Thursday, November 30, 2006

Divorce rates by religious affiliation I

(Post four of a series on Christian divorce rates)

Perhaps the best known series of sociological data is the General Social Survey (GSS), which contains data on religion and marital outcomes. Below I present the percentage of ever-married respondents who had ever divorced or were currently separated by religious affiliation and frequency of attendance.

Divorce rates by religious affiliation & attendance. General Social Survey, 2000, 2002, 2004 (N= 5,963)

58% Non-active Black Protestants
54% Non-active Evangelicals
51% No religious beliefs (e.g., atheists, agnostics)
48% Non-active other religions
48% All non-Christians
47% Active Black Protestants
42% All non-Christian religions
42% Non-active Mainline Protestants
41% All Christians
41% Non-active Catholics
39% Jewish
38% Active other religions
34% Active Evangelicals
32% Active Mainline Protestants
23% Active Catholics

Data from 1985 – 1999 show nearly identically religion-divorce patterns with an across-the-board increase in divorce rates. For these data.

Technical notes
The coding of the religious variable was taken from Steensland et al. (2000). Click here for full citation and description of coding.

“Active” was defined as attending church services about once a week or more often.

The GSS has various weighting variables for household composition and race oversampling. For simplicity sake, I have analyzed unweighted data, but others use weighted data.

I thank Christine Zozula for very-able research assistance. These analyses were informed by the work and advice of W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who is an expert in this area. Thank you!

These data are from a working draft. I think that they’ve been done correctly, but I could be wrong. Any mistakes, and they do happen on a somewhat regular basis, are mine, and I will correct them as they come to my attention. I welcome replications of these and all of my analyses. Let me know what you find.

Tomorrow: Divorce rates by religious affiliation II

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Christian divorce rates compared to whom?

(Post three of a series on Christian divorce rates)

In thinking about Christian divorce rates, the thing that we really want to know is if being Christian lowers peoples’ likelihood of divorce. This is a causality question, and it is surprisingly difficult to conclusively test with empirical data.

About the only way to definitively answer this question would be to take a large group of married people, randomly assign some to Christian practice, others to other belief systems, and then observe their comparative divorce rates over time. Obviously infeasible (as well as immoral and not approvable by IRB).

For situations like this, where experiments won't work, social scientists have developed many other research strategies, and I’ll be using one of the simplest ones--comparing mean levels across groups. The idea here is that we take one group, e.g., Christians, measure some aspect of them, e.g., divorce rates, and then compare them to another group, e.g., non-Christians.

The question now becomes who to compare to whom? In this context, three comparisons appear to be useful.

1) Christians versus people of no religious beliefs, e.g., atheists and agnostics. This gets at the effect of Christian faith versus having no faith at all.

2) Christians versus people of other religious beliefs, e.g., Muslims, Buddhists, etc…. This is the effect of Christian faith versus other faiths.

3) Active Christians, e.g., those who frequently attend church, versus inactive Christians. This is the effect of greater participation and, presumably, adherence to Christianity.

To be clear, these comparisons can *not* conclusively test if Christianity lowers divorce rates for reasons that I will discuss in a later post, but they are informative, instructive, and, as to be shown tomorrow, counter to prevailing wisdom.

Tomorrow: Divorce rates by religious affiliation I


(My posts this week are rather cognitive, so I thought I would add something more visceral... my strong feelings about UConn cheers).

There’s a lot to like about being here at UConn, but it does have one big shortcoming—stupid cheers. What happens in a ballgame when its gets very close and the home team needs support? The crowd stands up and spells the school’s name, actually not the entire name, just an abbreviation:


(Check it out:

Doesn’t this speak of institutional insecurity? As if we don’t think that anyone will know who we are, so we constantly remind them—sort of like someone always reintroducing themselves to others at a party.

This spelling would make sense if it was of the university's whole name because Connecticut isn’t the easiest state to spell. In fact, I was here for a couple of years before I got it right every time.

It actually gets worse. Some guy from the community (Big Red?) usually leads the cheers—spelling out the letters with his body--suggesting that the students might have trouble going at it alone.

Since UConn is the #1 public university in this part of the state, it’s high time that UConn students do better in this important matter.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Prevailing beliefs about Christian divorce rates

(Post two of a series on Christian divorce rates)

For several years now I have heard from various sources that Christians divorce at the same rates as non-Christians, and based on a non-scientific sample of several pastors & various websites, I think that is the prevailing, albeit saddening, wisdom.
This belief traces most directly to the work of George Barna--a researcher with a background in marketing and polling who collects data on various facets of Christianity. In what I think is his latest report on the topic, in 2004, Barna writes:

Although many Christian churches attempt to dissuade congregants from getting a divorce, the research confirmed a finding identified by Barna a decade ago (and further confirmed through tracking studies conducted each year since): born again Christians have the same likelihood of divorce as do non-Christians. Among married born again Christians, 35% have experienced a divorce. That figure is identical to the outcome among married adults who are not born again: 35%.

