Thursday, July 31, 2008

ASA meetings

I'm off to the Sociology meetings this weekend, so I probably won't post again till next week. Here's my take on meetings: 90% of them are boring and useless, 10% is invaluable, and you don't know ahead of time which are which, so you need to go to a lot of things.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Stuff Christians Like

If you haven't read it already, I recommend that you check out the blog "Stuff Christians Like." It's hilarious and insightful. Lots of good-natured cultural commentary about American Christianity.

Here's the author's motivation for writing it...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

An funny, bad statistic in SI

I was reading an article in Sports Illustrated when I came across a statistic that was so bad, I thought the author was kidding. But... he wasn't.

The article, on p. 38 of the 7/28 issue, presents a survey of baseball executives in which they were asked which player in baseball would they want to build a team around. Fair enough.

In summarizing the stats, the author writes that "the panel's preference for up-the-middle offensive players was evident: 42 of the 100 votes went to shortstops, second baseman, catchers, and centerfielders."

Let's see, if teams average 9.5 positions (half have designated hitters), then we would expect that if positions were drawn by random, then 4/9.5 would be up the middle. This works out to... 42%. Wow!

It reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon:

Monday, July 28, 2008

Trip to Fresno

I spend last week in Fresno clearing out my parents house. Here's my summary of that trip, by the numbers:

1 house, completely empty
1 giant dumpster filled with stuff
2 trips to In-N-Out
2 great meals at Mexican restaurants
5.5 days spent packing, tossing, sorting
30 years that my family lived in that house
50 boxes sent to family members
100s of people at the moving sale... looked like we were being looted
Many, many times I said or thought "wow, there's a lot of stuff" or words to that effect

I'm ready to be a stay-at-home professor again.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Jewish norms and tattoos

Here's a story that illustrates the difficulty of matching timeless religious customs with current fads. Apparently Jewish law was thought to forbid tattoos but now it's thought to allow them. Not that I am one or have the other...

(Thanks David)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Evangelicals in academia

Here's an interesting article about Evangelicals in elite academic institutions. It turns out that an increasingly high number of evangelical students are going to top universities.

It sets the scene as follows:

"On campuses across the country, evangelicalism is rebounding. Evangelical students make up larger and larger portions of the incoming classes at Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. They join robust campus-ministry groups that sponsor everything from debates to spring-break "mission" trips. And while they still fall slightly below the national average, the percentage of evangelicals receiving bachelor's degrees has climbed 133 percent from 1976 to 2004, according to the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Corporation, more than doubling the change within the general population.

Nowhere has this phenomenon been more evident than on America's top campuses. In 2003, Peter Gomes, the Pusey Minister at Harvard's Memorial Church, said, "There are probably more evangelicals [on Harvard[']s campus today] than at any time since the 17th century."

Thanks for the link, Mark!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Flying to Fresno

I fly to Fresno, California ("The Big Raisin) today, and I took a 6:30 am flight which means that I'll arrive at noon. The problem with this flight, of course, is that I have to get up at 3:30 am to catch it. I was wondering why in the world I would schedule such an early flight, and then it hit me:

The flight gets me to Fresno in time to eat lunch at In-N-Out hamburger.


Monday, July 21, 2008

Review of UnChristian: Should research on Christianity be primarily useful or accurate?

(Part 13 in a series)

I think I'll wrap up this series today, and I want to use this post to raise an issue that I have been mulling over for awhile now. What is the purpose of applied research on Christianity? Is it first and foremost to be useful or is it to be accurate?

In giving the backstory to writing UnChristian, the authors recount Gabe Lyons initial interest in pursuing this project. As told on page 13, Lyons writes that before the project, he believed that the "image young people have of the Christian faith is in real trouble." These perceptions are "incredibly negative."

Fastforward: Kinnamon and Lyons collect a bunch of data and conclude that, lo and behold, young hold a series of negative images of Christians. They use these data to prompt the church and its members to do better on various counts.

Frankly, I'm a little suspicious of someone "knowing" the answer to their research question before they even collect data, and then finding data the confirm their expectations. That almost never happens to me, for I am constantly surprised by what I find. Suppose that's why I'm in the business.

