Thursday, July 26, 2007

Measuring the effect of Christianity

In my last post, I argued that comparing the moral behavior of Christians to members of other religions or the non-religiously affiliated is problematic. What comparisions should be made?

I would think that within-person change should be the most sensible way to approach, and this can take place at the individual or community level.

What happens when someone becomes a Christian? How do they change in the coming years? How do they not? Christianity should change the person in tangible, measurable ways.

This gets a little tricky to measure, though, because it's not random who becomes a Christian, so maybe people who would have been different anyway become Christians. Also, people always change anyway, e.g., with age, so we'd have to figure out how to control for that.

We can apply the same logic at the community level. What has happened, historically, when communities have converted to Christianity? Does the well-being of the community members change? The moral behavior? This is problematic for various reasons because it's probably not just the faith the changes but also exposure to different cultures and economic resources.

This approach, of comparing a person or group before and after Christianity seems promising.

For the sociologist... I'm somewhat new to the sociology of religion, so I don't know the literature that well, but are there such studies already conducted?

For the Christian... what do you think changes most rapidly with Christianity?


Earth Girl said...

I heard this story many years ago, but cannot attest to its truth. After the evangelist Billy Sunday, 1862-1935, held a meeting in a town, the crime rates dropped significantly. A newspaperman (they were always men back then) was skeptical of the long-term effects of Billy Sunday's preaching, so he did a follow-up study on the towns where he preached compared to those that he didn't visit and discovered that there were lasting changes in the communities that Sunday visited.

Knumb said...

As far as what changes the most rapidly with the Christian, I would think a lot of that would depend on the denomination that the person converts (in)to.

Scott Kemp said...

Perhaps one could look at countries or people groups that progressively embraced Christianity and compare crime rates, GNP (assuming that Christian business practices make for better business), patriotism, ... (I don't know what all) before, during (as the % of Christians in the society changed) and after.

Dan Myers said...

Interesting discussion, all. But I am plagued by one thing that hasn't seemed to have come up--although I may have missed it.

Why do we ask these questions? I'm not saying they shouldn't be asked, but I'm curious about the motivations that lead people to ask these questions. People surely have different reasons for asking them, and I'm not accusing anyone in particular of lousy motives, but there are politics in just about everything people do and its worth thinking about why we chose the questions we do--in research, in dialog with our friends, in blog entries and so on. I'm not someone who believe in value-free or value neutral science, especially when it comes to the selection of question, so I have to ask, what gives when we start asking about which religions are more moral than others?

Brad Wright said...

Excellent question, Dan.

For me I'm aware of frequent portrayals of Christians as not following Christian teachings, and so I address issues of Christian morality from this perspective.

BTW, these portrayals come from Christians as often as non-Christians.