Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dogwoods in Bloom (pic)

Come spring, we have dogwood trees blooming everywhere. Here's a picture of one across the street from us.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Increases in religious unaffiliation, by state

Here's a graph from the article commented upon before. It's unclear, but I think the graph uses non-believers synonymously with atheists, when that's not the case. What it calls non-believers would better described as unaffiliated, many of whom believe in God, but they don't align themselves with a particular religion.

Seems like the colder states are increasing in unaffiliated--which makes sense given how tough the winters can be in those states (and therefore, how can there be a God?) ;-)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Who are the non-religious? Actually, many are quite religious

One of the clearest trends in American religion is the increased number of people who do not affiliate with a religion. Lots has been said about it, mostly trying to figure out if it's real (it is), and why it's happening.

Sometimes overlooked in this discussion is who are the religiously unaffiliated.

It turns out that perhaps a majority of the non-affiliated actually have religious beliefs, they just don't affiliate with a religion. Depending on the data that you look at, about 1/2 have some belief in God. For example, 1/5th of them believe in God without any doubt, and another fifth believe with only occasional doubts. (Data from Fischer and Hout, 2006, Century of Difference, p. 193).

As such, this group might best be described as the religiously unaffiliated rather than no-religion people, for they frequently have strong religious beliefs.

(Correspondingly, some people who affiliate with churches can be labeled as agnostic/ atheist).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The power of fiction... beliefs in Jesus and Mary of Magdalene

Ugh... Here's a depressing statistic. It's a survey question asked a couple of years ago, after the publication of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. About 1/3 of Americans believed his story about Mary Magdalene!

What part of the book being a novel isn't clear?

How likely do you think it is that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus and had children with him--very likely, somewhat likely, not very likely or not at all likely?

10% Very likely
13 Somewhat likely
12 Not very likely
48 Not at all likely
18 No opinion

Survey by Cable News Network. Methodology: Conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, May 5-May 7, 2006 and based on telephone interviews with a national adult sample of 1,021. [USORC.051106.R28]
I suppose this effect will last till the next fictional account of his life comes out. Maybe the next one will have him as the first mixed martial artist or something really cool.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Acceptance of atheists, then and now

While browsing through some old data sets, I came across these questions, 60 years apart, about acceptance of atheists. I'm somewhat surprised that there hasn't been more acceptance of atheists over time... (though the data suggest that there has been *some* progress).

Gallup Poll (AIPO) [December, 1946] Dataset available through RoperExpress
An atheist is a person who doesn't believe in God. In San Francisco, a radio station allowed an atheist to broadcast his views on religion. Would you approve or disapprove of letting atheists broadcast in this area?

36%  Approve
57 Disapprove
7 No opinion
Methodology: Conducted by Gallup Organization, December 13-December 18, 1946 and based on telephone interviews with a national adult sample of 1,500. Sample size is approximate.[USGALLUP.46-386.QKT02]

Gallup Poll [December, 2007] Dataset available through RoperExpress

(Between now and the 2008 political conventions, there will be discussion about the qualifications of presidential candidates--their education, age, religion, race, and so on.) If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to atheist, would you vote for that person?

46%  Yes
48 No
6 No opinion
Methodology: Conducted by Gallup Organization, December 6-December 9, 2007 and based on telephone interviews with a national adult sample of 1,027. [USGALLUP.07DEC06.R15B]

Data provided by The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

My new approach to teaching -- Smarty Pants Dance

Like any teacher, I'm always looking out for more effective ways to communicate and motivate my students. Well, the video below demonstrates a new approach to teaching that I think just might work.

From now on, when one of my students gets an answer right or makes an intelligent comment, we'll sing and dance. Check out the effectiveness of this approach!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My award winning photograph (pic)

This year I joined a local camera club which has monthly photography contests, and I won the last one.  Okay, there were only three other photos entered, and I only won by one vote, but, hey, I'll take what I can get.

