Religion scholars gave their brethren an early look at several new studies of the American spiritual landscape at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, which convened October 19-21 in Portland, Oregon.
Presenting the latest figures was David Campbell, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and the research partner of Robert Putnam, the Harvard University professor and author of the much-discussed book Bowling Alone. Putnam and Campbell head up the Spiritual Capital Research Program, a Templeton-funded study that includes a just-completed telephone survey of 3,000 Americans, followed by core studies of religious congregations across the nation.
Campbell said his team has found that what American do before they eat is a “robust predictor” of all kinds of other attitudes and actions. About half of those surveyed said they say grace daily before meals, while the other half of the sample said they never or almost never say a prayer before dinner. Putnam and Campbell, who have devised a new system to measure “religiosity,” have found that conservative evangelicals are not the most religious members of the American citizenry. Mormons and black Protestants captured the gold and silver medals in that competition.
Their research also disputes the conventional wisdom that political activity is rampant in conservative religious congregations in the United States. Far below half of respondents in all denominations and movements reported political activity in their churches. On top of that, Campbell said “liberals are more likely to get political cues in church than conservatives,” although “not too many of them can be found in church.” Campbell declined to provide detailed statistics to RW, citing the publication of an upcoming book on their new data, which was just gathered in the summer of 2006.
“Spiritual Capital” was also the focus of another ongoing study outlined at the Portland conference. It’s called “The Transmission of Religion Across Generations: Spiritual Capital in Multigenerational Families Today.” Led by two researchers at the University of Southern California, Vern Bengston and Donald E. Miller, this project analyzes 35 years of data collected from 3,000 individuals from 350 multigenerational families. Family members have been surveyed every three years about their perceptions of social values, relationships, personal goals and physical and psychological health.
USC researcher Gary Horlacher presented his findings on “Patterns of Change in Religions Identity over Time.” His analysis divided the respondents into three spiritual categories: Faithful Followers, Lost Sheep and Prodigals. Lost Sheep, “those who left the religious denomination of their upbringing,” were the largest group, representing nearly 48 percent of those surveyed. Just over 37 percent were Faithful Followers, people who maintained their religious affiliation.
Nearly 15 percent were Prodigals, those who left the fold, but later returned. Nearly 70 percent of the Lost Sheep were “one-time switchers,” meaning they changed their religious affiliation a single time. Those Lost Sheep were three times more likely to wander off in a more liberal direction, rather than join a more conservative religious congregation. In a separate analysis of the data, USC researcher Casey Copen looked at the “Transmission of Religion Across Three Generations.” She found that grandmothers have a direct effect on the religiosity of their grandchildren, especially upon their granddaughters. Copen also reported that going to college significantly decreases religiosity in grandchildren.
Those findings about the effect of college on religious belief and practice may be contradicted by another project — the National Study of Youth and Religion. At a pre-conference seminar on youth and religion, University of Notre Dame and University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) researchers involved in that Lilly Endowment-funded study noted that the conventional wisdom holds that college has a negative effect on religiosity among young adults.
Yet a preliminary analysis of surveys tracking students from high school to college and comparing them to those who forego higher education indicates that college students are not leaving the fold like they once did. Researchers warned, however, that the difference may reflect the fact that more people go to college than in earlier generations, and that the children of the baby boomers “have less religion to lose.”
Finding ways to keep young Jewish adults involved in organized religion was the focus of another session at the conference, which was convened under the auspices of the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute. Beth Cousens, a PhD candidate studying the sociology of Jewish education at Brandeis University, noted the “constant lament” that young people are not joining American synagogues. Cousens said concerned Jewish leaders should look for ideas at the Riverway Project at Temple Israel in Boston, an outreach and engagement initiative targeting young adults in their twenties and thirties. The project sponsors social justice activities, worship, informal Shabbat dinners at participants’ homes and a popular “Torah and Tonics on Tuesdays” gathering that mixes scripture study, spirituality and distilled spirits.
Steven Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, presented the results of a survey designed to gauge the effectiveness of Synagogue 2000 (S2K), an ambitious national program that sought to re-energize synagogue life in North America. Cohen’s conclusion was not good news for those who hoped the program would improve their congregants’ impressions of the worship experience at S2K synagogues, especially for smaller congregations. Reform movement synagogues that participated in the program were compared to similar congregations that had nothing to do with S2K.
Cohen found little difference between S2K and non-S2K synagogues when members were surveyed about the quality of Jewish education, worship experience, and whether or not they were made to feel welcome. Non-S2K congregations actually scored higher on half of the questions than those that went through the three-year program. Reform movement congregations who signed up for S2K did better in the survey of member satisfaction, but not significantly better.
The best results were found among Conservative movement synagogues that participated in the program, which was designed to help congregations “realize the power of sacred community through a transforming process of prayer, study, and social justice that blends authentic Jewish values and knowledge with the best practices of modern organization development.”
— By Don Lattin, co-author (with RW’s editor) of “Shopping For Faith”, and author of “Following Our Bliss”. He can be reached through his website at: http://www.donlattin.com