As such, the emphasis of UnChristian is using data to illustrate ideas already held by the authors, and using these data to bring about useful change. Emphasis is on useful.

What about another approach. Say Lyons started out with the question, rather than answer, of whether Christians have an image problem. If so, this empirical agnosticism might have lead UnChristian to a different survey with a different conclusion--one perhaps more in line with existing research literature. Emphasis is on accuracy.

Obviously we would like both useful and accuracy, but if we had to let one go, which would it be?

I can understand why people want to emphasize the useful. Why not use statistics, as well as anything else we can find, to advance the Kingdom?

And yet... if we're not 100% accurate in our creation or use of research, then that starts to eat away at the credibility of our work.

(This is not to imply that UnChristian is not accurate or that its authors do not care about accuracy, rather its a difference in emphasis.)

Here's an example of how this might play out. Suppose an author is concerned about Christians having some moral problem. S/he then finds all the statistics consistent with this "problem" hypothesis, ignoring ones that might contradict it. The end result: A skewed presentation of who the world works, but a presentation designed to get Christians to do the right thing.

I suppose this issue revolves around questions of the ends justifying the means. I would even say that some of the egregious misuse of statistics about Christianity are done with the best of intentions. Here's an example, and here's another one.

Me, I want to go wherever the data lead me, though I realize that I have my own biases and limitations that can get into the way. Ultimately, if it is truth we're after, cutting corners on our means of getting there isn't going to help.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Intellectuals' stereotypes of Evangelicals

From an article on

"For decades, Boston University sociologist Peter Berger says, American intellectuals have looked down on evangelicals.

Evangelicals say people often see them as Bible-banging, evolution-hating caricatures.

Educated people have the notion that evangelicals are "barefoot people of Tobacco Road who, I don't know, sleep with their sisters or something," Berger says.

It's time that attitude changed, he says.

"That was probably never correct, but it's totally false now and I think the image should be corrected," Berger said in a recent interview.

Now, his university's Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs is leading a two-year project that explores an "evangelical intelligentsia" which Berger says is growing and needs to be better understood, given the large numbers of evangelicals and their influence."

Sounds like an interesting study...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Routed by a generation gap

Gus is spending several weeks on a backwater canoe trip, but before he left we had one of those father-son conversations that, well, makes me feel old.

He asked me what a router is, and I smiled, happy to impart some of my woodworking wisdom. I don't do so much anymore, but I used to do woodworking as a hobby, so I explained to him what a router does. Basically, it hollows out a piece of wood.

About 2 or 3 minutes into the explanation, he looked at me really funny and said, "no Dad, like a computer router." Oops... I had no idea.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Blue laws and church attendance

A recent study found that church attendance dropped when states repealed blue laws that prohibited liquor sales on Sundays.

Maybe they were just showing up for the communion wine?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Serenity prayer revised

A new prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept other people taking credit for my work.

(Thanks for the link, David)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Review of UnChristian: Evangelicals embrace of negative stereotypes

(Part 12 of a series)

Negative group stereotypes are a sad fact of life.

Pick any group, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, English, French, Arabs, men, women, gays, Southerners, and you'll find some negative stereotype. They are criminal, dishonest, dirty, ditsy, drunkards, immoral, unintelligent, greedy, rude, scheming, or have bad teeth. (For decorum, I am not matching the stereotype to the group).

Certainly Christians have negative stereotypes about them, and that's one way of thinking about the book UnChristian--a catalog of stereotypes of Christians. These stereotypes include being hypocritical, judgmental, anti-gay, sheltered, and too political.

What's interesting is how the Christian church responds to these stereotypes (as well as to other negative characterizations). We seem to embrace them--see it as a prompting for us to do better. This is the tone of UnChristian--that these stereotypes harm the work of the church, so the church should act better to avoid the stereotypes and thus be more effective.

The problem with this approach is that there will always be negative stereotypes about the Christian church (as well as other religions and probably any other large group). Sorry, stereotypes happen, and if they aren't these seven, they'll be another seven.

