When it comes to Death, we’re the Biggest Liars

I’ve always been the kind of person who reads the obituaries in the local newspaper. I don’t believe I have an unhealthy curiosity about death. I just think it registers and I pay attention to it. It could be that being a PK provided me with elevated exposure to the reality of death. And I lived for 12 years about 50 feet from a cemetery, next to the country church in Iowa that my father served from 1972-1984. It didn’t much bother me, except of course on those nights following a burial. (For the record, nothing ever happened.) Regardless of the exact etiology of it, I’m an obituary reader.

Obituaries often hide the cause of death, leaving readers to speculate (sometimes wildly) about the nature of the death and life of the deceased. And, to be honest, whether their own choices played a role in bringing about their death. As I get older, this part interests me more than it used to. Most of the time, we’ll never know. We say they “passed away,” as if death is typically painless and gentle. Hardly—having witnessed it twice. (Even my mother-in-law, God bless her, was telling a slightly different story about it within hours of my father-in-law’s death.) Now many people just say “passed,” as if they’re not even “away” at all. In the local newspaper yesterday, there were at least three references to passing away “peacefully” or “quietly.” While preferable no doubt for the dying and grieving, I’m not sure this is information for the public. Nor have I ever read of someone dying “painfully” or with considerable aggravation, even though it’s a safe bet that those occur with a great deal of regularity. Speaking of peaceful, suicides are sometimes subtly indicated by phrases like, “John is finally at peace.” (Is he? How would we know?)

So obituaries tend to lie, or at least harness the truth and run off with it. Sometimes they report that the deceased “never met a person he didn’t like.” (Obviously he didn’t get out much.) I recall a student here who died a few years ago in a car wreck; while his obituary spoke of [Read more...]

The distribution of mega-churches in the US (map)

Here’s an interesting map of where mega-churches are located in the U.S. There are 1,300 churches with at least 2,000 in weekly attendance.

Compare this map with a US population map

I was struck by how similar the maps look. I would have expected more regional differences.

The Top 11 from ’11: Religion Research Studies in Sociology

The new year is always a time for lists, all kinds of lists. So I decided to try a new list, and one that hopefully helps readers learn what sociology profs do with all these charts, graphs and theories when they don’t teach it or blog on it. I’m teaching a graduate seminar class on how to publish in sociology, a kind of reverse engineering of the basic “product” that academic sociologists are known for: the research article. To that end, and since it’s the beginning of the new year, I thought this might be a useful experiment to review how religion shows up in the top research journals in sociology.

Like any job that has products attached with it, some are better than others and this inevitably means there’s a ranking. Scientists of all stripes rely on auxiliary and neutral organizations like ISI Web of Knowledge (which is part of Thomson Reuters) to create databases that list the research journals where scholars get their work published. But what’s more these lists include formulas to determine which journals are “better” than others. One way to measure quality is by “impact” or the degree of influence that a journal has on other journals. Basically if more papers in journal A are cited in the references of journals B, C, and D, then that journal is said to have a greater impact. And therefore if you get published in a journal with a higher impact score, you and your research supposedly gained more visibility and consequently more prestige. You can see what the “Impact Factor” rankings look like in the Social Sciences Edition of the Journal Citation Reports (JCR) [access might be limited if you're not linked with a university library]

That said, I selected only the sociology journals and the JCR gives me 132 journals (that’s actually not a lot compared to other sciences but regardless, we read a lot of research papers). When we look at them by impact factor we get this list of “top 19” journals (as of January 2012): [Read more...]

Bowling alone… by preference

One of my favorite jokes goes like this: Two economists are looking at a fancy car.  One economist says “I’ve always wanted to buy that kind of car.”  The other economist says “no you haven’t.”

The point being that if we don’t do something that we say we want to do, sometimes we really don’t want to do it.  (Not always, of course).

I’ve been thinking about the concept of Mark Regnerus’ blog post earlier this week that mentioned how community life used to be stronger (Gemeinschaft if your playing along at home).

Countless times I’ve heard people lament that community ties aren’t as strong as they used to be, and it’s probably true.  Why it that the case?

At the heart of it, I think that we don’t have as strong a community ties because we don’t need to.  Many of the ties that we look back on fondly were there out of necessity.  There was no internet, so if people needed to communicate, they would call or stop by.  People had less money, so they would borrow more.  Women had less access to jobs, so they had more time to volunteer.  Etc…

Since about the mid-1990s, [Read more...]

Religion and Depression: Too Soon to Conclude about Asian-Americans

I read with great interest my colleague Jerry Park’s recent blog about Asian-American religion and depression. I am familiar with the database used, Add Health, and with the broader literature on religion and depression. Given my knowledge, I would caution against drawing strong conclusions from this study Asian-Americans youth who are religious are more  depressed.

First, as Park mentions, Christian religions generally require regular participation but Buddhist, Confucian and other Asian religions do not. For this reason, most studies of religion and mental health only look at Christians, so unless the measures of what it means to be religious take account of great differences between Christians and non-Christians, it is best to drop the non-Christians in the study.

Second, in this same study, only attending religious services, but not religious importance, made Asians more depressed (once self-esteem is controlled for). The two variables should be tested in the same model, which I suspect would erase any effect of religious participation on increasing Asian-American depression.

Third, as the study authors mention, Add Health only [Read more...]


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