Berger on four benefits of religious pluralism

In First Things, Peter Berger discusses the benefits of religious pluralism for religious faith:

“First benefit: It becomes more difficult to take a religious tradition for granted. Acts of decision become necessary”…

“Second benefit: Freedom is a great gift, and pluralism opens up new areas of freedom,” according to Berger…

“Third benefit: If pluralism is combined with religious freedom, all religious institutions become in fact voluntary associations”…

“Fourth benefit: Pluralism influences individual believers and religious communities to distinguish between the core of their faith and less central elements,” according to “The Good of Religious Pluralism.”

This would be a more specific version of two arguments made by sociologists of religion in recent years:

  1. Some have argued that religion, as a whole, has positive effects on society as religious people tend to vote more, participate in more religious and civic activities, and give to others. In this argument, religion itself is made better – such as agreeing to basics about the faith rather than fighting over less essential elements – and this would presumably then help the broader society by having religious groups that are softer around the edges.
  2. Competition between religious groups – made possible in the United States by freedom of religion as well as the separation of church and state – actually enhances religious life as groups compete for adherents. Berger’s argument is specifically about a kind of pluralism where religious groups can peacefully interact and enhance each other. It would be interesting to then hear him discuss places where religion is pervasive but pluralism is either tenuous (competition still happens but it is violent or state-sponsored) or nonexistent.

Sociologists help Catholic Church understand itself but the data is not always welcome

Here is an interesting look at the reactions to the findings of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate:

Sociology wasn’t always viewed kindly when applied to church matters. Cardinal Roger Mahony (now retired) of Los Angeles once assessed as “nonsense” research done in the early 1990s by Richard Schoenherr of the University of Wisconsin predicting an impending priest shortage. Mahony said the work did the church a “disservice and “presumes that the only factors at work are sociology and statistical research. … We live by God’s grace, and our future is shaped by God’s design for his church — not by sociologists.” The predictions of the priest shortage, by the way, were remarkably accurate and decades ahead of the reality.

Not all church leaders feel that way, of course, and it was a prominent archbishop, Boston Cardinal Richard Cushing, who gathered other bishops and superiors of religious communities and donated $50,000 to start CARA…

Even the most convincing data can be upsetting when it gets in the way of a favorite narrative. Gaunt cautions that CARA’s inquiries can lead to rather pedestrian conclusions. For instance, he said, the center began to notice a drop in baptisms. The major theories being advanced in some quarters to explain the phenomenon blamed secularization and an anti-religious U.S. culture.

What didn’t fit, however, was CARA’s understanding that the decline was occurring in areas with lots of new Catholics. “This is in Dallas or Houston or Phoenix,” said Gaunt. “There are no parishes you can walk to. They all drive. And they’re overwhelmed. And this is where we’re beginning to find the drop in the number of baptisms. The data would suggest it’s not secularization — it’s parking. If you’re there with a baby, and you’re going to have to show up an hour early to try to get a parking spot and get in,” he said, that could cut into attendance and those early sacraments.

Some good discussion of how data can be used used by religious organizations: sometimes it goes well and sometimes the data is not welcome. I would think large organizations would want as much information as they could get but there are several issues when social scientists get involved. One, data doesn’t interpret itself – it simply provides more information that has to be acted upon. Second, interpretations of the data data can contradict folk theories and threaten those who hold such ideas.  Third, sociology can be viewed as antithetical to God’s work, either through its emphasis on society and humans or its tendencies toward liberal theories. Yet, hopefully good things can come from this marriage of sociological findings and church work.

Measuring spirituality via smartphone app

A new app, SoulPulse, allows users to track their spirituality and researchers to get their hands on more real-time data:

It’s an “experiential” research survey inspired by pastor/author John Ortberg and conducted by a team led by Bradley Wright, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and author of “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told.”

Twice a day for two weeks, participants receive questions asking about their experiences of spirituality, their emotions, activities and more at the moment the text messages arrive.

Were they feeling satisfied, loved, happy, hostile, sleepy or stressed? Were they more or less aware of God when they were commuting or computing or hanging out with family and friends?…

SoulPulse participants will receive an individual report, reflecting their different temperaments and temptations. Ortberg said his personalized report has already changed his life.

See the website for the app here.

At the least, this could help researchers with more data. Many studies of religiosity rely on asking people about past events through surveys or interviews. The information given here is not necessarily false but it can be hard to remember too far back (thus researchers tend to ask about a short, more defined time period like the last week or month) and there is potential for social desirability bias (people want to give the response they think they should – might happen some with church attendance). Additionally, time diaries require a lot of effort. Thus, utilizing a new technology that people check all the time could be a nice way to reduce the errors with other methods.