These and similar statistics produced by Barna have reverberated throughout Christianity, with commentators writing that they send "Christian leaders scrambling for answers" and leave believers "disturbed." Perhaps most prominently, Ron Sider, well-known Christian author, used these statistics for his "stinging jeremiad" (a great phrase, no?) against the Evangelical church in America for living "just like the rest of the world."

When I first heard of these statistics, I had trouble believing them because I was aware of how much emphasis the Christian church put on marriage. Surely this teaching and training had to have some effect? At a personal level, I count the instruction and support received from Christian friends as a major reason that I'm still married, and I've seen the same with others.

So, a few months ago I started looking at data on this issue. First, however, I had to figure out what type of comparisons should be made. That will be the topic of tomorrow's post, and then on Thursday I will start presenting data.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Jimmy Swaggart's picture

I just came across a very interesting line of discussion about one of my earlier posts--about why pastors not falling into scandal.

My first reaction was great pleasure that someone took my ideas seriously (this pleasure, I suppose, is why I chose academia). Then I realized that these pastors understand the issues much better than I.

What interested me most was a concern raised by one commenter about the picture I had posted of Jimmy Swaggart. I attached a photo of Jimmy Swaggart's famous crying-confession to my post, just because that video-capture is perhaps the best known image of recent church scandal.

The commenter pointed out, however, that this is highlighting Jimmy Swaggart's sin, and should we just let it go. Now, I'm not a big fan of Jimmy Swaggart, for various reasons, but the more general principle here is the danger of highlighting other peoples' wrongdoing. I know for a fact that I would not want people publicizing my sins (which, there are many people who could have a lot to say), so why do it to others--even famous people with famous sins.

Okay. I went ahead and changed the photo on the post & will keep an eye on that in the future. Point taken.

Statistics about Christianity

(Post one of a series on Christian divorce rates)

There is disconnection between the social statistics produced by academics studying religion and those of interest to pastors and everyday Christian practitioners.

Academics like to publish books and, especially, peer-reviewed journal articles. Three main journals devoted to the study of religion are Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Religious Studies Review, and Sociology of Religion (edited by my friend David Yamane), though occasional articles on religion appear in many social science journals. Most articles presenting statistics report multivariate analyses--equations of containing multiple predictor variables. Academics usually report their results in tables containing dozens of numbers measuring the effects of variables and estimated certainty of their effects (e.g., regression coefficients and standard errors).

The problem with this approach, though, is that most people outside of academia neither read these journals nor would they understand the statistics even if they did. (Sometimes I think the same holds true for those of us in academics, but that's another story...). To the extent that the everyday Christian cares about statistics, which understandably may not be much, they are interested in univariate or bivariate statistics. For example, what percentage of Christians believe “x” (sociologists frequently refer to a mysterious “x” when using a generic example—I’m not sure why not other letters). Or do more of this type of person, say Christian, experience “x” (there it is again) more than that type of person, say non-Christian.

It’s not that academics aren’t interested in simpler statistics, rather by training and rewards we gravitate toward more complex statistical analysis, and if we present uni- or bivariate statistics, we usually hide them in the recesses of our articles such that few will ever find them. Also, we probably couldn’t get our quantitative articles accepted for publication in good journals without multivariate analyses, so we make sure to emphasize them.

This gets at a potential value of blogs—as a place to share research information that either would never make it to peer-reviewed publication or, if on its way, is presented in a more consumer-friendly presentation.

As such, I would like to try using this blog to present on occasion statistical data that might be of interest to Christians. I’m starting with a series of posts about divorce rates among Christians, for I suspect that there is a lot of misunderstanding (and perhaps misinformation) about this topic.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

How much is a good blog?

Something that I enjoy in sociology (and of sociologists) is creating theories for everyday things.

As a great example, Notre Dame sociologist Dan Myers posted a wonderful definition of what constitutes a power ballad in rock music.

In getting this blog going, I've been thinking of how often I should post, and what the trade-off is between quality and quantity.

How often should one post to keep readers' interest? If it's once a month, the blog will feel stale. If it's once an hour, there will always be new material, the writer has to quit their job, family, etc... to keep it going. (Though some people manage multiple daily posts and appear to have an otherwise normal life; e.g., Scot McKnight). I think that there is a threshold effect of about once every day or two--enough so that most people checking it will find new material each time. Much less than that might signal waning interest by the writer, much more is more often than most people check blogs.

