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...]

Why Do Christians Leave the Faith? The Fundamental Importance of Apologetics

Part 1 in a series on deconversion.

Several colleagues and I recently finished a study of why Christians leave the faith, and we were surprised at what made a difference as well what didn’t seem to matter. In the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing our findings in a series of posts.

To start with, let me tell you how we conducted our study. We were interested in how people who left the faith—let’s call them deconverts—explained their actions; i.e., why did they think they left the faith. In order to do this, we found a website on-line in which former Christians post their “testimonials” about their religious history. We chose 50 of these testimonials and read, reread, and reread again each one and then we discussed them as a group. Our goal was to find themes in these deconversion narratives, and several themes did emerge.  From a methodological approach, in-depth studies of convenience samples, such as this, work well for generating explanations of a phenomenon, but they are not well-suited for testing them.  (I.e., low external validity).

Before going any further, however, let me point out different ways this type of work can be done. We examined what people said about their experience, pretty much taking it at face value that they were describing how they experienced their departure from Christianity. Another approach would be to deconstruct what they said, and not think about the content of their testimonials but rather to explore why they might have given the testimonial the way that they did. E.g., what was their underlying motive? Yet another approach would be to collect more data about deconverts and look for more “objective” correlates of leaving Christianity. This approach might look at age, educational experiences, life events, and so forth—seeking correlations with deconversion.

Each of these approaches has its strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately we need all of them to understand deconversion fully. As you read these posts, just keep in mind that we’re examining peoples’ own understanding of their experiences, which may be influenced by where they are placed in society as well as a desire to present themselves positively to the other members of the website. So, on to the data.

All told, we found four general explanations offered by these 50 people as to why they left Christianity.

The first explanation regards [Read more...]

Moving Forward the Science & Religion Debate

As a graduate student, I remember reading Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on Faith and Reason and reflecting on his claim that science, for all of its great advances, is insufficient by itself to answer questions about the meaning of life, questions better left to philosophy and theology. As he wrote, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” Reading Cardinal John Henry Newman’s book The Idea of a University communicated the same message: the intellectual life, the life of a student, a scientist or a university professor, is a search for truth, and all sincere search for truth leads us to God.

If faith and reason are like two wings of a bird, and if the pursuit of scientific knowledge can help us in our search to know God, then why do we read so much about religion and science being in conflict? As I often tell my students, public debates about many topics related to religion are dominated by extremes. As Rice sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund shows in her book Science Vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, two of the most outspoken intellectuals in the religion and science debate, Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins, do not fully represent the views of either non-religious or religious scientists.

[Read more...]