01: The growth of non-denominational Christianity in the U.S. is often linked to the megachurches, but there are important differences between the two phenomena, according to Scott Thumma of Hartford Seminary, who presented research at the October conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Milwaukee.
Thumma, a specialist on megachurches, used data from the RCMS survey, estimating that there are 35,493 non-denominational congregations with roughly 12 million adherents, making them the largest church grouping in in the U.S. Non-denominational churches have the highest concentration in Florida and California and have a median church membership of 150. These churches look a lot like evangelical churches, but only about 40 percent belong in that category, with about 20 percent falling into the fundamentalist family, 14 percent Pentecostal, 11 percent charismatic, and only a small percentage liberal (0.3 percent) and New Age (0.3 percent).
The relatively high proportion of fundamentalists among the non-denominational churches makes them quite different from the megachurches, according to Thumma.The median year in which the non-denominational churches were founded was 1983, but 20 percent were founded between 2000 and 2010. The congregations show a median growth rate of 20 percent, with one-third showing decline and another one-third growing by 20 percent or more. Twelve percent reported having departed from a denomination; most of the congregations are “truly independent” of any church bodies or associations, although only 35 percent of the congregational contacts acknowledged that they were.
The non-denominational church members tended to be younger and have more children than members of evangelical congregations. The non-denominational churches also were more likely be male, slightly better educated and stricter than evangelical groups. In general, non-denominational churches tend to be more internally focused and not as socially active, but also more joyful, with greater use of contemporary worship.
02: Reports of a decline of religious belief and practice among American women are exaggerated, although young Catholic women may be an exception. The report in the September/October RW of a Barna poll showing significant religious decline among women came in for criticism by sociologists Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 26), Stark and Johnson note that the stability of attendance and Bible reading patterns found in most surveys conflict with the Barna study showing a decline in these measures between 1991 and 2010. Barna found that 40 percent of both men and women read the Bible in 2010, compared to 50 percent of women doing so in 1991.In contrast, the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey confirmed other surveys’ findings of the gap that has long existed between the sexes in Bible reading—29 percent men and 40 percent women (a 1988 NORC survey likewise found a 25:39 percent sex ratio in terms of Bible reading).
Given the “remarkable stability of the statistics over the past several decades,” it is unlikely that there has been a major drop in women’s Bible reading in three years. Similarly, Barna’s reported 11 percentage point drop in women’s attendance and the narrowing of the gender gap conflicts with NORC data—38 percent of women and 28 percent of men attended weekly in 1991, compared with 34 percent of women and 25 percent of men in 2010.But American Catholic women, especially those from Generation X and the Millennial generation, show particular religious disaffection, according to an analysis by sociologist Patricia Wittberg.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the broad pattern of Catholic women’s religiosity exceeding that of men began to change: while older Catholic women remained more religious than men their age, Generation X Catholic women barely equaled males their age. Recent results from General Social Survey show that Millennial women are slightly more likely than their male counterparts to say they never attend Mass, and they are significantly more likely to hold heterodox positions on papal infallibility and whether homosexual activity is always wrong. None of the Millennial Catholic women agreed they had complete confidence in churches and religious organizations.
In data on religious vocations, Wittberg finds similar trends of Millennial Catholic women disaffection: for instance, a recent study of vocation formation in Philadelphia finds far more men than women preparing for religious life. In contrast, Protestant Millennial women have not shown religious decline; they are significantly more likely to have confidence in religious institutions than men of their age (and even older Protestant women).
Wittberg, who is writing an article based on this paper for the Catholic magazine America, notes that both Catholic and Protestant Millennial women are significantly more likely to consider themselves “very spiritual” people. But she concludes that the challenge is to compete with other religious groups and secular society in providing a spiritual outlet for younger women in the church.
03: Strict historical evidence may not be the only criterion in determining the authenticity of Jesus’s words among a group of biblical scholars known as the Jesus Seminar, according to a study of the group by sociologist Sean Everton presented at the SSSR conference.
The Jesus Seminar, a group of select scholars meeting to decide the historical veracity of the Gospels and other biblical writings, has been in the forefront of revisionist attempts to recover the “historical Jesus.” The method of the group, which met twice yearly, was to vote on whether they thought a particular saying was uttered by Jesus or whether later writers of the Gospels put the words in his mouth. The group has concluded that Jesus never referred to himself as the “Messiah” or “Son of God,” but was an itinerant wisdom teacher who preached liberation from injustice, mainly based on criteria including that multiple and earlier sources are preferred in establishing the validity of Jesus’s sayings.
Everton ran a statistical analysis of the votes cast by Jesus Seminar scholars, who drop beads of various colors into a container to signify whether or not (to varying degrees) they think a particular passage was Jesus’s own words. In his analysis of the votes (the records of which are published in the seminar’s journal) the scholars cast on 1,544 versions of sayings of Jesus, Everton found that they appeared to value “unorthodox” sources, such as the Gospel of Thomas, over canonical sources. But after controlling for the effects of other factors, he found that the number of sources appeared to play little or no role in whether a saying was deemed authentic.
After controlling for the Gospels and sources from which each saying comes, the date of the saying also appeared to play little or no role in whether it was deemed authentic. Everton concludes that the “evidence appears to suggest that even with tools of social science and modern literary theory, the Jesus Seminar Fellows are no less biased” than earlier scholars who sought to uncover the true life of Jesus.
04: A segment of Americans who are hostile to conservative Christianity may also show classic prejudicial attitudes toward such adherents, according to a paper presented at the SSSR conference by sociologist George Yancey.
