The November joint meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and Religion Research Association in Salt Lake City had as as its official themes “Practicing Religion in the 21st Century” and “Theory and Applied Research.”
Along with the usual conversations and debates about data, both themes revealed an ongoing concern about the relation of the social sciences to practicing a religious faith. Consider the comments by Charles Glock, sociology professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and former president of the SSSR speaking on the compatibility of social science and religion: “Surface appearances to the contrary, I do believe that the social sciences and religion are inherently incompatible . . . The inherent incompatibility derives from the social scientist’s search for explanation . . . Social sciences’ determinism neither countenances a God who receives and answers prayers or a Devil who brings evil into the world.”
A rather different perspective was expressed during one of the conference’s keynote speeches by Robert Orsi, professor of the history of religion at Harvard University. He addressed the question “Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World We Live In?”
His answer was that the question itself was irrelevant. “Lived religion is an approach to religion research that takes place at the level of the practice of the individual or community, not the level of the averages created by surveys. Current discussions about the “true nature” of Islam, for instance, make no sense for Orsi because there is, for him, no “true” nature of a faith. “There is no religion apart from this, no religion that people have not taken up in their hands,” he said.
Nonetheless, hundreds of other researchers at the conference advanced general theories about faith and practice and even, in some cases, tried to square their studies with their faith. Among the more interesting studies was a paper presented by Laurence Iannaccone, an economics professor at George Mason University. Most of his work has involved application of economics-style analysis in an attempt to explain religious behaviors. But this paper was a sort of statistical archaeology that claims to show changes in trends of religious service attendance from decades back — during years and in places where no such studies were done.
Iannaccone used surveys taken in 1991 and 1998 in 30 nations, including the United States, by the International Social Survey Program. Included in the survey were questions about the respondents’ attendance at religious services when they were 11 or 12 years old and whether the respondents’ parents attended services at that time.
If the answers are accurate, or even useful, the surveys offer retrospective information stretching from the 1920s through the 1980s.
Iannaccone said the data probably overstates the rate of actual attendance but is still reliable in showing trends. One trend: In the United States, children were consistently more likely to attend services than their parents until the 1960s. By the 1980s, the difference had vanished. The importance: Other studies have indicated that children who do not attend services are less likely to attend as adults.
Also on the question of church attendance was a presentation by C. Kirk Hadaway, a researcher with the United Church of Christ. Using findings from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, he produced an estimate that between 20.2 percent and 22.5 percent of Americans over the age of five attend a religious service on an average weekend.
Several presentations focused on one of the most comprehensive examinations of the beliefs and practices of Hispanics in the United States. The study, conducted by the Program for the Analysis of Religion Among Latinas/os (PARAL) and directed by Anthony Stevens-Arroyo of Brooklyn College, found that of the Latino faith communities that participated more than a quarter were founded since 1995.
Of those founded before 1995, 78 percent had increased membership — compared with the national average of 51 percent.
Almost two-thirds of the congregations are multi-Hispanic with two or more Latin American nationality groups working together. And three out of four of the Latino faith communities share space with non-Hispanic congregations.
[The program for the conference listing the papers and presenters can be found on the SSSR Website: http://las.alfred.edu/~soc/SSSR/]
— By Jeffrey Weiss, a Dallas-based writer