While the reports might be helpful for users, could they verge into the gamification of spirituality?

Studying religiosity by text messages and three minute surveys

A new study of religiosity utilizes text messages and short surveys:

After signing up on soulpulse.org, users receive text messages twice a day for 14 days that direct them to a 15 to 20-question survey. These questions gather data on daily spiritual attitudes and physical influences at points during the day, such as quality of sleep, amount of exercise and alcohol consumption. The average length of time required to complete the survey is around three minutes and is designed with the ideas of simplicity and ease of use.

At the end of the two-week testing period, the reward for participants is a comprehensive review of their data that allows them to see and learn more about their spiritual mindsets. In return, the research team is given the opportunity to analyze the information that they have collected. Wright said they have already found that people report the greatest feelings of spirituality on Sundays and the least amount on Wednesdays.

A collection of three-minute surveys however, took months of collaboration across the country to complete. 18 months of planning and 10 trips to Silicon Valley were necessary, as well as a team of people who each contributed a unique skillset to the group. The Soulpulse team consists of four computer programmers, three public engagers and six academic advisors – including UConn professors Crystal Park and Jeremy Pais.

Measuring religiosity is well established in sociology but it often relies on people reporting on their past behavior. For example, some sociologists suggest church attendance figures are regularly inflated. Using text messages would allow more up-to-date data as the goal is to quickly interrupt people’s activity and get their more accurate take on their religious behavior.

Generally, I would guess sociology and other social science fields are headed in this direction for data collection: less formal and more minute to minute. In the past, some of this was done with time diaries or logs. But, even these posed problems as at the end of the day a person might misremember or reinterpret their earlier actions. Utilizing text messages or pop-up Internet surveys or other means could yield more better data, utilize newer technologies respondents are regularly engaging, and perhaps even take less time in the long run.

American religious groups don’t pay $72 billion a year in taxes but religion saves America $2.6 trillion a year?

A study last year claimed governments lose $71 billion a year because of the tax exemptions of religious institutions but a new book by sociologist Rodney Stark suggests religion saves America $2.6 trillion a year:

The biggest by far has to do with the criminal justice system. If all Americans committed crimes at the same level as those who do not attend religious services, the costs of the criminal justice system would about double to, perhaps, $2 trillion annually. Second is health costs. The more often people attend religious services, the healthier they are. However, the net savings involved is reduced somewhat by the fact that religious Americans live, on average, seven years longer than those who never attend religious services.

So then religion in America is worth the money? The math on this would be mighty interesting. But, hopefully this is more information on this in the book.

It does strike me that this is a strange way to talk about religion or any social good: does it really come down to money? This strikes me as a very American conversation where we care about the value of things and bang for our buck.

NYT on Bellah: he helped demarginalize religion in sociology

A summary of sociologist Robert Bellah’s life in the New York Times includes this observation about studying religion in sociology:

He was widely credited with helping usher the study of religion — a historically marginalized subject in the social sciences — into the sociological fold.

This begs the question of why the study of religion within sociology was marginalized in the first place (and also perhaps whether it still is today). It is hard to escape the topic from reading the classical theorists, like Durkheim, Weber, and Marx. Perhaps this is a self-fulfilling prophecy of secularization within sociology?

“Faith in the Age of Facebook” published online by Sociology of Religion

Along with my co-authors Peter Mundey and Jon Hill, a new article I co-wrote was published online a few days ago by Sociology of Religion. The paper is titled “Faith in the Age of Facebook: Exploring the Links Between Religion and Social Network Site Membership and Use” and here is the abstract:

This study examines how religiousness influences social network site (SNS) membership and frequency of use for emerging adults between 18 and 23 years old utilizing Wave 3 survey data from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). Independent of religion promoting a prosocial orientation, organizational involvement, and civic engagement, Catholics and Evangelical Protestants are more likely than the “not religious” to be SNS members, and more Bible reading is associated with lower levels of SNS membership and use. We argue there are both sacred and secular influences on SNS involvement, and social behaviors, such as being in school and participating in more non-religious organizations, generally positively influence becoming a SNS member, yet certain more private behaviors, such as Bible reading, donating money, and helping the needy, lessen SNS participation. We also suggest four areas for future research to help untangle the influence of religiousness on SNS use and vice versa.

Apple iPad mini launch similar to a “religious revival meeting”?

