01: The main factor in the growth of megachurches over the past three decades has more to do with economics than theology or even changing demographics, according to sociologist Mark Chaves.
In a lecture at the early November meeting of the Religious Research Association in Rochester, N.Y., Chaves said that the standard accounts of megachurch growth do not explain why they started at a certain period in the early 1970s and will likely endure for the foreseeable future. The appearance of megachurches did not so much signal a religious revival (the attendance rates have not shown an increase) but rather that church attenders and members were becoming more concentrated in large congregations (even though only one percent of American congregations have over 2,000 members.)
In tracking the growth of megachurches in 13 Protestant denominations, Chaves found that it does not matter if the denomination is large or small or if it is considered conservative or liberal. Neither population growth, the move to the suburbs, nor the introduction of new innovations such as small groups, popular music and minimal Christian symbols to appeal to the unchurched (such features were present in larger churches earlier in the 20th century) explain the megachurch explosion.
Instead, Chaves traces the phenomenon to the financial inflation of the early 1970s when the usual giving patterns of congregants could no longer meet the rising costs of maintaining buildings and clergy salaries (which rose the sharpest from 1980-1990). Only the larger churches were able to maintain the customary levels of programming and quality in services. Thus there was a “push” factor of the dissatisfied leaving smaller churches that downsized their programming, and a “pull” factor of many of these people attending large churches that were better able to keep up the quality of services.
02: Most academic scientists do not see an inevitable conflict between science and religion, although “fundamentalism” is widely viewed as clashing with scientific progress, according to a recent study. The study, part of the ongoing “Religion among Academic Scientists” project, is based on a survey of 1,646 scientists at elite universities and was presented at the meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Rochester.
The paradigm of inevitable conflict between religion and science has long held sway among scholars. Past research has posited that as scientists increase in rank they are more likely to hold to this “conflict paradigm.” But the study, conducted by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Jerry Z. Park, found that the majority of respondents (about 57 percent) stand in disagreement with the conflict paradigm.
The faculty also does not “seem to differ substantially in their views of the connection between religion and science according to rank, with the majority of faculty at all ranks believing there is no conflict between religion and science,” write Ecklund and Park. In fact, the majority of scientists in all disciplines–whether in the social sciences or physical sciences–disagreed with the conflict thesis, although biologists were the most likely to believe it (perhaps due to the current conflicts over evolution).
Ecklund and Park also found that those who were raised in a family where religion was very important were the most likely to disagree with the conflict paradigm (70.7 percent); only a minority of those raised in families where religion was “not at all important” (41.9 percent) disagreed with this statement. But even among those who did not see a conflict between religion and science tended to see “fundamentalist“ or “conservative“ religion as conflicting with science.
03: Despite their secular image, Democrats actually spent more time courting the religious vote than Republicans during the last presidential election.
That surprising conclusion was reached by Sean Everton of Stanford University after tracking the campaign visits of Republican and Democratic candidates during the 2004 elections. Everton, who presented a paper on these findings at the meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture in Rochester, found that in terms of church appearances, John Kerry and John Edwards “courted their religious base far more explicitly and far more often than did President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. Kerry and Edwards appeared and spoke at nineteen times as many churches as did Bush and Cheney, and most of those were at Black churches,” Everton said.
One could argue that Bush and Cheney did not need to speak at churches since they could rally the religious vote at other events, but Everton found that they made only 18 non-church faith-based campaign appearances while Kerry and Edwards made 25. While Everton found that compared to other events, all the candidates’ appearances at religiously based events was meager: less than two percent of the combined campaign appearances of all four candidates occurred at houses of worship and less than five percent were events that could be interpreted as faith-based in any way. But Everton argues that the evidence shows that Kerry and Edwards actively courted Black Christians– confirming previous studies showing black churches more politically engaged than other congregations, including evangelical.
04: Support among American Catholics for the bishops appears to be rebounding after the decline seen during the clergy sex abuse scandals, according to a new Zogby International poll.
Sixty-four percent of American Catholics surveyed agreed that the bishops are doing a good job. The approval rate was up to 83 percent in the fall of 2001, just before the clergy sex abuse scandal broke. By the fall of 2004, approval for bishops dropped to its lowest at 57 percent. The poll also found that 89 percent of American Catholics think their local pastor is doing a good job, and 75 percent think Pope Benedict XVI is doing a good job, reports the National Catholic Reporter (Nov. 25)
05: While the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists are among the fastest growing religious movements in the world, they appeal to very different social classes and income groups, according to a recent analysis.
