01: The widespread view that Christians, especially evangelicals, have among the highest divorce rates in the US may be rooted more in “moral fears” and culture wars among and between conservative Christians and non-believing critics than in actual fact, according to sociologists Bradley Wright, Christine Zozula and Bradford Wilcox.
In recent years, both Christian leaders and groups and atheist organizations have cited research, often conducted by the evangelical pollster George Barna, showing that conservative Protestants have the highest divorce rates in the country. The researchers, who presented a paper on their findings at the ASR meeting in Boston in early August, note that Barna’s research is easily disputable, since he tends to define Christians as “born-again” evangelicals and collapse non-born-again Christians (such as mainline Protestants and Catholics) into the non-believer category. Since in many studies mainline Protestants and Catholics do have somewhat lower divorce rates than evangelicals, the Barna research appears to show the “Christian” divorce problem.
Wright, Zozula and Wilcox note that most sociological research continues to find that nonaffiliated Americans have higher divorce rates than those who are religiously involved, including evangelicals. They examine data from six different data sets up to 2004 that recorded respondents’ religious affiliations and level of religious activity, and found that those with no affiliation (51 percent) had higher divorce rates than Catholics (34 percent), Jews (39 percent), mainline Protestants (39 percent) and evangelicals (45 percent). The gap between believer and non-believer widens when taking into account religious participation, such as church attendance. The paper adds that the media and the general populace have also tended to focus on the higher divorce rates among Christians: in an experiment conducted by the researchers it was found that news readers are more likely to pay attention to articles critical of or negative about Christians than those that are positive.
Wright, Zozula and Wilcox conclude that “bad news” about Christians and divorce is popular, because for Christian leaders it serves to spur Christians into better behavior, while for secularist critics such supposedly higher divorce rates reveal the hypocrisy and failure of religion. But Christian leaders playing on the “moral fears” of believers may have the unintended consequence of discouraging and alienating them from their faith, the paper concludes.
02: A high number of congregations in the New Orleans area are still not functioning three years after Hurricane Katrina hit the city, according to a study by William H. Day of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which was presented at the ASR meeting in Boston.
In surveying 1,503 congregations in five parishes (or districts) in the New Orleans area, it was found that 50 percent of churches were not functioning one year after the hurricane (meaning that they were not operating anywhere outside this area either). Two years after Katrina, one-third of these congregations were not operating. Today, three years after the catastrophe, that percentage still holds. Most congregations have significantly less people attending than they did in the period before Katrina hit the city.
In studying those congregations that not only survived, but actually flourished in the years after Katrina, Day found that they held several characteristics in common. They were not necessarily megachurches, since these large congregations were as adversely affected as many other churches. But the determination of churches to survive and grow was an important factor in these flourishing congregations. Those congregations with ties to NGOs and other church groups and social organizations across the country also tended to maintain themselves.
Day pointed out that churches that maintained themselves often had to attract new people to replace those that left the area. So, for instance, Celebration Church had a 2,000 attendance weeks before Katrina hit, but 65 percent of the people had not returned in the months after the hurricane. Today, the church again has a 2,000 attendance, although most of this growth consists of people who did not attend before Katrina.
03: Although the events of September 11 were often reported to strengthen spirituality among many Americans, including youth, a recent study finds only modest and short-lived effects on young adults’ religious and spiritual lives after the attacks.
The study was presented at the ASR meeting in Boston in August, which RW attended. The study, conducted by Jeremy E. Uecker (University of Texas at Austin), which is to be published in the September issue of the journal Sociological Spectrum, used longitudinal research on 20,745 American adolescents from 1994 to 1995 and then again from July 2001 to May 2002. Although Uecker found that the 9/11 attacks evoked a turn to religion and spirituality among many Americans, including young adults, such a shift did not “drastically alter the religious and spiritual makeup of the young adult population.
Only modest differences were noted in young adults’ levels of religiosity and spirituality after the attacks, and the differences were generally short-lived,” Uecker says. But there were differences in the effect of 9/11 among different groups of young adults. Those from religious traditions with the most individualistic adherents— Catholicism, mainline Protestantism and the unaffiliated —were the most likely to increase their religiosity and spirituality after the attacks. In contrast, evangelical and black Protestants actually showed declines in their religiosity and spirituality after these events.
