Posted on April 26th, 2011 | Filed under Academic, Challenges, Community, Congregation, Featured, Interfaith, Intra-Faith, Leadership, Learning, News, Popular Culture, Social Issues, Theology, Uncategorized
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In the 2007 comedy-drama Dan in Real Life, newspaper columnist Dan Burns (played by Steve Carrell) muses, "Most of the time, our plans don't work out as we'd hoped. So instead of asking our young people what are your plans . . . maybe we should tell them this: plan to be surprised."
Burns's final phrase, "plan to be surprised," may apply to several recent popular sociologies of American religion, including Robert Putnam and David Campbell's American Grace, Bradley Wright's Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...And Other Lies You've Been Told, and Rodney Stark's edited What Americans Really Believe. This post reviews Stark, for whom Gallup provided the fieldwork.
Perhaps future generations will be less astonished, but I was amazed at the findings that diverge from prevailing sentiments commonly and passionately purveyed by professionals, professors, and pastors who pontificate about church controversies and American religion, or the lack thereof.
In Part 1, "Congregations," Stark avers that in contrast to stereotypes of religious people as less educated, one's education level has "no effect at all" on churchgoing. Those with post-graduate training are as likely to attend as those whose education ended at high school or sooner. Ditto for income brackets under $150,000 per anum. Conservative, traditional, and "more demanding" churches currently attract more members, volunteers, and attendees than "liberal" or comparatively secular congregations.
Moreover, "(while) it is widely believed that to be close to God, one should worship in a small, intimate congregation, surrounded by fellow worshippers who have a proper awareness that faith must recognize sin, not just happy returns" (p. 45), the data comparing small churches (usual weekly attendance under 100) and mega-churches (attendance over 1,000) reflects that mega-church attendees are more likely than small church attendees to tithe (46% vs. 36%), to have more friends in their congregation, and to volunteer more both within their church body and outside of their congregation.
Stark presents smaller churches as more "liberal" with "significantly older" attendees, but it is not clear whether his data considered age a factor when accounting for church participation. Even so, "In the sense of having friends in the congregation, the megachurch is the more intimate community. . . . Contrary to the widespread conviction among their critics that the megachurches grow mainly through their ability to gain publicity, their growth appears instead mainly to be the result of their members' outreach" (p. 49).
Stark then becomes less dispassionate sociologist and more exasperated (and insensitive?) exhorter: "Indeed, among the things that are lost is the uninspired sound of hymns sung by a few dozen reluctant voices, as compared to the 'joyful noise' of thousands of voices, of large and talented choirs, and . . . professional orchestras that provide the music in the leading megachurches. Also lost is the perception that the band of faithful is old, small, and getting smaller...(and) reluctance to spread the Good Tidings to others" (51).
Part 2, "Beliefs and Practices" contains, among other statistics, charts on recounted mystical or miraculous experiences, and beliefs about who is (and who is not) going to heaven. Americans of all stripes who believe in heaven also believe that adherents of many religions, even some non-religious people will be in heaven. Only 21% who believe in heaven also believe that no "non-religious" people will enter paradise. Only 16% of Americans who believe in heaven think that no Muslims or no Buddhists will go to heaven, and only 6% believed no Jews will go there.
Part 3, "Atheism and Irreligion," reveals that the percentage of Americans who said they did not believe in God (4%) was equal in 1944 and 2007. Furthermore, "irreligion is not effectively transmitted from parents to children...the majority of children born into an irreligious home end up joining a religious group - most often a conservative denomination" (pp. 117, 205; cf. p. 7). Even many who assert no religion say they still pray, and the majority are not "atheist," just unaffiliated (p. 141; cf. pp. 117, 142, 205).
Perhaps most strikingly, self-identified irreligious people are "almost three times as likely" to place "great value" in Tarot, seances, psychic healing; and also to believe in "real" UFOs (p. 125). With regard to occult and paranormal belief, "it is not religion in general that suppresses such beliefs, but conservative religion. . . . Traditional Christian religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in the occult and paranormal" (pp. 130-31; cf. p. 145).
Part 4, "The Public Square," looks at American political activism and finds that in spite of bestselling books fearing a theocratic takeover by the Religious Right, Evangelical Christians are actually slightly less politically active than other Americans, but like other Americans, "are about evenly split on increased funding for the military" (p. 156). Stark further finds that contrary to an assumed taboo on discussing politics and religion, a majority of Americans are "very comfortable" or "somewhat comfortable" talking about religion with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and even strangers (pp. 163-64).
In his final chapter, Stark asks, "What happens when mom and dad take their kids to church" (pp. 183-89)? Generally, church attendance correlates with young people being "better behaved and more well-adjusted at home and at school" (p. 184) ,with lower future divorce rates, less smoking, less sexual activity at a young age, and with higher than average education. The numbers are particularly significant for girls and for women, for when a child's father is a churchgoer, and for when both parents attend church together (pp. 184-85)...To read my conclusion in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, click here.
Benjamin B. DeVan has taught religion, philosophy, and African American literature at North Carolina Central University, Peace College, and a January term mini-course at MIT titled, "Religion: Bringing the World Together, or Tearing the World Apart?" He completed his MA in Counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary, his MDiv at Duke University, a ThM at Harvard in World Religions with a thesis on evangelical Christians and Muslims, and is now a doctoral candidate at a historic British university writing a dissertation on the New Atheism.