Green is Go(o)d

Let’s start with an admission: I’m a fan of new urbanism. And old urbanism, for that matter. It sort of makes sense as a sociologist and someone who is invested in long-term strategies for growing families and cities while retaining permeable cover for farmland, etc. I’m always impressed with old stories about big families in small houses. Ergo, I live in an overpriced townhouse in a high-density neighborhood not far from the middle of Austin. And I generally like it, if mostly for lazy reasons: no yard to mow; low maintenance; feeding off my neighbors’ energy usage—via shared walls—to reduce the cost of my own. (Some) decent kids nearby for the young’uns to play with. Good stuff.

But the green movement which thrives in this new urbanist community is, from my angle, not just another interest group. It bears characteristics of what sociologists of religion would call a “new religious movement,” a subject of longstanding interest to scholars I used to hang out with. To be sure, the green movement is not a religion in the way we typically understand the term, and doesn’t have worship services per se. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t worship going on.

Borrowing from Christian Smith and others whom I cannot immediately recall, think about the ways in which the environmental movement fits this definition of religion: it’s a group phenomenon; concerned with the sacred; has a body of beliefs; has a set of practices; and it includes moral prescriptions. We do things for the things we worship, which technically is a term that means to “affirm the worth of.” We pay them a lot of attention. We offer up time and talents to them.

So when my neighbors hold an annual “hug the lake” event, outdo each other to (ironically drive long distances in order to) buy up the available Chevy Volts, serve as ground zero for Earth Day in Austin, and exhibit sustained one-upmanship about their personal environmental efforts, I start to feel like I’m a bad environmentalist and that I need to confess my sins–a full trash can, no bicycle, two cars, no solar panels–and return to affirming the beliefs and practicing the rituals, no matter the cost. (But I draw the line well short of a compost toilet.) Can’t I just be a new urbanist? Not really, because that is settled simply by living there (that is, by being in the same “congregation” of sorts). To be truly devout, I would need to set myself apart from my fellow congregants by exhibiting greater sacrifices. I need to be part of the 20 percent of the congregation that does 80 percent of the work. Free riding, after all, is a classic problem in religious organizations.

It all sounds like religion to me. Which is not surprising, given the claim I just made about what religion is and does. It need not be about the supernatural. It’s about the super-empirical: humans treat many things in life as sacred that are immanent, that have nothing to do with unseen beings.

We all worship something. It’s in the design.

12 Curious Statistics about Today’s Young Adults

I hope to blog next week, or sometime thereafter, on the subject of affordable housing. But it’s just not on paper yet, so in lieu of that, I decided to just crunch some numbers from a very recent nationally-representative survey of 18-39-year-olds in America. Here are 12 interesting (to me, at least) statistics from that survey. What you read below is what a large population-based, random-selection survey says about young adults today. Why these 10? No particular reason. I just sat down with the questionnaire and started crunching away. Survey nerds love to do this sort of thing. We’re learning about America, after all. These are simple statistics, by the way. They’re not meant to imply causation, but rather to arouse your attention.

1. Bullying appears to be diminishing: whereas 31 percent of 18-23-year-olds reported having been bullied during their youth, the same is true of 36 percent of 24-32-year-olds and 41 percent of 33-39-year-olds.

2. Just over 20 percent of the sample said that they were currently receiving some form of public assistance.

3. Just over 31 percent of the sample said that during the past year there was a time when they did not have health insurance.

4. Only 26 percent of young adults said that their current or most recent primary job “is achieving my long-term career or work goals.”

5. The modal answer to a question about how much sleep do you get on an average night was “7 hours.” Indeed, 78 percent of young adults said they get between 6 and 8 hours of sleep a night. Good to hear, I guess.

6. Just under 15 percent of young adults said they were “nothing/atheist/agnostic” when asked about their religion. That’s pretty much in keeping with General Social Survey estimates of the same, if I recall.

7. When asked to compare their activity level in organized religion today with while they were growing up, 51 percent said they were less active than before, while only 13 percent said more active. The rest reported a comparable level.

8. When asked whether “single mothers do just as good a job raising children as a married mother and father,” 44 percent of young adults agreed, 29 percent were unsure, and 23 percent disagreed.

