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?

Sociologist: seasonal or occasional church attenders will decide the fate of organized religion in Canada

A Canadian sociologist argues that the fate of organized religion in Canada will be decided those who attend church occasionally:

Indeed, a new report finds rumours of the death of religion have been greatly exaggerated, with national data suggesting about 12 million Canadians will attend church this long weekend. And it’s the unfamiliar faces — the 30 per cent who attend either monthly or seasonally — who will have the biggest influence on organized religion going forward, according to Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist.

“Numerically-speaking, they will determine who constitutes a majority: people who embrace faith, or those who reject it,” said Bibby, who’s been studying religious trends since the mid-1970s.

“At this point in time, about 60 per cent say they’re open to greater involvement if they can find it worthwhile for themselves and their families. Which direction they go will depend largely on whether or not religious groups can demonstrate the value of greater involvement.”

National data, released by Statistics Canada’s general social survey and analyzed by Bibby, suggests the core 20 per cent of weekly church attendees will be joined this Easter by many of the 10 per cent of monthly attendees and a good number of the 20 per cent of seasonal attendees.

Interesting argument: these occasional attendees are like swing voters, capable of creating a majority if they continue to attend occasionally. Presumably, if this group stopped attending at all, religion could lose some social influence.

I’m intrigued by this statement: the “direction they go will depend largely on whether or not religious groups can demonstrate the value of greater involvement.” Are religious groups prepared to tackle this question? Which church approach works the best in addressing this group of occasional attendees.

How much does this describe the situation in the United States? Depending on what figures you look at, roughly 30-40% of Americans regularly attend church even as many more claim to be “spiritual” or “believe in God.” Generally, how willing are non-church attending yet spiritual Americans willing to talk about and/or defend religion in the public sphere?

“World first” PhD in snowboarding really a sociology of religion PhD

I saw this story yesterday: the first man in the world to receive a PhD in snowboarding. But the story is actually a little more complicated: this was actually a PhD in the sociology of religion having to do with having spiritual experiences while snowboarding.

A vicar has become the first person to be awarded a “PhD in snowboarding” after studying at Kingston University.

The Rev Neil Elliot’s doctorate in the sociology of religion involved analysing the relationship between spirituality and snowboarding in his thesis.

A snowboarder for 15 years, he was inspired to research the area after hearing fellow fans of the sport describe moments of “Zen” while on the slopes – and concluded that despite church attendance falling, spirituality is still important in youth culture…

He interviewed 35 snowboarders who described spiritual moments they had experienced. “Riders found it sometimes all went silent and it was just them and the snow,” he said. “Even the sensation of constant turning disappeared.”

This could be less about snowboarding and more about how younger generations find spiritual experiences in non-traditional activities. It would be interesting to hear how these experiences are discussed, spread, and promoted within the snowboarding community.

And who wouldn’t want a vicar termed “Dr. Soulride”?

The Turing Test and what makes us human

Each year, the Loebner Prize competition takes place where judges are asked to interact through computer terminals with humans and computer programs. The judges then vote on whether they were talking with a human or a computer in this version of the Turing Test.

Two things struck me in this article:

1. The writer frames this issue of “mind vs. machine” as a more fundamental question about what separates humans from other animals:

Philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have been puzzling over the essential definition of human uniqueness since the beginning of recorded history. The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that every psychologist must, at some point in his or her career, write a version of what he calls “The Sentence.” Specifically, The Sentence reads like this:

The human being is the only animal that ______.The story of humans’ sense of self is, you might say, the story of failed, debunked versions of The Sentence. Except now it’s not just the animals that we’re worried about.

We once thought humans were unique for using language, but this seems less certain each year; we once thought humans were unique for using tools, but this claim also erodes with ongoing animal-behavior research; we once thought humans were unique for being able to do mathematics, and now we can barely imagine being able to do what our calculators can.

If this is the case, then the Turing Test, or Ken Jenning’s battle with a computer on Jeopardy!, become the final battleground as humans lose what we thought made us distinct: thinking or reasoning. But this quick definition of human selfhood seems to leave out a very important component: the human search for meaning. Sociologists, like Peter Berger, have talked about this for decades in order to help explain the prevalence of religion. Berger argued that religions arise because people have enduring questions about why the world is the way it is and what their place is in it. Do other animals pose such existential questions? Is spirituality or religiosity what might really separate humans from other animals?

2. As the writer explains his strategy for showing the judges that he is human, he recounts past conversations computer programs have had with humans. Several of these were quite interesting. One program from the 1960s, Eliza, took a more therapeutic approach to dealing with humans:

User: Men are all alike.

Eliza: In what way?

User: They’re always bugging us about something or other.

Eliza: Can you think of a specific example?

User: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

Eliza: Your boyfriend made you come here.

User: He says I’m depressed much of the time.

Eliza: I am sorry to hear you are depressed.

User: It’s true. I am unhappy.

Eliza: Do you think coming here will help you not to be unhappy?

User: I need some help, that much seems certain.

Eliza: What would it mean to you if you got some help?

User: Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother.

Eliza: Tell me more about your family.

This program was apparently quite effective in fooling people and some even went off to have therapeutic conversations with this program. Another program acted belligerent at random points and threw some people off.

It sounds like these computer programs will continue to get more sophisticated.

Conference on faith among Catholic emerging adults

A number of recent studies have focused on the religion of emerging adults, those who are roughly 18-29 years old and are making the transition from being teenagers to adults. Some of these findings and thoughts about Catholic emerging adults were shared at a recent conference:

Sociologist James Davidson, professor emeritus at Purdue University, said young Catholics “distinguish between the Catholic faith, which they identify with and respect, and the Catholic Church, which they are less attached to.”

Quoting a wide body of research, including his own, Davidson said eight of 10 young Catholics believe there are many ways to interpret Catholicism and they grant more authority to their individual experience than they do to the magisterium.

“They stress the importance of thinking for themselves more than obeying church leaders,” he said. “Instead of simply embracing church traditions and teachings, they tinker with them. They distinguish between abstract beliefs and principles that they think are at the core of the Catholic faith, and more concrete norms and codes of conduct that they consider optional or peripheral.”

In essence, Davidson said, “they believe that doctrines such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, Mary as the mother of God, Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist and the need to be concerned about the poor are more important than teachings such as the need to limit the priesthood to men, the need for priestly celibacy, the church’s opposition to artificial birth control and its opposition to the death penalty.”

Catholic young adults are not immune to the complex encounter between the church and popular culture, said participants in a panel discussion on “Sex and the City of God.”…

There is some more interesting stuff here. These discussions sound very similar to the findings of Soul Searching and Souls in Transition: emerging adults are less interested in organized religion but are still spiritual even as this spirituality looks more like “moral therapeutic deism” and they question traditional (or conservative) stances of the church toward social issues.