As for quality versus quantity--I could post frequently, but what about when I don't have anything to say? Is it better to have new, not very good material or to just not write anything? One way to think about this is to ask whether blog readers add or average the quality of postings in evaluating a blog? If adding, two good posts + one not so good post is slightly better, certainly not worse, than just two good posts. With averaging, two good posts + one not so good post is worse than just two good posts. I'm guessing that readers mainly average (once the above mentioned quantity-threshold effect is reached). To illustrate, I was reading a blog that had some lively posts, and then a post in which the writer spoke of going to a movie with the family and thinking it was okay but that another one was better. I had QWERTY embossed backwards on my forehead from having fallen asleep while reading that post, and I don't think that I've checked back since--not as a punishment, but more from having redefined the blog from that post.


Saturday, November 25, 2006

Cockroaches & students' critical thinking

One of my goals this semester has been to teach my students to critically evaluate the class content & my presentation of it. I've tried to do this in various ways, including, as mentioned in the previous post, by rewarding them (in a small manner) when they successfully challenge me.

I was reminded of how much influence that professors have over students' thinking (the power of the podium?), and the correspondingly great need to do the above, when I was teaching about cockroaches last week.

Robert Zajonc (1969) did a fun study demonstrating the social psychological principle of social facilitation--the idea that we perform better (or sometimes worse, and then it's social interference) when others are watching us. What made this study noteworthy was that he used cockroaches. He trained cockroaches to run down a clear tube toward a light (running toward the light, isn't this a basic principle of spiritual life), and he found that they ran faster when their fellow cockroaches were visible.

Well, I was drawing the set-up of the study on the class whiteboard, and in doing so I drew (badly) a cockroach that I referred to as "he." Then, commenting on my unnecessary use of gendered language, I joked that as we know, "all cockroaches are males," and went on with my lecture.

At the end of the class, one of the students remarked on the interesting fact that they had learned about cockroaches... it turns out that about half the class believed me that all cockroaches are male (which, I suppose is different than all males being cockroaches), and they thought that was really cool, though they wondered (as would I) how cockroaches procreate. One student was looking forward to sharing this interesting fact with his roommates.

Now, the students in this class are pretty bright, so the point of here isn't "oh those college students today!" Rather this story reminds me of how powerful is the role of teacher, and how we have to educate our students to be informed consumers of the knowledge that we and others give them. Not that all teachers are as confused about basic biology as I seem to be, but we all have our inaccuracies and biases that surely come through in our teaching.

I'm not sure how this fits with the pulpit, but it seems that it would. If a college professor has some authority, how much more someone reporting to speak for (or at least represent) God? Even the best-intentioned, most well-informed preacher will get it wrong sometimes, and so it seems important to explicitly teach those in the pews to think clearly about what's being told to them. How much, if at all, should this be done, and, if so, how? Certainly one can go too far and create a culture full of deconstruction and void of faith, so there is a balance here, but--having driven 14 hours yesterday (back from Thanksgiving in Indiana)--I can't get this line of thought much beyond the questions.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Teaching sociology: The power of small rewards

One place where I’ve successfully used small rewards is in teaching. My classes have probably 90% attendance + almost all of the students do the readings. Why? I would like to tell you it’s my magnetic personality, but in reality I’ve structured the course requirements so that this happens.

At the start of every class period, no matter how large the class, students write an essay about that week’s readings which, if successfully done, credits them with one point (out of a semester-total of one hundred). Not only do they do the readings, they make extra efforts to show up for class, and, somehow, they’ve gotten it into their mind that they like writing the essays. (Really!).

Well, I’ve done this since I started teaching, but this semester I’ve taken the power of small rewards to a new level, one involving handcuffs and chocolate. I’ve recently edited a text-reader for criminology classes, and at a conference one of my editors gave me some left-over promotional items for criminology textbooks including some thumbcuffs (think small handcuffs). They really work, with a key and everything. I put the thumbcuffs in my book bag and forgot about them.

I’ve always been a little frustrated with my inability to get my students to critically engage the materials and their unwillingness to challenge me or the ideas under consideration. (The modal student behavior is simply taking notes). So, on the first day of class, on the spur of the moment, I made an offer to my criminology class. If they could successfully challenge me or the material I would give them a shiny new pair of thumbcuffs. Now, you wouldn’t think this would make a difference, but they went for those thumbcuffs like, well, me going for fudge cookies. This semester I’ve had great participation, and the quality of comments is the highest ever. I end up giving out 2-3 thumbcuffs a lecture, and I’ve expanded the offer to reward comments integrating ideas across theories. I’ve also had to add chocolate as a reward for those who have already gotten a pair of thumbcuffs.

