01: A new study of Internet users finds that one-third of all Americans connected to computers have used them to access religious and spiritual information.
The study, conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that 40 percent of Americans use the Internet to search for political information and 66 percent for medical information. But the sharpest increase in usage has been in the religious domain: “religion surfers” on the net doubled in number from March 2000 to November, 2002 from 18 million to 35 million. The survey found that although religious usage of the Internet dramatically increased after September 11, much of the new growth has continued during the 15 months after that event.
The survey also found that those accessing web-based religious information were evenly distributed across educational and socio-economic groups — a change from earlier surveys which suggested users were from the lower rungs of each group (the age breakdowns — most use from the 30 to 49 age range and least from the 18-29 age bracket — have remained the same). The latest survey suggests that the more experience one had on the Internet, the more likely one was to search out religious material online, suggesting such traffic may continue to grow.
02: A recent survey suggests that denominational commitment, if not identity, is still holding strong among many ministers, even where that may not be expected.
The survey, conducted among 567 ministers by Ellison Research, found that 58 percent agreed strongly with the statement “You feel committed to your denomination,” with another 33 percent agreeing somewhat with that statement. But just 38 percent strongly agreed that their denomination is an important part of their church’s identity. Interestingly, Pentecostal and charismatic ministers known to be among the most “postdenominational,” were particularly likely to feel their denomination formed an important part of their churches’ identity (along with the Lutherans).
Meanwhile, the strongly connectional and centralized United Methodists were the least likely to feel this way. Although there have been many anecdotal reports of churches discarding their denominational names in promotions and on their signboards (Grace Church instead of Grace Baptist), the survey found that just 11 percent of churches did not reference the denomination in their name. But 41 percent did not agree that their current denomination is the only one they would considering pastoring in; the Lutheran clergy were far more likely to say they would only consider pastoring in their current denomination.
There was a significant level of frustration about the divisions in their denominations and the lack of ecumenical cooperation. Fifty three percent of respondents agreed that there are “too many differences of opinion” among churches in their denomination, with Baptists the most likely to make this complaint and Pentecostals/charismatics the least likely.
03: A new study released by Dartmouth Medical School, the YMCA and the Institute for American Values finds that belonging to churches, civic groups and strong families as well as holding religious belief are two key factors in addressing emotional problems among American youth.
The study, entitled “Hardwired To Connect,”was conducted by a team of 33 doctors, mental health and youth counselors who reviewed recent research on the brain, human behavior and social trends. In First Things (February), University of Virginia sociologist Bradford Wilcox writes that the study is unique because of the team’s (many of whom came from elite universities) emphasis on the religious factor in meeting youth needs.
The report documents dramatic declines in youth mental health, as indicated by a quadrupling of the suicide rate between 1955 and 1990; by 2001, almost 20 percent of high school students had contemplated such thoughts. Participating in what the study called “authoritative communities” — congregations, strong families and other civic groups — provide a sense of direction and connection needed by such at-risk youth. Also unusual was how the report made its recommendations based on biology as much as sociology, addressing the importance of belief in the development of the brain during adolescence.
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04: An analysis of six international surveys on religious beliefs and practice find a direct relationship between faith and economic outcomes.
The study, conducted by Harvard researchers Robert Barro and Rachel M. McCleary and appearing in the American Sociological Review, found that religion affected economic outcomes by fostering attitudes and habits, such as thrift, openness to strangers and honesty, that encourage economic growth. The study, cited by the New York Times (Jan. 31), finds that beliefs in heaven and hell may further affect these traits by creating perceived awards and punishments relating to lifetime behavior.
The research also suggests that at a certain point, increases in congregational attendance tend to depress economic growth, which could mean that such activity may be using up a person’s disproportionate share of resources. The study’s findings are not exactly breakthroughs (German sociologist Max Weber discovered similar dynamics to economic and religious behavior over a century ago), but Barro and McCleary’s analysis of a large set of data (including surveys by Gallup and the World Bank) is the most systematic look at this subject, setting the stage for further investigations.