This is a time-exposure pic of a ride at a local fair.  (The contest topic was "night")

Friday, May 22, 2009

Mark Driscoll describes the reduced number of Christians as not a bad thing

Here's an article by Mark Driscoll about the well-documented drop in religious identification. He makes a good point that in and of itself, this drop is not necessarily a bad thing for Christianity; in fact, it might even be a positive.

"Subsequently, the Newsweek report simply confirms the fact that, just as Christendom has died in Europe and the major American cities, it is now dying in the suburban and rural areas of America as well. With the social benefits of professing to be a Christian no longer in place and the social stigma of not professing to be a Christian now lifted, those who were part of Christendom America are simply no longer pretending to be part of Christian America.

Since those who professed faith but did not practice faith were confusing to account for, this is actually a good thing. Now, it is more likely that if someone is a Christian or non-Christian, he or she will state so plainly.

Therefore, the number of Christians has likely not diminished as much as has been reported, but rather we are seeing an increasingly accurate accounting of actual Christian America. The ARIS study confirmed this by saying that the number of people who claimed to be Christians decreased, while the number of people who claimed to be evangelical increased. This fact is not discouraging, but rather clarifying."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Atheist Evangelism/ coming out?

Here's an interesting article from the New York Times about the increased visibility of atheists in the United States. As the article writes: "More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out."

One theme in this movement, if it is such a thing, aims at supporting other atheists... sort of "you're not alone." In this sense, it's akin to gays coming out (as the article points out). Another theme, though, is more argumentative, and it's along the lines of making the case for atheism. E.g., Richard Dawkins.

My friend Wayne, who sent this article to me, asks a good question... why now? It doesn't appear that the number of atheists in the U.S. is growing (still about 3% or so). The number of religiously unaffiliated certainly is growing, but most of them believe in God or are agnostic. (Agnostic evangelism: "We don't know and neither should you"?)

As a Christian, I actually appreciate this openness. If Christianity is Truth, then it has nothing to fear from open dialogue and challenge. It's better that people openly consider it, even if they end up rejecting it, than just ignoring it. No?

From a sociological perspective, it's interesting to wonder why it's happening now. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Are Americans increasingly pro-life?

A Gallup poll released on Friday found that, for the first time since Gallup started measuring this in the 1990s, more Americans define themselves as pro-life than pro-choice.

I'm hesitant to believe this, however, because according to the data presented in the article, last year 50% of respondents were pro-choice, and this year only 42% were (with a similar increase among pro-life). I don' t know what could prompt that big a switch. Would a prolife president do it?

The data till this year showed a pretty steady trend, so I wouldn't be surprised if it swung back the next time they ask this question. If not, it would be interesting to speculate about why the change.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Graph of religious switching

Here's a chart created by Michael Bell of InternetMonk. The top row represents people's religion as children, the bottom is their religion as adults. The lines between them represent switching. So, starting from the left, the red line up and down demonstrates the portion of people raised without religion and who have no religion as adults. The next line over, that goes to the green bar, are the individuals who switch from no religion to Catholicism. Note that it's pretty narrow suggesting that not many people raised without religion switch to Catholicism.

While Christians focus on loses out of Christianity into no religion, the reverse happens to, perhaps to a greater degree. It appears that a greater proportion of non-religous people become Evangelical than the reverse. In general, non-religion is a leaky bucket, losing a lot of its people to Christianity.

Also, there isn't much switching into Caholicism, but there sure is a lot out.

Other observations?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Major religious trends in the 20th century

I just finished an interesting article by Walter Sundberg, a professor of church history, who identified what he thinks are the three major religious trends in 20th century US. They are:

1) The decline of mainline churches and the growth of evangelical churches. Membership rates in mainline denominations, such as the Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian, has dropped considerably while rates in Evangelical churches has increased.

2) The divisive effect of political activism. Some churches (especially mainline, I think he's saying) have formally institutionalized political activism, and this divides churches into liberal and conservative wings, such that the liberals (or conservatives) in a particular denomination have more in common with liberals (or conservatives) in other denominations than conservatives (or liberals) in their own.