The only downside to this system: I eat a lot of the chocolate during office hours.

For additional essays on teaching sociology:

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Divorce week, coming soon...

No, I'm not getting a divorce (at least, not that I know of).

Instead, starting this coming Monday I will present thoughts & data about the widely-accepted belief that Christians have similar divorce rates as everyone else.

Is this real? Is this an urban myth? Stay tuned...

The power of small rewards

This afternoon some textbooks arrived from a publisher for me to consider using in my classes, which happens often, and in the box I made the most remarkable discovery—a package of really, really good fudge cookies (burp) and two bags of Starbucks coffee (along with the textbooks). I’ve received probably hundreds of such textbooks over the years and never once a gift. Wow! I felt like the luckiest person in the world, and the heretofore anonymous editor who sent them to me is now one of my favorite people.

I started thinking, in between bites, why this gift had such an impact on me. After all, I am ordering 330 copies of a textbook, and they go for at least $50, so this represents a $15,000+ order by little old me, and so I would expect book reps to be extra nice to me (which they are). As such, a simple $10 investment of coffee and cookies to make me notice this particular book is a very good investment. (And I would like to encourage this thinking to all book publishers who send me books).

Having just posted on cognitive dissonance, I was reminded of the famous $1-$20 study. In this experiment, subjects were given a mundane task to perform; some were paid $1 for their work and others were paid $20 (none knew what others received). Lo and behold, the recipients of $1 enjoyed doing the mundane task far more than those who received $20. Why? Cognitive dissonance theory explains that those in the $1 study had no good way of explaining their behavior. Certainly they did not do it for the money, but they did it anyway. Their answer? They decided they must have liked the task. Those in the $20 condition knew why they did the task… for the money and money alone. They viewed the task as undesirable from start to finish.

This is a counter-intuitive idea, that small rewards create a more favorable attitude change than large rewards (or no rewards), and it has broad implications for everything from raising children (don’t over-reward them) to selling books (send professors fudge cookies!).

Still being on a chocolate-high, I haven’t given much thought as to how this principle would apply to church life, but I saw something the other day at the church office that I think is in the right direction. The visitor-welcoming committee (which I think, being a small church, is also the pastoral staff) put together a gift pack for first-time visitors, including a water bottle, chocolate bar, and other things. (Unfortunately, existing members can’t quit and rejoin—that was my first question). Maybe visitors will like our church, maybe they won’t, but the little gift should make them feel more welcome than otherwise.

If ten dollars is worth spending for a book order, how much more for an eternity?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A photo caption contest!

I came across this photograph the other day, and I've been chuckling about it since. So, I'm going to have a contest to see who can come up with the best caption for it. The prize? I'll send the winner a quart of locally-made, 100% pure maple syrup. (Trust me, it is, as New Englanders say, wicked good).

Rules and regulations (from the legal department):
In keeping with the themes of this blog, captions with Christian or academic references will be favored
Post your captions as comments
The contest will end at an arbitrary time of my choosing and the winner announced on this blog
I'm the sole judge for the contest and I can not win, though my entry will be pretty good
I reserve the right to whine if I have to pay postage to send the syrup overseas.

To get things going, here's my entry:

"Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks? Come here, and I'll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field."

In praise of Chris Uggen

Preface: I started writing this last week, but before I could post it, Chris beat me to the punch by posting about me. No surprise, for as I write below, he is ahead of the curve in many things and to that we can add friendship.

Blog postings take various tones--clever, snarky (isn’t that a great word), trivial, self-absorbed, informative, etc…. Here I like to do something that I don’t see enough of, and that is being laudatory, and so I’m starting a series of posts, “In praise of…,” in which I highlight people who are doing something very right. I start with the sociologist Chris Uggen. Chris and I were officemates and buddies in graduate school, and so this post could be thought of as a fan letter to a friend.

Here’s a story to set the stage. In my first year of graduate school, a group of faculty and graduate students were drinking beer on the University of Wisconsin terrace. (Why go to grad school anywhere else?). I was a little late, and when I got there one of the senior graduate students told me that they had agreed that Chris and I were two of the brightest students in the sociology program—Chris for his intelligence and me for the clothes that I wore.

Chris has lived up to expectations by becoming one of the best young sociologists in the country. Chris has:
- Published scores of articles in the best journals, articles that have redefined our understanding of crime and its consequences.
- Contributed to public policy debates in a humane, thoughtful, and effective manner. He’s is becoming a true public intellectual.
- Trained a host of outstanding graduate students (he also trained Michael Massoglia) who have or will go on to successful careers themselves.
- Become a popular undergraduate teacher. (To read students’ comments about faculty members, see here or here).

