01: An analysis of recent surveys showing a sharp rise in unchurched Americans during the 1990s reveals more of a disenchantment toward churches’ involvement in politics than a loss of faith.
The analysis, conducted by Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, cites surveys showing that the proportion of Americans who claimed no religious preference as rising from about seven percent in 1990 to about 14 percent by the end of the decade– a noteworthy change since the rate had remained unchanged for the previous two decades. Hout and Fischer, whose analysis is reported in the Los Angeles Times (May 18) and which first appeared in the American Sociological Review, find that the increase does not mean a growth in agnosticism and atheism.
Hout adds that “most people who have no church still are likely to say things like `God is real. Heaven and hell are real. Me and my kids will go there when we’re dead.” The authors hold that the alienation of moderates and liberals from conservative Christian political positions, such as on abortion and gay rights, and their influence in churches is a key factor for these individuals’defection from organized religion.
02: A demographic shift of Americans toward less mobility and a return to small towns is likely to encourage, at least indirectly, religious faith, reports American Enterprise magazine (April/May).
The magazine carries two articles that spot the trend of Americans and job growth gradually moving from the most densely settled regions of the country to less dense areas. Joel Kotkin writes that despite talk of an “urban renaissance” in the 1990s, the movement toward smaller communities continued during the last decade. For every three suburban households that moved to the city, five urban households departed for the suburbs, with the fastest growth rates in the most peripheral suburbs.
It is not only destinations that are changing, but the impulse to move itself, as the rate of Americans relocating has dropped from 20 percent in the 1970s to barely 15 percent today. Kotkin writes that these changes, especially the growth of “New Traditionalist”-style developments in some suburban areas and the revival of smaller towns, are likely to reverse the “nomadic characteristics of anonymity, restless careerism [and] lack of faith . . .”
In another article, demographer William Frey writes that the 2000 census suggests a “new kind of suburbanization” is taking place, as people chose to move to different states rather than to the established suburbs within large metropolitan areas. Although Americans are moving less, those relocating are going to Southeastern and Western states though not to the older fast-growing sunbelt destinations of California, Texas and Florida.
Rather, such states as Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Arizona and Tennessee are attracting the new suburbanites. Frey adds that these newcomers–both whites and blacks — are drawn to the smaller towns and non-urban areas in such states because of their “old-fashioned values.” In their exodus from more cosmopolitan, liberal urban areas on the coasts, the participants in this new suburban flight are sharpening the differences — cultural, political, and demographic — between various U.S. states and regions.” [Frey doesn’t cite the religious factor — though his mention of traditional family values implies this influence. The tendency of newcomers to take on the regional characteristics of their new location also suggests that these exiles from more secular areas may become more religious.]
(American Enterprise, 1150 17th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036)
03: A new study on the Jesuits is raising controversy for its findings showing a fragmented and weakened religious order as well as for its methods of research.
The book, Passionate Uncertainty (University of California Press) by political scientists Eugene Bianchi and Peter McDonough, is based on interviews with over 400 Jesuits and former Jesuits, using “snowball” sampling, a method where interviewees are chosen through referrals from other subjects rather than randomly.
The authors find that the order is strongly divided by age, with older Jesuits seeing themselves as more liberal on moral/sexual issues and those younger taking more conservative positions. In fact, Bianchi and McDonough find that such questions as the celibate priesthood serve as hinge issues that determine these Jesuits’ faith in the credibility of the church and the priesthood. Those dissenting from the church have formed subcultures defined by sexual orientation and other causes, such as Eastern spiritual practices. The authors conclude that another major challenge for the Jesuits is that their unique ministries in the church are increasingly being filled by laypeople. making the priestly calling in such work redundant.
Critics in several publications, including the May 3 issue of Commonweal magazine, have claimed that Bianchi’s and McDonough’s lumping together current with former Jesuits in their sample does not allow an accurate portrayal of either group to emerge. They also charge that snowball sampling produces a homogeneous in-group not representative of the population. In the May 17 issue of Commonweal, McDonough responds to the criticisms, saying that snowball sampling is a respectable research method, particularly in the case of former Jesuits, “about whom virtually nothing is known.”
The author note that their samples lined up with available data on the geographic distribution of Jesuits and former Jesuits. Concerning combining current and former Jesuits in the study, McDonough notes that the method was justified in that the similarities “between generations, for Jesuits and former Jesuits alike, tend to be as strong as differences between Jesuits and former Jesuits.”
04: There is mounting anti-Muslim prejudice across the continent of Europe, according to a report by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.
The British Guardian newspaper (May 24) reports that the Vienna-based organization found a significant increase in violent assault, abuse and attacks on Muslim property. Increases in such activity were also reported in Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, where common incidents involved verbal abuse of women wearing the hijab or head covering.
The center cites the events of September 11 for the increase. The study, which covers the period from Sept. 11 to the end of 2001, singled out the British media for giving “disproportionate” coverage to “extremist Muslim groups and British Muslims who declared their willingness to join an Islamic war against the West,” while overlooking less sensationalist Muslim voices.