Religion incongruence as the norm

Mark Chaves, of Duke sociology, has written this very interesting paper about what he calls religious congruence (or, more appropriately, religious incongruence).

He uses “‘religious congruence’ in three related senses: (1) individuals’ religious ideas constitute a tight, logically connected, integrated network of internally consistent beliefs and values; (2) religious and other practices and actions follow directly from those beliefs and values; and (3) the religious beliefs and values that individuals express in certain, mainly religious, contexts are consistently held and chronically accessible across contexts, situations, and life domains. In short, it can mean that religious ideas hang together, that religious beliefs and actions hang together, or that religious beliefs and values indicate stable and chronically accessible dispositions in people.”

He then makes the case that “people’s religious ideas and practices generally are fragmented, compartmentalized, loosely connected, unexamined, and context dependent. This is not a controversial claim; it’s established knowledge. But this established knowledge does not inform our research and thinking as centrally and deeply as it should.”

I like this article because it moves us away from holding up an ideal of religion as some tight, consistent scientific proposition, and it allows for a messier, richer understanding of it. In that sense, religion is much more like everything else in life than it is a scientific equation.

Thanks Jay!

More God, Less Crime… the website

In support of his new book, More God Less Crime, Byron Johnson, of Baylor, has put up a wonderful website about the relationship of religion and crime.

Years ago, an undergraduate student and I published a meta-analysis of this literature, and we found an overall negative correlation between religion on crime. (I.e., religious involvement and affiliation corresponded with less criminal behavior).  Our abstract:

Do religious beliefs and behaviors deter criminal behavior? The existing evidence surrounding the effect of religion on crime is varied, contested, and inconclusive, and currently no persuasive answer exists as to the empirical relationship between religion and crime. In this article, the authors address this controversial issue with a meta-analysis of 60 previous studies based on two questions: (1) What is the direction and magnitude of the effect of religion on crime? (2) Why have previous studies varied in their estimation of this effect? The results of the meta-analysis show that religious beliefs and behaviors exert a moderate deterrent effect on individuals’ criminal behavior. Furthermore, previous studies have systematically varied in their estimation of the religion-on-crime effect due to differences in both their conceptual and methodological approaches.

I haven’t done much in the area since, and clearly this book is the definitive statement on research on this area. (Also, it’s a great book-support site).

Check it out.

Growing up next to the Shakers

I was talking to a friend last night when he let drop a most interesting fact about his upbringing… he grew up in New Hampshire living next to a Shaker community.  While they numbered only in the thousands in their heyday, and there are only three left now (three people, not three thousand), they’ve left quite a mark on American culture.  In fact, the physical therapy place that I go to has a sign in their lobby “hands to work, heart to God,” which was a Shaker slogan.  Besides that, they are fascinating to study.

My friend stated that sometimes the Shakers are perceived as having been kind of nutty people who lived in beautiful houses with beautiful furniture, but he experiences were the reverse.  He thought their furniture was sparse and well-worn, but they were exceedingly loving and kind.  In fact, he referred to one of them, a Sister Alice, as one of the most loving people that he had ever met.

I show my sociology of religion class a documentary about the Shakers.  Here’s a clip from it.

 

Squirming at the movie “Fireproof”

The other night, I watched the movie Fireproof. It came out in 2008, and it’s a story of a fireman whose career is going well but his marriage is falling apart. The movie presents his feelings and efforts as he tries to save his marriage.

What makes this movie unique are its explicitly Christian messages. Specifically, at several points in the film a character presents the gospel message to another. Also, the film emphasizes the importance of marriage as a sacred bond, something important above and beyond the feelings of the moment.

I’m not much of a film critic, but I would say that in terms of production value, this movie is better than a Lifetime channel movie but not up to the standards of a big-budget Hollywood film. It stars former child-star Kirk Cameron, who did a credible job as the lead, and much—but not all—of the film was believable.

I woke up this morning thinking about several aspects of the film, or, more accurately, my reaction to it. The thing that surprised me the most was that I found myself a bit uncomfortable with the gospel-presentation scenes. It’s not that they were done badly nor did I disagree with their message in any way. Rather, I found myself cringing at how openly the movie presented the gospel. I watched it on the computer, and during those scenes I wanted to check my e-mail or read the newspaper headlines.