In addition, he serves as department head, he daily writes on his blog--one of the most informative and entertaining ones on the web, he runs marathons, and he’s a loyal, active family man.

Various theories have been floated as to how he gets so much done. Perhaps he never sleeps (his claim), or maybe a pair of twins or triplets masquerade as one person. Personally, I think that a group of criminal masterminds long ago chose him, an otherwise unemployable, slightly-innocent looking kid from the Midwest, as a front for spreading their dangerous ideas (e.g., felons having the right to vote).

I’ve learned tons from him about the process and content of sociology, and he continues to influence me. I am switching to the study of religion in part because having seen his amazing work with criminology, I have realized that I will never excel until I too follow my passions. Even blogging, I borrowed the look and, to some extent the sound, of Chris’ blog (though for some reason my “hit counter” is 100,000 less than his).

So, here’s to you Chris… well done!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Fear and loathing in the local schools

A front page story in yesterday's paper told of public school officials here in Mansfield, Connecticut (population about 20,000) conducting a security audit of the three elementary schools & the one middle school, and they are thinking of installing cameras or buzzers at the entrances of the schools. (The high school is run by a different jurisdiction). Why? "'It's unfortunate what we're faced with,' said one official, stating that the world is a much different place than it used to be." School officials pointed to school shooting earlier this year in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Wisconsin.

This kind of thinking plain wrong and it's harmful, and it's not limited to Mansfield.

Here are some facts.

According to the CDC, 6,755 children aged 5-14 died in 2004. Given that there are over 20,000,000 children (for a cool graphic) in that age range in the United States, that alone tells us that children lead, on average, pretty safe lives.

What do children die of? From the same data: Motor vehicle accidents are the number #1 killer (24% of the deaths), followed by cancer (15%), other accidents (15%), congenital malformities (6%), and suicides (4%). There were 385 homicides (6%), but only 39 of them took place at schools or on the way to or from school.

As such, students are about ten times more to be killed outside of school than within school. Do you want to keep your children safe? Send them to school!

So, our town wants to spend money to prevent something that happens annually to around 1 in one-half million children (40 / 200,000,000).

Certainly any killing of a child is a tragedy, so does that mean we should try to prevent it happening no matter how long the odds? Well, there are about 1,400 children in Mansfield elementary schools which means that we can expect, on average, one homicide in school or on the way to school about every four centuries (500,000/1,400).

Trying to prevent this every-few centuries event is problematic because any remedy programs will have their own costs. These rememdies have opportunity costs. Money spent on increased school security could be spent on educational needs, such as books, teachers, classrooms. It could also be spent on real safety issues, such as preventing motor vehicle accidents, drownings, or suicides.

They also have direct costs. The fear that they create results in social, psychological, and physical harm (e.g., isolation, nervousness, and high blood pressure).

As the Barry Glassner writes, it's not that we shouldn't be afraid, it's just that we're afraid of the wrong things.

I would much rather spend the money on books, teachers, and things with real benefits.

Friday, November 17, 2006

What should we do about Mark Driscoll--a cussing, hot-tempered, chauvinistic pastor?

Next to Ted Haggard, Mars Hill in Seattle might be the most discussed pastor in the blogosphere, with critics writing open letters and planning protests at his church. (For those not familiar with him.) He is accused of being foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, and, due to his belief in traditional gender roles, anti-women. (For a review of the discussion). What should we Christians do about him?

As background, I’ve listened to and read some of Mark Driscoll’s materials, but I’ve never met him nor attended his church. I am a sociologist and not a theologian, so I won’t engage the moral rightness (or wrongness) of his attitudes and behaviors. Myself, I value egalitarianism for women, both within and without the church, and am uninterested in gender-based hierarchy.

With this in mind, I would like to offer three observations about the Church’s expectations of its leaders and their wrongdoings.

First, we expect pastors to acknowledge their own sinfulness, but we’re somewhat picky in how they do so. We prefer that they refer to sin only at a general, theological level. E.g., “All have sinned, and so have I.” Openness about specific sins should never happen, or, if it does, only in the context of recounting long ago deliverance.

Second, under no circumstances should we directly observe or learn of sins. Pastors can mention having a problem with anger, but we must never see them lose their temper. They can refer to foul language, but we must never hear them curse. They can lament struggling with their flesh, but we must not know that they looked at . They can want to love more, but we must never witness them disrespecting someone.