In a previous study, Yancey found that 15 percent of individuals in the U.S. can be categorized as anti-fundamentalists, meaning that they have a more negative view of this group of Christians than other religions. In his new paper, Yancey attempts to find out whether or not this animosity toward conservative Protestants, most often displayed by the highly educated and “political progressives,” is similar to the type of bigotry documented by their less educated and politically conservative peers. This classic type of bigotry often involves adopting a dehumaniz-ing attitude toward a group (such as viewing them in animalistic, childlike or “coarse” terms).
Yancey conducted an Internet survey of 3,577 respondents who were members of organizations (which he does not identify by name) resisting Christianity (in the case of atheists and agnostics) or the Christian right. He asked respondents their views of various religious adherents and then requested that they rate the desirability of having one of the following individuals as a neighbor: “A vocal Republican who is not a Christian” or “A vocal Christian who is apolitical.” This question allowed the researchers to assess whether the religious or political nature of the Christian right is more likely to cause an emotional reaction against the group. Yancey found that 69.2 percent of his sample had more problems with vocal Christians than vocal Republicans.
In analyzing the open-ended responses of this group (who tended to be male, white, wealthy and highly educated), he found that many, “if not most,” Christians were described in terms of being culturally undeveloped, irrational, coarse or animalistic (as “sheep”). Yancey concludes that his study “provides a generous amount of evidence that certain individuals have developed attitudes of dehumanization toward conservative Christians, and especially towards fundamentalists.”
05: A study of intolerance in 48 European countries finds that the stronger the rate of religous belief, the lower the level of intolerance. The study, presented at the SSSR conference by Stephanie Dobbler of the University of Manchester, was based on an analysis of the 2008 European Values Survey, which polled 67,786 people from 48 European countries.
Respondents were asked questions about their level of tolerance toward immigrants, those of different races and homosexuals. Dobbler finds that the effect of believing tends to decrease levels of intolerance. Religious believing has stronger and more strongly significant effects than religious adherence (including church attendance) and the importance of religion.” Dobbler adds that this finding supports previous research suggesting that intrinsic religiosity and private belief “seems to be good for tolerance almost everywhere in Europe.”
But church attendance and the importance of religion actually are correlated with higher rates of intolerance in countries in Southeastern Europe, particularly Muslim majority countries and some post-Communist countries (such as Lithuania, Latvia, Macedonia and Moldavia). Dobbler adds that it is not Muslim denominational membership that is related to intolerance; rather, country-level effects (such as corruption and lack of democratic governance) appear to encourage intolerance and religious bigotry.
06: A study based on Brazil’s 2010 census finds a signifiant loss of young adults in the Catholic Church.
The study, based on 200,000 interviews conducted for the census by Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation, shows that the Catholic share of the population reached its lowest level since census figures tracked religion in 1872. The number of people under the age of 20 in Brazil who say they follow no religion is growing three times more quickly than among those 50 or older, with nine percent of young Brazilians saying they belong to no religion.The study, cited by Fox News Latino (Oct. 8), finds that Catholics make up the greatest share of the upper and lower classes, but are losing ground among the middle class, the segment of society that is expanding thanks to Brazil’s growing economy.
In 2003, before Brazil’s economic boom, 72.5 percent of the middle class were Catholic. By 2009, the Catholic share had fallen to 67.4 percent of the middle class. There has also been a loss of Catholic women, but rather than giving up religion, many have shifted toward the historic Protestant churches, such as Methodists and Presbyterians, for their more liberal views on such issues as contraception and abortion. Meanwhile, the Pentecostal growth rate has been modest, increasing from12.5 to 12.8 percent of the population since 2003.
07: A comparative survey of Egyptian and Saudi youth on religion and democracy finds that in the former country it is the most religiously conservative young people who support democratic reform. The analysis, presented at the SSSR conference by Jaimie Kucinskas of Indiana University, is based on the Youth, Emotional Energy, and Political Violence Survey, which interviewed close to 2,000 young Saudi Arabians and Egyptians.
In Saudi Arabia, where there is less variation in interpretations of Islamic beliefs, religious ideology was found to be unrelated to democratic attitudes. In contrast, youth in Egypt who were rated the most “fundamentalist” are the most likely to support democracy and believe that it has problems. “These results suggest that there is a large potential base support among young people for religiously conservative political groups in Egypt, such as the Muslim Brotherhood …. My research suggests that if democracy should spread in the region, among young people, its most likely supporters will be very religious and adhere to fundamentalist interpretations of Islam,” Kuinskas writes. She adds that those youth who rely most on domestic media, the Internet and satellite TV have more favorable attitudes toward democracy.
08: According to recent sociological research on religion in Russia released by the Moscow-based Levada Center and presented on Sept. 28 at a conference of the St. Philaret Institute, many Russians have found in the Orthodox Church a substitute for their previous Soviet identity in ethno-religious terms.
Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (December) cites the research as suggesting that the “Orthodox revival” in Russia, while real, must be assessed in a nuanced way. There has been a profound change in the self-identification of Russians over the past 20 years: 72 percent of the adult population describe themselves as Orthodox, but only 55 percent of those self-described “Orthodox” believe in God. Less than 10 percent of Orthodox believers attend religious services on a regular basis (something that actually matches a similar pattern in many European countries, including Western ones, it could be added).
More than half of them visit church only twice a year (Easter and Christmas) and never pray, not even knowing the basic Christian prayers. Less than one-third of Orthodox parents speak with their children on religious topics. Still, there is an expectation that the Church could give some moral foundations and meaning to life, as well as contribute to social cohesion in a society where trust is found to lie at a very low level and where materialism is perceived as ruling life.
(Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West, Birmensdorfertrasse 52, P.O. Box 9329, 8036 Zurich, Switzerland, www.g2w.eu)