Why I Love Teaching Sociology of Religion

Today after my students in Sociology of Religion took their final exam, I headed to Starbucks to read their evaluations. Just in case I needed a stiff one to get me through their comments, I ordered a dark roast. And then the fun started.

Now in my 5th year teaching this class, many of the earlier critiques were gone and all that was left were compliments. I smiled and laughed a few times as I turned over page after page of 40 very nice evaluations–the adjectives used to describe me included “amazing”, “very energetic” and “knowledgeable.”

What was different this time around? I think I found the right balance of texts and assignments. Unlike other sociology classes I teach at UNC, students who come to this class are not (for the most part) sociology majors. Many are religious studies majors, some are in biology, and many in English. All come because they are curious about religion, but not necessarily sociology of religion.

So I start them off with difficult readings from Daniel Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion on Weber and Marx, along with Karen Fields’ introduction to Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life. I mix more contemporary readings for those weeks to show why those theories are still relevant. Then I have them go out and observe a religious service and apply one of those theories to what they observed.

Undergraduates are very skilled observers of the social world, and I always look forward to reading their observations about [Read more...]

Religiosity worldwide (map)

People often talk about how religious a country the United States is, and compared to many European countries this is the case.  The map below, based on Gallup data collected from 2006-2008, however, shows that there’s considerable variation in religiosity worldwide.  There are interesting patterns by wealth, type of religion, and continent.


Silence: Golden or Deafening?

My wife spent this past weekend on a silent retreat—her first. Despite what it sounds like, such retreats are not entirely silent, of course. There is spiritual direction, a variety of instruction, a book-on-CD playing during meals, and daily Mass. But you’re not expected to talk, to spend time networking, making or renewing friendships, or trying to seem interesting. It’s like the opposite of going to the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (and probably no shortage of Christian conferences, either). As a result, it can be quite disorienting at first. It’s as if you’re in a foreign place, because—in a very real way—you are. I went on one last June, with some hesitation and second thoughts, only to find it the finest few days I’d spent in a very long time.

Why is that? What is it about silence that intellectually attracts us, but in reality repulses us?

The 17th-century French mathematician, philosopher, and well-rounded intellectual Blaise Pascal—I think—observed that our miseries come from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room (I’ve misplaced my copy of the Pensées, so I can’t confirm this.) While that may be a stretch, Pascal was certainly onto something. The impulse to mitigate silence is not new. There are very few of us in this wired Western world who can truly relish unmolested quietness for more than, say, a few minutes. I work in a relatively-quiet office for hours a day, but it’s not the same. I’m working, plugged in, online, and available (but selectively responsive). Even when I’m alone at home, my tendency is to pull up a favorite Pandora station.

So while we are prone to fantasize about stealing a half-hour to just sit, or meditate, or pray—and complain about our inability to find or be afforded those minutes by a spouse or away from children—I suspect it’s often a fantasy, or a false front. We say that silence is golden, but live as if it’s deafening [Read more...]

The New Evangelicals?

Here’s an interesting article from yesterday’s New York Times.  It describes what it calls “New Evangelicals”… basically Evangelical Christians who value social justice.  Quoting Scot McKnight, it describes this group as follows:

“A sizable portion of evangelicals have left the right, so to speak, in what the theologian Scot McKnight called “the biggest change in the evangelical movement,” nothing less than the emergence of “a new kind of Christian social conscience.” These new evangelicals focus on economic justice, environmental protection and immigration reform — not exactly Republican strong points. The religious right remains a potent political force, but where once there was the appearance of an evangelical movement that sang out in one voice, there is now a robust polyphony.”

The article claims that 19% of the population fits into this category, but I think this number is way too high.  (They put into all evangelicals who don’t self-identify as the religious right).

Still, it’s interesting to see variation among Evangelicals and how this will play out in politics.

Thank you Ed Cyzewski

Non-Christian Asian Americans and Religious Tolerance

In earlier posts I’ve shown how difficult it is to get a good survey of religion among Asian Americans, and I’ve shown what we sort of know about the actual religious prevalence of this racial group. The one group I have neglected to mention are the religiously-affiliated non-Christians. In the following pie charts I illustrate data using the Pew Religious Landscape Survey 2008 of the estimated distribution of major world religions for the entire sample and within the Asian American sample. As you recall this was only translated into Spanish so, the Asian American findings pertain to those who are comfortable answering a survey over the phone in English. [Read more...]