Third, the more accomplished the pastor, the more rigorously these first two principles are applied. A pastor of a small, stagnant church can say and think all sorts of things, and most Christians, aside from the few who sit in the church’s pews, would not care. If, however, the pastor has done a lot of good—saving the lost, raising disciples, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor—we insist on them displaying little if any wrong. (As a side note, this reverses the concept of social capital—which holds that the more “good” one has done the more “bad” one is allowed to get away with.)

These observations fit with Mark Driscoll. By all accounts he’s done remarkable things with Mars Hill in Seattle, touching tens of thousands of people and planting over a hundred churches. Wow! What Christian wouldn’t want this? He also appears to be rather foul mouthed, often angry, and sometimes mean. His attitudes toward women can be accurately described as chauvinistic. (Some critics favor “misogynistic”—a term far too strong, like campus liberals routinely referring to conservative pundits as “Hitler”.) For his sins, Mark Driscoll has been soundly criticized by fellow Christians.

Here’s my take on the above. Social psychologists have found that people are very fond of what is termed “cognitive consistency.” The idea here is that we want attitudes toward an object to fit together, and so if we like one aspect of somebody or something, we want to like all aspects. Same with disliking. We experience tension-- “cognitive dissonance”--when we have contradictory attitudes toward the same object, and we’re motivated to reduce this tension by aligning our attitudes to all positive or all negative. As applied here, the more aware we are of good done by high profile pastors, the less accepting we become of any wrong.

All of this results in our needing to have overly consistent thoughts of high-profile Christians, and this need, with its resulting intolerance of wrongdoing, might give insight into those who have fallen from grace. Imagine if, before his recent misconduct, Ted Haggard confessed to his church that, though successful in avoiding it, he sometimes wanted to with men. How long would it take for him to be kicked out of the pulpit? About a minute, just long enough for people to make sure that they had heard him correctly. This intolerance produces an environment with little room for pastors to discuss wrongdoing, let alone admit to it. The resulting double-life has predictable, tragic consequences.

Back to the question of what to do about Mark Driscoll. Based on the above, I would recommend the following:

Celebrate the amazing work that God has done through him.

Take a few seconds to wish that he weren’t such a damn angry chauvinist (perhaps foul language is contagious?).

Spend the rest of the day… and all day tomorrow and the next day and the next asking what we should do about ourselves. How can we be more loving, faithful, kind, pure, holy, and just?
For more essays about church life:

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Students say the funny things

In my smaller classes, I have students write research papers in the format of a journal article. For the methods section, I instruct them to describe in great detail how they conducted their research such that someone else could come along and replicate the study. I also have them revise their paper.

Here's an extract from one student's first draft:

"As I sat comfortably in my University of Connecticut provided, slightly rocking/slightly not rocking, highly furnished armless wooden chair, I read..."

Now, this paper obviously has plenty of detail but most didn't, so after the first draft I reminded the class to give more detail in their methods section. In response, this student wrote:

"As I sat comfortably in my University of Connecticut provided, slightly rocking/slightly not rocking, highly furnished armless pine wooden chair, I read..."

Is there a typing symbol for very good satire?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Blink and the need for Christian evaluation

Flying across the country last week, I did what many people do, at least judging by the offerings of airport newsstands—read a book by Malcolm Gladwell. I'm a fan of his writing because he finds really cool social science studies, organizes them toward a larger theme, writes well, and, even though he has the name of a British pensioner, he's a hip young guy with great hair.

His book Blink claims to show how to make great decisions based on intuition--“the power of thinking without thinking.” However, I would recast the theme of his book as pointing toward the importance of empirical verification.

Here’s why:

At first glance, Blink might seem to tell us that we can make great, intuitive judgments in an instant, like the introductory story of art historians knowing at first glance that a statue is a fake. But… it turns out that we need to have some basis in expertise to make accurate intuitive judgments. For example, Gladwell himself failed to accurately judge married couples' interactions when he did not have the pscyhologist Gottman's information developed from years of study.

So then we might think that we might have proper intuition in areas in which we are experts, but this still doesn't go far enough because, as Gladwell convincingly argues, the assumptions of experts are often wrong. For example, he tells the story of a music conductor wrongly rejecting women in orchestra tryouts because he believed that women were inherently incapable of playing some instruments well. Certainly the conductor was an expert, but his “intuitive” judgment was dead wrong, as discovered when women were chosen at anonymous, screened try-outs.

What, then, makes for good intuitive judgments? Blink suggests that they happen when we have developed (or borrowed) expertise rooted in empirical verification. So, the psychologist John Gottman; can accurately predict marital futures simply by observing couples’ interactions because he has statistically examined which factors indeed matter. An art historian spends years examining a museum collection with a European expert, and after that he can spot . A research subject loses more money using strategy “A” rather than “B”, but after enough trials they intuitively “know” this.