An anthropologist discusses how the recent iPad mini launch has some religious dimensions:

She [anthropologist Kirsten Bell] came to some of the same conclusions as her predecessors, including Eastern Washington University sociologist Pui-Yan Lam, who published an academic paper more than a decade ago that called Mac fandom an “implicit religion.”…

Apple’s product launches take place in a building “littered with sacred symbols, especially the iconic Apple sign itself,” she said. During keynote speeches, an Apple leader “addresses the audience to reawaken and renew their faith in the core message and tenets of the brand/religion.”

Even Apple’s tradition of not broadcasting launches in real time is akin to a religious event, Bell said. (Today’s event was available live on Apple’s website.) “Like many Sacred Ceremonies, the Apple Product Launch cannot be broadcast live,” she wrote. “The Scribes/tech journalists act as Witness, testifying to the wonders they behold via live blog feeds.”…

Yet there are strong reasons people have long compared Apple culture to religion, Bell said. “They are selling something more than a product,” she said. “When you look at the way they advertise their product, it’s really about a more connected life.” A better life is something many faiths promise, she said.

I wrote about this earlier when a commentator made a similar argument after the passing of Steve Jobs.  Comparisons like this, whether it be a product launch or a big sporting event or a rock concert, tend to draw on similar Durkheimian ideas: these are rituals; they can generate feelings of collective effervescence and emotional energy; they can strengthen group bonds; they involve a lot of important symbols that often require some inside knowledge to fully understand; there are clear lines demarcating what is sacred and what is profane. It may not be religion as the public typically thinks of it as involving some real or perceived spiritual or supernatural forces but its actions and consequences could be similar.

 

19% of Americans now religiously unaffiliated but many are still religious or spiritual

Pew reported yesterday that the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation continues to rise to over 19%. However, there is a complex story taking place with this group: many are still religious or spiritual, this may be more about generational change, and it could be that those who rarely go to church are now more willing to say so.

However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics…

The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the “nones” – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives…

In addition to religious behavior, the way that Americans talk about their connection to religion seems to be changing. Increasingly, Americans describe their religious affiliation in terms that more closely match their level of involvement in churches and other religious organizations. In 2007, 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In 2012, just 50% of those who say they seldom or never attend religious services still retain a religious affiliation – a 10-point drop in five years. These trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys partly because Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether.

So while the number of atheists and agnostics has risen in the last few years, the number of non-affiliated Americans has risen even more as more people are less interested in identifying with religious institutions.

I wonder if there is another explanation at work here: in general, Americans now have less trust in all institutions. Here is where things stood in October 2011:

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed barely 10 percent of the public trusts the government. But it doesn’t stop there: Trust in public institutions like corporations, banks, courts, the media and universities is at an all-time low; the military is one of the few exceptions.

Perhaps this is a package deal. And perhaps this was part of the oddness of the 1950s; the prosperous era suggested Americans could trust institutions (and church attendance and membership went up) but the zeitgeist started going the other way in the 1960s.

Designing and building a temple for atheists in London

An author has plans to construct an atheist temple in London:

Author Alain de Botton has announced a bold new plan for a series of Temples for Atheists to be built around the UK.

‘Why should religious people have the most beautiful buildings in the land?’ he asks. ‘It’s time atheists had their own versions of the great churches and cathedrals’…

De Botton has begun working on the first Temple for Atheists. Designed by Tom Greenall Architects, this will be a huge black tower nestled among the office buildings in the City of London. Measuring 46 meters in all, the tower represents the age of the earth, with each centimetre equating to 1 million years and with, at the tower’s base, a tiny band of gold a mere millimetre thick standing for mankind’s time on earth. The Temple is dedicated to the idea of perspective, which is something we’re prone to lose in the midst of our busy modern lives.

De Botton suggests that atheists like Richard Dawkins won’t ever convince people that atheism is an attractive way of looking at life until they provide them with the sort of rituals, buildings, communities and works of art and architecture that religions have always used.

It will be very interesting to see if this idea catches on. It isn’t cheap to design and build such structures and I wonder if the funding will primarily come from wealthy individuals or atheist organizations.

Two other things are very interesting:

1. The argument that having a building for your cause is noteworthy. A building implies permanence and stability. If a group has enough money or followers, a building is a testament to that. Also, the specific design of a building can represent an idea or cause. In this case, the building is intended to help people think about perspective. In the end, a building is not simply a functional place but has a lot symbolic value.

2. More from a sociological point of view, it is interesting to hear De Botton argue that the mechanics of religion are successful even if its content is untrue. In other words, religious practices and behaviors are attractive to plenty of people and atheists need to find their equivalent. Religion’s power, then, is not just in a belief in or experience with the supernatural but is also a social phenomenon that successfully brings people together.