share of self-identified Christians inhabited the following markets: San Francisco (68%), Portland, Oregon (71%), Portland, Maine (72%), Seattle (73%), Sacramento (73%), New York (73%), San Diego (75%), Los Angeles (75%), Boston (76%), Phoenix (78%), Miami (78%), Las Vegas (78%), and Denver (78%). Even in these cities, however, roughly three out of every four residents align with Christianity.

It appears the report goes on to talk to talk about a few implications: this shows that even in the least Christian cities, around three-quarters of the people identify as Christians and the figures confirm some stereotypes about regions (the Christian South vs. the secular Northeast and West).

However, I had a different sort of question: is life in the more Christian cities qualitatively different than the life in the less Christian cities? Are the Christian cities marked by different actions or programs? Are people in the Christian cities more welcoming and are they more willing and active in helping those who need help? Would a visitor be able to know which cities were the more Christian based on interactions with its people versus other measures like the number of churches or religious advertising? Does the Christian faith of the individual residents translate into a different kind of community or local government?

And if the answers to these questions is “no, it really isn’t that different,” then why not?

When religious faith and unions come together

Even though unions represent a relatively small percent of today’s American workers, they tend to draw a lot of attention. A story from the Chicago Tribune adds another dimension to the discussion: what happens when unions and faith mix?

Faith and work are inextricably linked for most of the working class, said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“For a lot of these folks, if a business doesn’t provide health care, it could be characterized as not taking care of the stranger on the road. It’s a sin,” said Bruno, who interviewed hundreds of low-wage workers in Chicago for his 2008 book, “Justified by Work: Identity and the Meaning of Faith in Chicago’s Working-Class Churches.”

About 91 percent of union members believe in God, and 25 percent pray several times a day, Bruno found in a survey of union members he conducted from 2005 to 2006. Eighty percent believe God performs miracles in the world today…

Organizations like Interfaith Worker Justice work to close the gap between low-wage workers, who tend to have a more emotional connection to their faith, and corporate executives, who, he said, have been found to see religion more intellectually.

“They try to bring the argument to the modern-day pharaohs,” he said. “‘Hey, you claim to be Christian, you claim to be a Jew, you claim to be Muslim, why are you treating your people this way? You can’t hide behind your glass office.'”

This immediately brings several questions to mind:

1. What percentage of union actions or labor strikes are motivated by religious values? In other words, how often are unions motivated by religion versus other motivations?

2. What happens when a union makes a religious argument to corporate executives? Do the corporations just ignore this part of the argument? What happens when the executive or the company is also religious – does this lead to a different corporate response?

3. How would a typical evangelical, one that lives in the suburbs, works in a non-blue collar job, and is conservative, respond to these arguments? Can corporations sin? Should or can unions be making these arguments?

Asking why emerging adults seem to be leaving the church in greater numbers

A story in Christianity Today looks at recent research that suggests a larger proportion of Christian emerging adults are leaving the church compared to previous generations. On top of some questions about whether these numbers are a big change or not, there is another question: why is this happening? The author suggests more emerging adults are leaving because of reasons related to the church rather than due to outside pressures:

In my interviews, I was struck by the diversity of the stories—one can hardly lump them together and chalk up all departures to “youthful rebellion.” Yet there were commonalities. Many de-conversions were precipitated by what happened inside rather than outside the church. Even those who adopted materialist worldviews or voguish spiritualities traced their departures back to what happened in church.

What pushed them out? Again, the reasons for departing in each case were unique, but I realized that most leavers had been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculated them against authentic faith. When sociologist Christian Smith and his fellow researchers examined the spiritual lives of American teenagers, they found most teens practicing a religion best called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which casts God as a distant Creator who blesses people who are “good, nice, and fair.” Its central goal is to help believers “be happy and feel good about oneself.”

Where did teenagers learn this faith? Unfortunately, it’s one taught, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, at every age level in many churches. It’s in the air that many churchgoers breathe, from seeker-friendly worship services to low-commitment small groups. When this naive and coldly utilitarian view of God crashes on the hard rocks of reality, we shouldn’t be surprised to see people of any age walk away.

An interesting argument. But it would be helpful to know the converse – why do some emerging adults stay? What keeps them linked to churches while others head elsewhere?

Any sociological studies about moral therapeutic deism within evangelical churches and evangelical theology?