The answer, then, is empirically-based intuition.

This raises interesting questions for Christians. In our belief system, some of the decisions we make are of the utmost importance, so we should be motivated to make good ones. For example, a church leader developing a new program, a pastor writing a sermon, or an individual studying the bible. Nonetheless, there is little tradition of using empirical evaluation to guide this type of decision making--somehow doing so seems “unspiritual.”

The message of Blink suggests that we may not be able to make consistently good decisions without doing empirical work as well.
For additional essays about church life:

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A montage

Some things are so right, of such beauty that we can but celebrate them...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Why do some pastors not fall into scandal?

With Ted Haggard's drama playing out this last week, I got to thinking about why some pastors fall into scandal and some don't.

In criminology, most theories of crime explain why people become criminals, whether it be due to genetic, environment, or societal reasons. One type of theories, however, take the opposite approach. Social control theories assume that all individuals are prone to crime, and they seek to explain why do some individuals do not engage in crime.

I wonder if discussions of pastoral morality would benefit from type of thinking. Rather than assume that pastors will have no serious moral problems unless there is something "wrong" with them, why not assume that all pastors are headed toward scandal and then ask what can be done to avoid it? This is not an unreasonable assumption when we consider that most pastors are also people (and all have fallen) plus the distinct likelihood of spiritual warfare.
It appears that most churches do little, if anything, to buttress their pastor's morality & then are shocked, disappointed, hurt, etc... when they discover immorality. A change of thinking would have several benefits.

1) It would cast the church as more proactive in and responsible for protecting their pastors. If a pastor falls, it's then a community shortcoming rather than just a degenerate individual.

2) It would point to the need of developing procedures, programs, and evaluations that would monitor and guide pastors.

3) It would take away any stigma of pastors participating in such preventive efforts, since they are applied to all by assumption rather than a few for rehabilitation.
For additional essays on church life:

My moral oscillation

Last week a good friend phoned me, and in the course of our conversation I learned that a mutual acquaintance, also a professor, was involved in a questionable behavior—one perhaps immoral, probably unethical, and certainly a bad idea. In talking and thinking about the situation, I was struck by my very mixed reaction to it.

I felt:

Judgment, “what an idiot,” and empathy, “poor guy, he must really be hurting.”

Prurience, “I would like to do that,” and shame, “I can’t believe I’m thinking this.”

Fear, “what if that happens to me,” and gratitude, “there but by the grace of God go I.”

Pride, “I would never do that,” and humility, “Father, please keep me out of it.”

I pretty much bounced back and forth between these reactions throughout the conversation. This moral oscillation is pretty typical for me and other Christians that I know, and perhaps it more accurately describes Christian morality than either A) “sinner” or B) “saint.” Sort of C) “all the above,” and we’re trying to spend more time in right (re)actions, less time in wrong reactions, and being honest about both.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

An element of irony

I like emoticons :-) and anything else that clarifies an author’s intent (LOL). Here then is my contribution:

Irony (Fe).

Now I just need to think up one for facetiousness…

Hey, hypocrite!

The other day I came across a picture of a UConn student with several of her friends--smiling with drinks in their hands and arms around each other captioned "me and my bitches." That got me to thinking about the use of derogatory terms within groups. In a similar manner, racial or ethnic minorities can use racial slurs, and gays use homophobic language.

Why does this happen? This use of derogatory terms serves a purpose. It brings group members together by reminding them of external hostility. It also weakens these terms, and the concepts they represent, ironically overusing them. Note, however, this doesn't work for members of majority or powerful groups. Rich white males calling each other "oppressors of the masses" or "whitey" would be awkward.

Christians are a minority in academia, and so perhaps we too would benefit from the use of such labels. Here are some possibilities:

Hey, you mindless dogmatist. This gets at the heart of stereotypes about Christians, thoughtless and judgmental, but it is clunky sounding--like a slogan from the Cultural Revolution.

Hey, apostate. This may be my favorite, being a good old-fashioned religious term with dark, judgmental connotations. (Think Inquisition). But, it is not a widely known term, so it may be too much of an inside joke.

Hey, hypocrite. This is a winner! Alliteration, and it works on multiple levels. It is a matter of faith (Fe) among many that Christians are hypocrites (especially Christians who in any way take their faith seriously). In addition, this is a theologically accurate label. We all fall short of the mark which is why many of us turn to Jesus--for grace. The stereotype, as such, has things backwards. It's not that we're hypocrites because we're Christians, rather we're Christians because we're hypocrites.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Culture of Fear & Christianity

One of my favorite books in sociology is the Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner. His argument goes like this: Various social institutions have incentive to make us afraid. So, by overstating and even sensationalizing dangers, a news channel can get more viewers, a company can sell more safety-related products, a politician can get more votes, and so forth.

