Monday, November 17, 2008

The death of faith has been greatly exaggerated

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, sociology

It will take President-elect Obama a while to live down his statement about "bitter people … who cling to religion …". But who is truly bitter? To quote Rodney Stark in What Americans Really Believe", "…the most virulent and common form of religious intolerance still to be found in America is that held by the irreligious toward the religious." (p 28) There is a popular evangelical camp song with the lines,

They can talk about us just as much as they please.
We'll talk about them, down on our knees.

That kind of love drives those who do not love God simply crazy.

I am immensely glad to have read this book. I have been hearing the persistent myths all my life, sometimes even from the pulpit: that church attendance is dropping, that young people are leaving the churches, that religion is threatened with extinction. None of these is true.

The book consists of 80 annotated/narrated tables in 23 chapters, covering every aspect of religious expression in the United States, based on surveys taken by the author and his colleagues, forty years apart, and other data collected for various reasons going back more than sixty years. This recent major survey was conducted on behalf of Baylor University by the George Gallup organization. With well-formulated questions and the professional analysis services Gallup provides, little needs to be inferred. The numbers speak for themselves.

Among findings that are of interest to me, one alone shows a time trend, a trend which has a simple explanation: prior to 1969, those who attended a religious service at least weekly amounted to 44-45% of the population. After 1969, the number has ranged between 32 and 38% (usually 35-36%), with no particular pattern of variation (p 9). What happened in 1969? An encyclical from the Vatican II Council that removed the "mortal sin" stricture for missing weekly Mass, for Catholics. Now that Catholics no longer fear going to hell for missing Mass, they attend services with about the same frequency as Protestants, who have ticked along pretty steadily at about 35% for a century or more.

What about young people dropping out? Interestingly, both in the 1960s and in 2006, the number of young adults who never attend church has been the same: 28%. The number of those over 40 who never attend? In both eras, 20%. What is happening here? There is a trend by age but not by time! That means, with every generation, a certain proportion of newly independent young adults experiment with living "churchless", but return when they have children of their own (pp 10-11).

And what of the extinction of religion, or of faith? One would think that atheists are multiplying like rabbits. What do the data show? From 1944 to the present, atheists have made up from 3-4% of the population, with a single excursion to 6% about 1947, which can be explained as some blowback from the end of a world war.

One recent change in the atheism equation: recent, surprisingly nasty anti-religious books by a few talented atheistic authors. They agree that all world evils are to be attributed to evangelical Christianity, forgetting that the 20th Century was the bloodiest in history because of Hitler, Stalin and Mao (p 116). Stalin and his successors did everything in their power (which was a lot) to eliminate religion from the Eastern European peoples. The result? There are fewer atheists in the former Soviet bloc than there are in America! (pp 118-119). Mao's atheistic success was a bit better: today 14% of Chinese claim atheism, but that is actually fewer than the numbers that followed the non-god-believing folk religions that prevailed in China in the 1940s. From friends in China, I know that Christian faith is booming there.

How about education? It is true that some people seem to get educated right out of the church, but the actual trend is regional: the industrialized East and West are less religious than the rest of the nation, but no better educated overall. Churchgoing shows no significant trend with educational level. But there is a trend of interest: The more often a family goes to church together during the formative years of the children, the more likely the girls are to complete college. Specifically, among those who attend services one a year or less, including never, fewer than 20% of the girls complete college. Among those who attend monthly or oftener, at least a third of the girls complete college, with the highest rates (interesting, this) being for those whose family attends just about every week, but not oftener (pp 187-188). There is a lot of variation, but no discernible trend, in college completion rates for boys.

Hmmm…the really, really religious families don't quite have the highest rates of educated women. This point may be a symptom that a "homebody is best" attitude really is present in those denominations that are the most church-active. But in my experience, I've attended numerous meetings and services at churches that might fit people's stereotype of the over-churched, where all the girls and women wear floor-length skirts, all have long hair, never curled or permed (they look very Victorian), and nearly every family is to be found at every one of the three or four weekly church events. Every family I've known expected all the girls to finish college (and all the boys). They aren't afraid of them getting "secularized". They expect faith to be tested, and figure the intense church life they've been in ought to be enough to keep most of them faithful.

Now, there is one significant trend, which the author and his contributors deal with quite thoroughly in the early chapters of the book. It is widely thought that church attendance is falling everywhere. In reality, attendance is falling only about half of everywhere. In the large, liberal denominations that tend to be more connected to the universities, particularly universities that host liberal theologians (you know, the kind that almost don't believe in God any more), numbers are dropping rapidly, and have been for decades. But in the more conservative groups, which tend to fall below university radar—yet are actually now larger—attendance is growing rapidly.

It happens that the denominations that expect more from their members, get more. There is more of a sense of community, members are more likely to bring friends or relatives, or even witness to strangers. Members of conservative churches become friends and like getting together, so there are lots of "side meetings" like home fellowships and Bible studies, that provide a more satisfying social outlet than viewing the latest slasher flick from Hollywood. Conservative churches may have rules against seeing slasher flicks anyway, but the people have plenty to do, and don't feel deprived of anything. The conservative Christian experience is more satisfying than the loose, "liberal churchianity" experience from which people are flocking.

Because such churches are less connected to universities, the theologians only see that the congregations with which they are familiar are losing members. They don't notice that the people aren't dropping out of religion, but exchanging a boring one for a vibrant one. I did so nearly forty years ago, so I understand completely.

This is not just trading one superstition for another. A further criticism of the irreligious is that God is just some imaginary, supernatural entity that science has disproved. The survey looked into this also. What do people believe who don't believe in the God of the Bible (either Testament) or the Koran? Much, much larger numbers believe in the vague "spirituality" of New Age, in UFOs, in a rather over-sweet conception of Angels, in Spiritualist communication with the dead, and/or in Bigfoot, LochNess, Atlantis and so forth.

Few Bible believers care about any of this stuff. But here is what is interesting: There is a gap between the 3% of Americans who are real Atheists and those who believe in a Judeo-Christian or Islamic conception of God. That gap is partly filled with Buddhists, who aren't expected to believe in God but who aren't Atheists either, and the rest are those who, to a Christian, really are the Superstitious, believing in Atlantis, or Dianetics, or whatever.

There really is a difference between faith and superstition, and faith is alive and well. Some scholars whom I highly admire have displayed this for all to see.

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