3) The separation of church and state. Due to various Supreme Court decisions, we have increasing separation between church and state. So, we no longer have school prayer, public displays of religious symbols, etc....

What do you think? Are there other changes to add to this list?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Buying a used parachute?

Over the past several years, I've been taking hang gliding lessons, and now it's time to get my own gear. Through the help of my brother (who is my hang gliding pusher), I have bought a parachute. Parachutes... you know, those things that help you to float down to earth if things go badly in the air.

I got a great deal on a used parachute, but is this really the place to save money? I suppose maybe some day I'll have the chance to think about that question very intently.

For graphic video of me flying to the ground...

For video of how it's really done...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Clergy members work way too much

There are a lot of good reasons why I'm have no interest in going into the clergy. I've known for awhile that the quality of their work is really difficult--they are part theologian, part CEO, part psychologist, part everything else.

It turns out that they also spend way too much time working!

Here's some data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"About 30 percent of men and 15 percent of women usually worked more than 44 hours per week. Among men, those working as physicians or as clergy had the longest workweeks at an average of 52 hours."

Here are some of the data:

So, the next time that you see a clergy member, thank them for all their hard work, then lie on a couch for them.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Two traffic intersections, two very different results

Why... are there so many accidents here:

but not here:

Could be selective editing, but I wonder if it's a normative thing. Indian drivers face these types of intersections more frequently, so they've developed and follow norms on how to drive in them.

What do you think?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Field Experiments and Racism

When sociologists study something, we usually start by making observations. Maybe we take a survey, in which case we covert our observations to answers on a questionnaire, or maybe we’ll do fieldwork and go out into a social situation and watch what goes on. In either case, we’re not changing what we’re studying, or at least we’re not trying to, but rather we’re just watching it and recording what we learn.

In contrast to these observational studies, we could intentionally change something and then see what happens as a result. This is an experimental approach. With an experiment, you have two or more groups, and the researcher (or somebody) does something to one of the groups but not the other. What the researcher does is the independent variable (or cause). The researcher then measures the outcome of what happens—the dependent variable (or effect).

The idea of an experiment conjures up images of a mad scientist in a castle or at least well-funded psychologists in laboratories messing with introductory psychology students. Another approach, however, is called a field experiment, where the researcher conducts an experiment in a natural setting instead of laboratory.

Here’s a video that illustrates this approach. In it, the reporting team from ABC News sets up an experiment. They park an old car in a parking lot in a predominately white neighborhood. They then have several white teenagers vandalize the car for about an hour. These kids jump on the car, spray paint it, and try to break into it. During this time, several people walking by stop and talk to the kids, sometimes even telling them not to do it. However, during that period of time, only one person called the police.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Next, the reporters repeated the situation but they used African-American teens instead. The kids did the same things to the car for about the same period of time, but this time ten people called the police. The conclusion? The race of the possible offender influences whether their actions are defined as criminal, so it’s not just what people do that matters but also who they are. (Unfortunately, the news crew did not repeat the experiment in a predominately black neighborhood.)

Field experiments have a lot going for them. Like all experiments, the causality is clear. The independent variable precedes the dependent variable, and, if the study is done correctly, the change in the dependent variable is the only difference (on average) between the two groups. Sociologists call this internal validity— which means we can trust the causal story of a study.

Also, field experiments measure things that people might not report on surveys, either because they don’t want to look bad or they don’t realize that aspect of themselves. For example, imagine we gave a survey to the people in the community described above, and we asked them if they would be more likely to call police if they saw African-American kids committing vandalism. I imagine that they would all so “no”—who wants to be viewed as potentially racist? Yet, in the field experiment, that’s exactly what they did.