I wonder if a similar process happens in Christianity. Here, though, the fear is not any fear, like planes crashing or cancer, but rather moral fear. What got me thinking about this is Ron Sider's award winning book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. He starts his book with various statistics that suggest that Christians are no different in moral behaviors than anybody else, and so... we need to follow his prescriptions for how to be different. More generally, Christian authors and speakers have incentive to use moral fear to motivate the importance of their message/program/book. So, Christian children today are worse than ever/ the United States has turned away from Christian values/ Christians are no different than others, therefore listen to my message/ sign up for my program/ attend our church, read my book, and you'll be safe from this pervasive danger.

Well, there are a couple of problems with this approach.

First off, I'm pretty sure that the data usually given to support these fears are inaccurate. For example, with Sider's book, I'm starting to poke around with some data sets, so far what I've analyzed suggests that he's dead wrong--Christians are different, but I'll write more about that another day.

Second, it promotes a sense of futility about Christianity. If Christianity is so ineffective that it makes no difference in the lives of its adherents, one has to ask "why bother?" Now, maybe the particular message/program/book in question will make all the difference, but it's hard to accept the fear message and not feel disheartened.

Third, the main effect of fear messages is--no surprise--fear. If we hear these messages enough, than we will be afraid of all sorts of things, and this will push us toward withdrawing from anything that makes us afraid, which, if it's everything, than we become quite isolated, engaged solely with the message/program/church/book that will "save" us from whatever moral fear. To paraphrase the Christian singer Steve Taylor, we'll get to the point were we'll want to drink milk only from Christian cows.

What, then, should we do? There's lots that could be said about this, but for starters, we can be cautious of moral-fear appeals, and, eventually, come up with clear, accurate description of the moral behavior and dangers of Christians.
For additional essays on church life:

Hang gliding

Well, after a brief two decades of thinking about it, I finally got around to learning to hang glide this summer. It enthralls me. When I was in Los Angeles last week, my brother and I went hang gliding, and I had my first big solo, from 2,300 feet. Below are some media from the event.

The last 2 minutes of the flight (it was about 15 minutes long):

The launch site (that's another pilot):

My brother on his first tandem (with instructor):

My brother and me (he's the handsome, well-to-do guy on the right):

Teaching sociology: Ongoing classroom evaluation

When I arrived here at UConn, during the depression back in the 1930s, I didn't have much teaching experience and my teaching evals showed it. Then I got more comfortable and practiced, and my evals got above average, but still nothing to write home about. Last year, however, I implemented a trick that I learned from our Institute for Teaching and Learning, and my evals have skyrocketed to silly-high levels.

What is this super secret weapon for teaching success?

A one-page evaluation form that I hand out each class. It goes like this:

Sociology 216, Feedback Form (Anonymous)

What worked well in today's class?

What could be improved?

Any questions or comments?

Now, with big classes, I'll give this out to about 10% the class each period, rotating which students I give it to, and then they hand it in at the end of the class.

Why does this work?

Well, I'm going to get the feedback sometime anyway, whether now or at the end of the semester on my formal evals. Why not now when I can address the issues?

The feedback I get is practical & thoughtful. The students genuinely want to be helpful, and there is almost never inappropriate comments (though they do like to weigh in on my habit of teaching barefoot--hey, what can I say? I grew up in California).

The feedback is also remarkably consistent in that the "worked well" and "could be improved" comments agree across students. Furthermore, this is where I pick up things that could become a problem (think canary in coal mine) plus when things accidentally work really well, and I'll want to use them for next time.

For additional essays on teaching sociology:

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Why blog?

I'm somewhat skeptical about the value of blogs, for most read like bad Christmas form letters--many too many uninteresting personal details--with a layer of self-help added on (though, honestly, I'm not sure that I'll do much differently).

This blog represents a sea change for me, a coming out of sorts. For quite awhile now I've been both a Christian and a sociologist but have kept the two mostly separate. With tenure and sabbatic leave behind me, I think that I have the confidence and the motivation to "come out" in academia with my faith and move toward integrating it with my career as a social scientist.

Where will this lead? I'm not sure. I am switching my research agenda to the sociology of Christianity and am currently working on several such projects. I also find myself wanting to use sociology to benefit other Christians.

Blogging, hopefully, gives me a chance to sound out, and perhaps get feedback on, ideas either not yet or never ready for publication. Besides, I might have a little fun.