04: Megachurches continue to diversify their offerings, as they start more satellite congregations, increasingly encourage small group ministries and take up social concerns, according to a recent study.
In an update study to two previous surveys of megachurches in 2000 and 2005, Scott Thuma and Warren Bird find that megachurches continue to grow in size and are doing well financially. In the new survey, 30.1 percent of the megachurches reported that they have started services at a satellite church in another location within the last five years. Megachurches are also continuing to plant or help plant new churches (from 70 percent in 2005 to 77 percent in 2008); those with satellites were in fact more likely to plant new churches.
There are signs that megachurches are becoming increasingly independent of denominations (and many of them are independent to begin with), as they invest more in homegrown pastor training conferences, educational literature, and worship and music material. Perhaps the greatest growth is in the area of small group ministries; there is a 34 percent increase in megachurches making small groups a central component of their Christian nurture and spiritual formation efforts between 2005 and 2008.
The rate of megachurches that say they are “working for social justice” has jumped from 34 percent in 2000 to 51 percent in 2008. The megachurches were found not to be overtly political: the recent survey confirmed the earlier findings that about 16 percent of megachurches had joined with other churches in political activity over the last five years. (The new study is available at: http:// www.hartfordinstitute.org.)
05: A recent survey suggests there is a change of mind among many Americans about whether churches and other religious organizations should be directly involved in politics.
A Pew survey finds a “narrow majority” of the public agreeing that congregations should keep out of political matters. This is a change from just a few years ago, when majorities of Americans had voiced support for religious institutions getting politically involved. The survey finds that most of the change has happened among political conservatives. Four years ago, only 30 percent of conservatives believed that congregations should abstain from political involvement.
Fifty percent of conservatives express this view today. Two other signs of the declining support for such involvement is the small, but significant increase since 2004 of people saying they are uncomfortable with politicians talking about their religious faith —from 40 to 46 percent. While the Republicans have been seen as the most religious party, that is also changing; the survey finds 38 percent viewing the Democratic Party as friendly to religion; two years ago only 26 percent said that. As a result of these changes, Republicans and Democrats are no longer so sharply split on the question of the relation between faith and politics.
06: The growth of religious diversity is largely related to the human drive to reduce the risk of contagious disease by intermarriage, according to University of New Mexico biologists Corey Fincher and Randy Thornhill.
The Economist (Aug. 2) cites a study by the two researchers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society that argues that in places where disease is rampant, religious differences served to reduce one group mixing with another and spreading viruses. In seeking to show that patterns of behavior promoting group exclusivity will be stronger in disease-ridden areas, Fincher and Thornhill calculated the average number of religions (31, with a range including 159 in Brazil to 15 in Canada) against the average number of parasitic diseases found in each country (200). When taking into account population and area differences for each country, they still found a strong correlation between the number of religions in a place and how disease ridden it is.
“There is less than one chance in 10,000 that it has come about accidentally,” the magazine reports. The researchers found anthropological data showing that people in religiously diverse (and disease-ridden) places moved around to different parts of the world much less than those in healthier and religiously monolithic societies. The implication that religious diversity causes people to keep to themselves more (avoiding germs from the “infidel”) can be applied to other forms of group difference, such as language and xenophobic attitudes, the researchers conclude.
07: The growing involvement of Christian youth and young adults in short-term missions and mission trips has had a significant influence in their subsequent interest in activism and volunteerism for various social causes, according to researchers from Arizona State University, who presented a paper at the American Sociological Association, also meeting in Boston in August.
Congregations are increasingly sponsoring their youth and young adults in short-term mission trips consisting of anything from a few days (such as “alternative spring breaks”) to a few months to work in social service projects, sometimes in partnership with a non-profit organization (such as Habitat for Humanity). While some studies have shown a negligible role of these programs in forming youth religious and social involvement, in comparing participants with non-participants, the researchers find clear social effects among those involved in such trips.