Another problem with this approach is a disconnect between reality and stereotype. For example, no matter how well girls do at math, they are thought of as less inclined at math. If statistics came out today indicating that girls score higher on math (and these stats probably exist), it wouldn't change the stereotype.

As such, changing behavior to change stereotypes seems to be an unhelpful approach for the Christian church--especially since we have no idea if the stereotypes themselves are accurate.

It remains curious, however, that we embrace these stereotypes. Go tell some group that society thinks they are criminals, and that group will be outraged at the unfair characterization--rather than tell its members to be more lawful to avoid the stereotype.

In a way, Evangelicals response to negative characterizations is akin to medieval flagellantism--accepting the painful as a way of increasing godliness. If nothing else, we sure seem to like bad news about ourselves.

Part 13 in the series.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

My sister, acclaimed gardener

A story about my sister Susan's gardening. She's doing a community garden this year, and she is growing heirloom everything.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Dancing around the world (video)

A very joyful, rather goofy video...

Sadly, despite his just being "silly" with his his dancing, he still dances substantially better than I do.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Brad Wilcox on religion and men in the family

Brad Wilcox, sociologist at the University of Virginia, studies religion and the family. He recently published this research summary in which he asks:

"Is there any evidence that religion is playing a role in encouraging a strong family orientation among contemporary American men?"

His answer is yes. He found that religion associated with happier marriages, fewer out-of-wedlock births, and more involvement in kids' lives.

I believe these are cross-sectional data, so these analyses leave open questions of causality, but they are encouraging for those who think that involvement in Christianity leads to good things.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Evangelicals as misunderstood?

An interesting, and useful quote, from D. Michael Lindsay:

"Evangelicals are the most discussed but least understood group in American society. Observers often assume that they are in lockstep with the Republican Party, but the sociologist Christian Smith has shown that 70 percent of evangelicals do not identify with the religious right.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The power of surveys

I received the following communication in response to a blog post from some time ago:

"Having met many many evangelical pastors, and knowing the high rate of evangelical divorce, and knowing how many of the pastors now, most of them wrongfully counsel divorce, I next had rightfully concluded that most evangelical pastors are sex maniacs, also confirmed in the light that 70 percent of them in reliable survey had admitted to having committed adultery" (emphasis mine).

My point is not to give this person a bad time but rather to point out how we use survey references as a marker of what is really true. Simply saying that most pastors have affairs (which, by the way, is something that I sincerely doubt) is not that believable, but saying that this information comes from a survey somehow makes it seem more creditable.

Tired of having regular old opinions? Say that you get them from a survey--that will get you listened to!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Review of UnChristian: Age vs. cohort effects

(Part 11 in a series)

Today's topic isn't so much a critique as a clarification of issues. It seems that a common source of panic among Christians is the idea that we're losing the young people, with the implication being that soon there will be no church.

Other writing by Christians have put a lot more emphasis on this issue (for example), though it is a subtext of UnChristian--if young, outsiders think ill of Christians, and they are growing in number, what then is to become of the church? For example, on p. 18, UnChristian presents a table indicating that there are more "outsiders" to the church in the younger generations.

A worthwhile distinction here is between the effects of age, generations, and history. Maybe some things happen as people get older, regardless of when in history. There's other things that happen to particular generations. A historical effect is something that affects everyone at that time. For example, getting taller is an age effect--happens in all generations. The depression deeply affected people who grew up at that time, and this marked them for the rest of their lives. Global warming would be a history effect--something that affects us all.

Here's the question. If we observe that young people today are less religious than old people, is this an age effect (i.e., happens every generation) or a generation effect (i.e., we've lost today's youth) or a history effect (everyone is less religious).

Various studies have looked at this more in depth, and I'll probably be posting on them in the future, but for now I ran some quick analyses using the GSS, and the answer seems to be both aging and history. Young people less religious than older people, and people are, in general, becoming less religious.

As shown below, in every decade, older people are more likely to define themselves as Christian than younger people. However, as shown below, the percentage of people affiliating with Christianity is dropping.

To explore these patterns among young people, I distinguished between those who did not define themselves as Christians, those who did but did not attend church often, and those who did and attended church often (e.g., 2x or 3x a month).