At the meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Ronald Lawson of Queens College presented a paper that compared the membership growth rates of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) and Seventh Day Adventists according to income. Jehovah‘s Witnesses’ growth patterns were the most evenly spread among low, middle and high income groups, though with more growth in the latter two categories.
Meanwhile, the Mormons had the largest number of members in high and middle income groups, with only a relatively small number of low income members. In contrast, the Seventh Day Adventists had a preponderance of low and middle income members with only a small number of higher income members. One reason for the Adventist growth among lower income people may be due to the appeal of the church’s extensive parochial school system.
06: Following trends in many European countries, there is a growing percentage of people in Northern Ireland who describe themselves as “religious independents.”
The 2004 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey finds that 11.5 percent describe themselves as religious independents, which confirms the results of the 2001 census. This secular group has become the fourth largest “religious” group (after Catholics, Presbyterians and Anglicans) and might become the second or third one by the time of the 2011 census.
Carried out annually, the survey is a joint project of the two Northern Ireland universities (University of Ulster and Queen’s University Belfast). Research Update (November) reports that the decline takes place primarily at the expense of Protestant churches. However, another element which should be considered is church attendance: two-thirds of the population attended church at least once a week in the late 1980s, down to about half in the early 2000s.
Among affiliated people, the decline has been more pronounced among Catholics, despite their traditionally diligent religious attendance. It means that secularization affects Protestants and Catholics in different ways: diluting affiliation for Protestants, and retaining affiliation, with less attendance, for Catholics. Moreover, an interesting factor – considering the peculiar context of Northern Ireland – is that disaffection from politics seems to have been a motivation to reject religion; it goes along with rejection of traditional national identity (i.e. seeing themselves as neither unionists nor nationalists).
Could this mean a decreased role for religion in politics? Analyst Ian McAllister answers in the negative. First, secularization is not yet deep enough to have such an impact. Second, if people who became disaffected from politics also leave religion, those who keep a strong religious identity are left alone, which may temporarily even increase the political role of religion (since the most religious will also be the most politically active).
(Research Update, ARK, Northern Ireland Social & Political Archive; http://www.ark.ac.uk)
— By Jean-François Mayer
07: Religious belief in Britain is declining at least as fast as church attendance and affiliation, writes demographer David Voas in Quadrant (November), the newsletter of the Christian Research Association. In a recent analysis of the Household Panel Survey (in which thousands of families are visited each year to examine how their lives have changed or stayed the same) and British Social Attitude surveys since 1983, Voas found a shrinking reservoir of faith or, as it is called, “believing without belonging.”
Voas found that belief may be higher than “active belonging” or churchgoing, but “it is not necessarily higher than passive belonging, such as identifying oneself as a Christian.” The patterns of decline in beliefs and practices were similar. Two non-religious parents tend to “successfully transmit their lack of religion” to their children.
Two religious parents have roughly a 50/50 chance of passing on the faith, while one religious parent does only half as well as both parents. Voas concludes that such results “suggest that in Britain institutional religion now has a half-life of one generation…The generation now in middle age produced children who are only half as likely to attend church, to identify themselves as belonging to a denomination, or to say that belief is important to them.”
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08: The Buddhist priesthood in Japan has become deprofessionalized, with the activities previously performed by priests now increasingly taken over by other “secular” professions, according to a recent study.
A paper delivered at the recent meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture. by Mitsutoshi Horii argued that both in law and practice, the Buddhist priesthood has “ceased to exist in the post-war Japanese socio-economic system.” Much of the change has occurred as lay teachers and workers in religious organizations have become incorporated into the same employee category as priests.
But Horii traces the devaluing of the priesthood as mainly due to the loss of religious conviction and an alienation of religious identity. The priesthood has devolved into a family obligation, where authority is passed from the father to the son. This results in many priests no longer having strong beliefs, he added. The loss of traditional sources of income for priests, such as when laypeople conduct funerals and other mortuary rites, and the decline of the Japanese birth rate are likely to “trigger the collapse of the traditional parish system.”
Horii concludes that in this case, the Buddhist temple could become a voluntary organization with lay leadership. Another possibility is that the priesthood would take on the dimensions of a doctor-patient relationship, with clients paying for services rendered by the priest.