For whatever reason, whether it’s because of my being in academics, a less-religious part of the country, or whatever, I’ve inadvertently bought into a peculiar view of the appropriateness of talking about the gospel with other people. Namely, it’s violating a social norm—something not to be done.

As I experience it, the norm about talking about religious beliefs goes something like this. It’s okay to have your own beliefs, even to hold them strongly. It’s also okay to discreetly acknowledge your affiliation with a particular set of beliefs. However, if you’re going to talk about your religious beliefs openly, you should do so with someone who shares your beliefs. It’s probably not appropriate to talk about them with people who don’t already agree with them. As Stephen Carter wrote about it in The Culture of Disbelief, the message is that Christian faith should be kept almost as a hobby—fine if you do it at home, but don’t bring it into the public sphere.

My squirming at the gospel message in Fireproof may just reflect that I squirm at a lot of things, but I think it also results from me having partially bought into the “don’t ask, don’t tell” view of the Christian message.

Now, I realize that this can be taken too far the other direction, and people can become obnoxious bores with the gospel (or anything else for that matter), but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

So, I guess that my goal is to talk about my religious convictions as freely as I talk about other things that I care about or am thinking about, such as bicycling, gardening, or In-N-Out hamburgers (though, that last one may put me into obnoxious territory).

John Ortberg’s forward for Wright’s new book

John Ortberg, one of the best known Christian teachers and writers in the country, very kindly agreed to write a foreword for my book.  Here it is, he does a really nice job of capturing the essence of the book.  There’s just one problem, though.  He’s such a gifted writer, that I’m afraid that my own writing will suffer in comparison.  So, read the foreword, but then try to forget just how good it is.  ;-)

“The good news about bad news is that there is not nearly as much of it to go around as you might think.

The bad news about good news is that good news doesn’t tend to sell. Everybody wants to get good news from the doctor and their boss and their (choose one) therapist/stockbroker/fantasy football league commissioner. But it turns out that articles which indicate that the economy should run along OK or that rivers are relatively clean don’t tend to sell newspapers, which means they don’t tend to get writers promoted, which means they don’t tend to get written.

People go to conferences that warn about dire situations.

People buy books that say the world is falling apart.

Bad news has probably always had this pull. Paul Revere didn’t get famous by riding around saying: “The British stayed home. Go ahead and sleep in tomorrow.”

But living in the information age (or perhaps more accurately the Anxious Information Age), we seem to get bad news more often, on more channels, in high def.

For a variety of reasons, folks in the evangelical Christian community are often seem to have a particularly sharp appetite for bad news. Authors and speakers who can document that the younger generation is about to lose their faith, or that churches are about to lose their congregations, or that the nation is about to lose its soul, never seem to run short of listeners no matter how shaky their case may be.

The gravitational pull of bad news is a problem. Like the little boy who cried wolf, the purveyors of doom can eventually lose all credibility, so that when bad news really does happen no one is listening anymore.

But there is Good News.  Bradley Wright has written a terrific book.

The good news about this book is that it is not based on optimism. Its based on reality. It turns out that much of what gets repeated as bad news is often based on bad data. 90% of all statistics in the media are both negative and inaccurate. (I just made that up. But I’ll bet there’s a bias in that direction.)

Brad is an academician, a bona fide believer, and a highly engaging writer. He has a passion for all people—particular for people of faith—to think well and honor the life of the mind and treat statistics with discernment and not to chronically alarmist.

He wants to help us quit mistaking negativity with thoughtfulness.

He wants to help us stop mindlessly passing on pessimistic diagnoses that either neither helpful nor accurate.

He wants us to actually be aware of and celebrate good news that is spreading on multiple fronts.
–Crime is getting better (but we think its getting worse)
–we are working less and playing more (but we think we’re playing less and working more)
–Poverty is going down

Two thousand years ago, a book began to be widely read whose core was summarized as euaggelion—good news. Not dysaggelion.

We, of all people, should be able to recognize and celebrate and express gratitude wherever we find it.

For all good news is God’s good news. And to ignore it, hide it, minimize it, or distort it is neither mentally healthy nor spiritually sound.

So take a deep breath, turn the page, and get ready to be happy.”


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