As shown below, over time there are fewer young people who infrequently attend church, and this is where most the loss has come from. There's been less change in the percentage of those who regularly attend church.

Not sure what to make of this, but it's kind of interesting.

Part 12 in the series

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Sociologists getting more moderate?

A recent New York Times article chronicled the changing politics of academics. It turns out that the senior professors, those who went through the 1960s, are more liberal than younger professors. As such, as the senior professors retire, the academia is becoming more moderate (or, perhaps more accurately, slightly less liberal).

This is something that I've noticed, that those who went through the 1960s are different than those of us who didn't.

Makes me wonder what variation of this theme will be written in 20 years when my cohort is ready to retire.

Thanks David for the link.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Was Jesus from California?

Funny jokes in today's paper:

Three equally good arguments that Jesus was a Californian:

1. He never cut his hair.
2. He walked around barefoot.
3. He started a new religion.

But then there are three really, really good arguments that Jesus was a woman:

1. He fed a crowd at a moment's notice when there was virtually no food.
2. He kept trying to get a message across to a bunch of men who just didn't get it.
3. And even after he was dead, he had to get up because there was still work to do.

It also suggests that he might be African-American because he didn't get a fair trial....

Friday, July 04, 2008

A summertime Freudian slip

Cathy and Gus have been talking about the rock band Coldplay recently. Now, you would think that with all the publicity they get and all the records they sell that I could remember their name.

Nope... I usually end up mistakenly calling them Coldstone. Hm-m-m-m, wonder where my mind is at.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Review of UnChristian: Have attitudes toward Christianity changed over time?

(Part 10 in a series)

A theme of UnChristian is that not only do non-Christians have a negative image of Christianity, but this image is getting worse over time. They write: "One of the general differences is a growing tide of hostility and resentment toward Christianity" (p. 24).

To test this idea, one would need to collect a measure of attitudes towards Christians at different points in time and then compare them. Unfortunately UnChristian doesn't have such data available. Fortunately, the GSS does. It asked the thermometer- feeling question (that I blogged about yesterday) back in the 1980s as well. As such, it's possible to compare if attitudes toward Christianity have changed over time.

Shown below are the attitudes of non-Christians toward Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism in the 1980s versus 2004. As indicated, there is a slight drop in preference for all three groups, of 2-3 points on a 100-point scale.
It appears that there is slightly less favor of religious groups over time, but no particular focus on Protestant Christianity. Furthermore, the average score is still above average, suggesting overall an average of slightly warm feelings toward Christianity among non-believers.

As with yesterday's post, I didn't analyze the young non-believers because of sample size limitations. Still, it's hard to image much of a change for them, because if their attitudes became dramatically negative, then the older non-believers would have to become substantially more positive to produce the findings given above.

Part 11 in the series.

Review of UnChristian: Comparing the image of Christianity to other groups III

(Part 9 in a series)

This post continues a series of analyses of whether Christianity has an image problem relative to other religions. Here I use data from the General Social Survey, perhaps the most commonly used data source in sociological research. The GSS asks a series of questions using a "feeling thermometer" in which respondents rate their feelings toward a social institution from 0 to 100. The higher the number, the more favorable the feelings toward that institution. According the directions given to respondents, a score of "50" means that they don't feel particularly warm or cold toward the group.

The GSS also asks questions about the respondents religious affiliation, and so I could separate out the temperature feelings toward different religions by whether the respondent was Christian themselves. (Note: the sample wasn't big enough to separate out young non-Christians).

As shown below:
- Christians rate all four religion groups more favorable than do non-Christians (though this is especially true for Protestantism and Catholicism).
- Non-Christians rate Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism slightly above average, meaning an average slightly warm feeling toward the religion. (Note: the non-Christian respondents include Jews, of course, which may account for the slightly higher rating of Judaism).
- Islam is the lowest rated religious group, by both Christians and non-Christians.

My conclusion? If we compare Christianity to other religious groups, there seems to be no evidence that Christianity has a particular image problem. In fact, non-Christians have average slightly-warm feelings toward both Protestantism and Catholicism.

Next: Attitudes toward Christian over time