Sixty-six percent of participants were involved in volunteering for social programs 12 months after their trips, with 12 percent continuing such efforts two years after the trips. In all, 16 percent of participants were involved in activism, and 82 percent in volunteerism. Those who participated in the mission programs were 1.4 times more likely to be involved in activism than those who did not participate.
08: The number of Muslims in Germany reached 3.5 million in 2007, the Islam-ArchivDeutschland Institute reports (Aug. 17).
This is based on the results of a yearly survey conducted by this Muslim research center. According to the same survey, there were 206 “classical”, fully equipped mosques in Germany and approximately 2,600 other, simpler places of Islamic worship. A total of 284,000 Muslims visit them daily, while 539,000 attend Friday prayers in ordinary times.
The survey finds that 1.1 million Muslims hold German citizenship, with around 21,000 of them being born Muslims. In 2007, some 2,400 Germans converted to Islam. (Islam-ArchivDeutschland, www.islamarchiv.de)
09: Overall, religion and Catholicism continue to decline in France, as shown by research based on a sample of more than 10,000 respondents, according to a study in the French National Institute for Demographic Studies’ (INED) newsletter Population & Sociétés (July–August).
While only five percent of men and three percent of women above age 65 say they have no religion, the percentages are 27 percent and 23 percent, respectively, in the 18–24 age range. And the level of practice of those above 65 is low: 68 percent of men and 55 percent of women in the 65–79 age range never attend a religious service (except for baptisms, weddings and funerals).
Among people who report belonging to a religion, there are two million Muslims, a lower figure than most previous estimates. The level of religious practice is higher among Muslims, since 34 percent of Muslim males in France claim to visit a place of prayer at least twice a month.
(Population & Sociétés, INED, 133 boulevard Davout, 75980 Paris, France – www.ined.fr)
10: There is a considerable split between belief and practice among Iranian Muslims, particularly those receiving a university education, according to Iranian sociologist Hossein Gadozgar of the University of York.
Gadozgar’s paper (given in his absence due to visa problems) at the American Sociological Association meeting in Boston reported on findings from a survey he conducted among 305 undergraduates on their beliefs and practices. Islamic authorities in Iran from the 1990s to the present day have charged that university students are increasingly irreligious. But the survey does not find irreligion as much as Islam moving to a private sphere among these students.
Compared to their high school years, the college students reported that there was a decrease in their level of communal prayer, but that they maintained their level of individual prayer. While this non-institutional practice is seen as a sign of growing irreligiosity by the authorities, students tend to see it as an improvement over their previous communal practice. Both Sunni and Shia Muslims are “reacting to the state monopoly [of Islam] in similar and negative ways,” though the Sunnis have a lower level of public practice, Gadozgar writes. This move to private practice is not confined to students, with other segments of Iranian society also reflecting this change.
11: The perception of the Muslim world being besieged and under attack from the West, followed by an awareness of the plight of Muslim populations in various parts of the world, are the root causes of commitment to jihadist militancy among young Muslims in France, writes researcher Luis Martinez in the Spring 2008 issue of Cultures & Conflits.
The research is based on interviews conducted with young people of North African descent who are willing either to go and fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, or carry out attacks in the West. Jihad is justified by those young people as being nothing more than self-defense. The Internet plays a key role in propagating jihadist views, especially since it is considered as a more reliable source of information than “Western-controlled” media.
However, when it comes to attacks against civilians, Martinez finds an initial reluctance. Similarly, a number of interviewees deny the legitimacy of targeting people in countries that are not under Western attack. For the time being, a majority of jihadist supporters in France seem to favor only defensive jihad (i.e. in Muslim countries where foreign troops are present).
Those limitations tend, however, to disappear among people who went to fight in faraway places and have returned. However, Martinez concludes that, for a number of people whom he interviewed, going overseas in order to fight might remain a dream: as long as they do not take that step, mosques and Islamic scholars may still have a restraining influence on them.
(Cultures & Conflits, 34 rue de Montholon, BP 20064, 75421 Paris Cedex 08, France – www.conflits.org)