America’s Four Gods: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, Distant

A new book from two Baylor sociologists, America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God – and What That Says About Us, examines Americans’ image of God. They uncovered four viewpoints: an authoritative God, benevolent God, critical God, and distant God. And the image individuals had of God then influences how they view other issues in the world:

Surveys say about nine out of 10 Americans believe in God, but the way we picture that God reveals our attitudes on economics, justice, social morality, war, natural disasters, science, politics, love and more, say Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, sociologists at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Their new book, America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God — And What That Says About Us, examines our diverse visions of the Almighty and why they matter.

Based primarily on national telephone surveys of 1,648 U.S. adults in 2008 and 1,721 in 2006, the book also draws from more than 200 in-depth interviews that, among other things, asked people to respond to a dozen evocative images, such as a wrathful old man slamming the Earth, a loving father’s embrace, an accusatory face or a starry universe.

Researchers from the USA to Malawi are picking up on the unique Baylor questionnaire, and its implications. When the Gallup World Poll used several of the God-view questions, Bader says, “one clear finding is that the USA — where images of a personal God engaged in our lives dominate — is an outlier in the world of technologically advanced nations such as (those in) Europe.” There, the view is almost entirely one of a Big Bang sort of God who launched creation and left it spinning rather than a God who has a direct influence on daily events.

The image of God that we develop is likely strongly influenced by our cultural background which include our families and our surroundings. A couple of questions spring to mind:

1. How do churches promote or push these separate viewpoints of God?

2. At what age do children already have one of these images of God?

3. How difficult or common is it to change one’s image of God?

4. How much do people fit their image of God to their already developed or developing views of the world?

5. How are each of these four viewpoints rooted in wider American culture?

Americans may be generally religious but not necessarily knowledgable

Americans are considered to be a generally religious people, particularly compared to other Western nations. However, new findings from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life suggest that being religious doesn’t necessarily lead to being knowledgeable about faith traditions:

Forty-five percent of Roman Catholics who participated in the study didn’t know that, according to church teaching, the bread and wine used in Holy Communion is not just a symbol, but becomes the body and blood of Christ.

Respondents to the survey were asked 32 questions with a range of difficulty, including whether they could name the Islamic holy book and the first book of the Bible, or say what century the Mormon religion was founded. On average, participants in the survey answered correctly overall for half of the survey questions.

Atheists and agnostics scored highest, with an average of 21 correct answers, while Jews and Mormons followed with about 20 accurate responses. Protestants overall averaged 16 correct answers, while Catholics followed with a score of about 15.

So there are two interesting findings: people who are Protestants or Catholics can only answer about half of the questions correctly and they are outperformed by atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons.

It is interesting to think why this may be the case. Do Protestants and Catholics emphasize doctrine less? Can people be more of “cultural” Protestants and Catholics as opposed to dedicated followers? Does the minority/smaller group status of the other groups, atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons, mean that people who are in these faiths have to be more serious, intentional, or knowledgeable?

Passionate vs. “fake” faith among teenagers

Kendra Creasy Dean, a professor at Princeton Theology Seminary and United Methodist minister,  has a new book, based on data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, regarding the faith of teenagers. While many American teenagers claim to be Christian, their faith can be termed “moral therapeutic deism” (defined roughly in the article as “It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.”).

Dean says teenagers with passionate faith are marked by several characteristics:

No matter their background, Dean says committed Christian teens share four traits: They have a personal story about God they can share, a deep connection to a faith community, a sense of purpose and a sense of hope about their future.

This would certainly be of interest to parents and those who work with teenagers. At the same time, we could ask where these teenagers are getting their ideas about moral therapeutic deism.

For more on this topic (and also based on the same data set): read Soul Searching by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton and Souls In Transition by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell.

Shared religious activity enhances marital relationships

New sociological research suggests that certain kinds of shared religious  practices among married couples leads to better relationships:

[F]or all groups, shared religious activity – attending church together and especially praying together – is linked to higher levels of relationship quality.

The findings were particularly significant for African-American couples (and to a lesser extent, Latinos), according to sociologist and co-author W. Bradford Wilcox:

“Without prayer, black couples would be doing significantly worse than white couples. This study shows that religion narrows the racial divide in relationship quality in America.”

But not all religion is beneficial for marriages:

Couples holding discordant religious beliefs and those with only one partner who attends religious services regularly tend to be less happy in their relationships, the researchers found.

The findings make sense: couples who share a religious perspective and activities benefit while those who don’t share perspectives or activities suffer. The most interesting finding seems to be that about African-American and Latinos benefiting from shared religious activity: the authors suggest such activity helps overcome stress minorities experience.