Map of Religious Diversity in America

Yet another interesting map from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. This gets at how varied, or diverse, religious affiliation is in different regions of the country. As you can see, the areas with the most diversity also tend to have the lowest rates of adherence, which would seem counter-intuitive–at least from the perspective of Rational Choice theory. One might expect that more offerings, i.e., more types of religions, would promote greater involvement in religion.

Where the Protestants Roam: Map of Protestant Denominations in the US

Protestantism, and its decline, has been in the news a lot this week with a Pew study that the percentage of Protestants in the US has fallen below 50%.

Seemed like a good time to show a map of the distribution of Protestant denominations throughout the country. This map is from the always interesting Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, and it highlights the strong regional flavor of Protestantism. (Click to make font more readable. Also, it’s mislabeled as Protestant “Groups” because it doesn’t show non-denominational Protestants.)

Like so much in America social geography, religion went from East to West until the Rockies, and what happened on the West coast is a bit of a jumble. It also speaks to the historical influence of Methodists, who have probably lost more of the population in the last century than any other religious group.


Why we overestimate the prevalence of abusive priests, dishonest pastors, and unloving congregations

Cognitive heuristics are mental shortcuts–rules of thumbs–that we use to make judgments about ourselves and the world around us. On of the best known heuristics is the “availability heuristic” that goes as follows. As we estimate the frequency with which something happens, we start by trying to think of an example of it, and if we can quickly think of an example then we think it’s a frequent occurrence.

Like most heuristics, it works well often, but it produces biases in some forms of social thinking. In particular, it highlights the potential for the media to distort our understanding about the probability of events.

You see, the media focuses on what’s uncommon or at least unexpected, and understandably so for who would want to read, hear, or watch information that is totally predicable? (“Next on the grass growing channel….”). As a result, however, the media gives us vivid portrayals of what rarely happens, and we then overestimate the frequency with which they happen.

Easy example. The verbal gaffes of presidential candidates are big news, so we can easily assume that they make them often when, in point of fact, they might be relatively rare. (At least a lot less frequent than mine).

Now, let’s apply this type of thinking to portrayals of religious figures.

What makes news about religious people? Various things, of course, but in particular when they do not act in alignment with their beliefs. We all love a good, juicy “hypocrite” story after all. So, a priest abusing a child or a pastor stealing from his flock or whatever the religious scandal of the day is makes such information much more available when we recall it. This leads us to think that it happens more often than it does.

Case in point. In my Sociology of Christianity class, I have my students visit local churches and analyze the services from the perspective of various sociological theories. Their papers on their experiences nearly unanimously describe the congregants that they met as friendly and warm to them, and there’s an undertone of surprise. Why shouldn’t there be, after all, because congregations make news most often when they do shocking things like protesting military funerals or burning a copy of the Koran. Peaceful, loving Christians are the rule in both their frequency and lack of newsworthiness, and as a result–due to the availability heuristic–we underestimate their prevalence.

More thoughts on homophily and faith

After writing about religion and social homophily (i.e., like people grouping together), I became aware of a forthcoming study that addresses this issue as it pertains to family life.

It’s entitled “Bonding alone: Familism, religion, and secular civic participation” by Young-Il Kim and W. Bradford Wilcox, and it’s published in the prestigious journal Social Science Research. This article finds that religious involvement actually prompts secular civic involvement (though its effect varies by type of family). Interesting and it runs counter to popular perceptions.

Here’s the abstract:

“This study examines the influence of familism, religion, and their interaction on participation in secular voluntary associations. We develop an insularity theory to explain how familism and religion encourage Americans to avoid secular civic participation. Using data from the first wave of the National Survey of Families and Households, this study finds that familism reduces participation in secular organizations. Moreover, religion moderates the effect of familism: specifically, religious involvement tends to increase the negative effect of familism on secular civic participation. Although religious involvement in and of itself fosters secular civic participation, strong familism tends to dampen positive impacts of religious involvement. For familistic individuals, religious congregations appear to reinforce their insularity within their immediate social circle and family.”

Further elaboration from the discussion section:

“People who hold traditional family ideology tend to form in-bound social networks revolving around religious congregations. This finding is particularly interesting in light of other studies indicating that familistic orientation promotes religious involvement. Thus, our study, combined with this earlier body of research, suggests that family-oriented culture has a divergent impact on religious institutions and secular organizations, fueling religious participation and dampening secular civic engagement. Indeed, our interaction models suggest that the familism–religious involvement interaction term is negative for secular engagement: that is, when familism is combined with greater involvement in religious congregations, its negative influence on secular engagement tends to be strengthened by the religious involvement. This aggravating effect is interesting because of the main effect of religious involvement on secular engagement was found to be positive. Consistent with previous research, religious involvement, particularly religious activities outside of religious services (e.g., a Bible study group, a church committee) may not only provide a training ground for the cultivation of civic skills that are transferable to nonreligious organizations, but also serve as a recruitment channel to secular voluntary associations. However, the effect of congregational participation tends to be smaller among familistic than nonfamilistic individuals.”