9. But when asked whether “it is better for children to be raised in a household that has a married mother and father,” 65 percent agreed, 20 percent were unsure, and only 11 percent disagreed, indicating that while younger adults continue to think that this arrangement is optimal, they’re also quite comfortable saying it’s not necessary (or something like that).

10. While there may indeed be a Democratic party preference at work today among young women, the inclination doesn’t show up when asked, “In terms of politics, do you consider yourself very conservative, conservative, middle-of-the-road, liberal, or very liberal?” When sorted by gender, the results are nearly indistinguishable. The parties should fight over the middle-of-the-road folks, because 50 percent of the respondents selected that category, compared with only four and five percent (respectively) who selected “very conservative” and “very liberal.” Perhaps this is why it feels like there is more “spin” these days, since so many moderates are at stake.

11. The modal category of “number of Facebook friends you have” is between 100-200. Only about 10 percent say they have more than 500, while 19 percent said they weren’t on Facebook at all.

12. Finally, 15 percent of young men, when asked when they had last masturbated, said “today.” Which is an answer category that is distinctive from “yesterday,” which was selected by an additional 19 percent of men. I guess that tells us at least one thing: that most of the men who completed the survey probably did so at some point in the evening. If most had completed the survey before noon, one should expect the “today” number to be much closer to, say, 10 percent.

What would a Regnerus blog be without some reference to sex, right? There you have it.

In the era of Facebook, just what are congregations for?

What are congregations for? It’s a simple question at face value, but I think the answer to it is becoming less and less obvious in the West. You could reply with something like, “They’re for collective worship, as they have always been,” and quote me Hebrews 10:25 and be on your merry way to the next blog. But you’ll have oversimplified it and overlooked all the other things that people often hope or wish for, or benefit from, in a congregation. The frenzy of “church shopping” suggests people either don’t know what they want in a congregation, or else they don’t know what congregations are for.

Christian congregations do more than just get together to (produce) worship, obviously. Theoretically, people in congregations also socialize, form friendships, learn (via small groups or classes), support each other, and bear burdens and celebrate joys. Congregations often contain particular people that you want to (or hope your children) emulate or model, too.

But you don’t have to go to church to find this stuff. According to new nationally-representative data on 18-39-year-old Americans, however, 26 percent of men and 36 percent of women spend at least an hour a day using social networking. (That’s more than the share of Americans who spend an hour once a week in religious services.) So if churchgoing was once in part about social interaction with like-minded people, then very many people, including Christians, are getting plenty of that online today. In other words, people don’t need congregations for socialization as much as they might once have, because they can (and plenty do) get that online. Sure, virtual communities are different, but for many it’s close enough, and for some people I know it’s largely replaced the sociality of congregational life.

Facebook in particular seems particularly adept at fostering a mediated (although IMHO pathetic) form of social support: if you post something difficult about your life or circumstances, flocks of people seem to come out of the woodwork to post nice things in order to make you feel better. But caring classically involved a physical reality, so long as it was possible to be present. And yet plenty of people, [Read more...]

What Paintball Taught Me about the Market in Relationships

My 12-year-old son and I play paintball about once every three or four months. (If it was up to him, it’d be every other weekend.) For a morning, we are mimicking soldiers—although without much strategy other than a “You go that way, and I’ll go this way”—attempting to win battles and avoid getting shot. Paintball is a unique social event—apart from the mild fear of being smacked in the head or neck by balls of tinted mineral oil sailing along at 300-feet-per-second —because  it’s one of the few venues in my social life where I’m nearly completely surrounded by men doing what they largely perceive to be a masculine thing. I say “nearly completely” because it’s not entirely comprised of men, and there’s no rule about it. Typically in a crowd of, say, 40-50 paint-ballers there will probably be 2-3 women. 20-to-1, of course, is quite a sex ratio, unmatched in most other social activities. (Such a radically-skewed ratio reminds me of the film Paint your Wagon, which details, in a very fictionalized way, life during the Gold Rush with oodles of men and few women).

While boyfriends or husbands often accompany the participating women—so far as I can tell—the women’s presence is noticeable simply for what it does to the other men. They perk up. They’re aware of the women. And they’re often more deferential and complimentary to the women. In other words, they notice. And it doesn’t much matter whether the women are 10s, 7s, or even 4s (to use a gross measure of attractiveness employed by another University of Texas faculty member). When something desirable—the company of a woman—is rare, it becomes more valuable just because. [Read more...]


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