Finally, field experiments take place in naturalistic settings in contrast to laboratory settings which happen in small, windowless rooms in academic buildings. Now, maybe what happens in lab experiments generalizes to the real world just fine, but we’re more confident in the generalizability of field experiments because they actually happen in everyday life. Sociologists call this external validity.

So, field experiments have both high internal and external validity. Sweet deal!

This raises the question of why sociologists don’t do more field experiments. Perhaps one reason is that it’s not traditional in sociology. When I went through graduate school, I received a lot of training in survey research, some in qualitative methods, and none in experiments.

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear how to translate a sociological topic into a field experiment. Let me give you an example. I study the sociology of religion, and I am also very interested in field experiments. This makes me wonder about how to study religion using field experiments. To do this, I need to randomly assign religion, or at least the perception of religion, or randomly assign something that will change religion. Obviously I can’t just assign religious beliefs—“you’re Christian, you’re Muslim, you’re Hindu.” Also, it’s tough to assign levels of religiosity. “Could you stop going to church so much?”

So, can religion be studied using a field experiment, and, if so, how? I have some thoughts, but I would like to hear what you think. If you have some ideas, send them to me at Who knows? Maybe your idea will someday be featured on a television show!

Originally posted on

Friday, May 08, 2009

Celine Dion, end of procrastination

Are you having trouble getting your work done? Been procrastinating? Well, I've got the answer. Below I've posted a video of a song voted the worst cover song ever--Celine Dion singing AC/DC's "You shook me all night long."

Here's how it works. Set a goal for yourself, and if you don't reach it, then make yourself watch this video.

If it happens a second time, you have to watch the video in high definition (no one's ever made it that far).


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The costs of politics for Evangelical Christians

This is second reaction to Michael Spencer's article: "The Coming Evangelical Collapse"

Mr. Spencer claims that the downfall of the Evangelical church in America will result from its alignment with conservative culture and politics. He write: "Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society."

I agree with the core premise here, that it is a bad idea for the Evangelical church to cozy up with a particular political party, as it did in the 1980s and 1990s. By associating Christianity with a given political position, we risk losing people who agree with the faith but not the party. (Come to think of it, this is a nice example of balance theory.)

Spencer's statement, however, would benefit from two refinements.

1) Evangelicals are playing politics much less now then they did in the 1980s and 1990s--the heyday of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. We've traded Jerry Falwell's support for Republicans for Rick Warren's bipartisan engagement in politics.

2) Christians did leave the church in reaction to this, but they were predominately from more liberal mainline churches. Christians' conservative political affiliation probably didn't affect the numbers of Evangelicals nearly as much.

One of the notable religious trends in recent years here in the U.S. is the dramatic rise of the religiously unaffiliated. While these include atheists and agnostics, many of them belief in God but just don't affiliate with a religion. Here's a graph illustrating their increase:

The percentage of religiously unaffiliated remained fairly level from 1972 to 1990. It rose dramatically from 1990 to 2000, and it's increased more slowly since then. (Source: General Social Survey).

Sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer examined this trend, and they concluded that:

"In the 1990s, many people who had weak attachments to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by renouncing their weak attachment to organized religion."

Now, I'm no genius about church life, but I'm guessing that Christian leaders would rather have *not* lost these people.

If accurate, this explanation addresses the drop in (predominately) mainline Protestantism in the 1990s. It gives no reason to expect a sudden collapse in the Evangelical church in the coming years.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The coming evangelical collapse?

An op-ed piece was published in the Christian Science Monitor entitled: "The Coming Evangelical Collapse" by Michael Spencer. I encourage you to check out his website,, for he has a lot of good things to say about the Christian life.

With his prediction of the collapse of the Evangelical church, however, he seems off the mark. Because the semester just ended, I have some time to go into depth on this issue. Having said that, articles like that of by Mr. Spencer attract a lot of attention quickly, so my writing about it two months after publication is an eternity in the blogosphere. Nonetheless, here goes.

Spencer's prediction is that "We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West."

Well, predictions can be difficult, so let's look at the recent past.

As you can see, the percentage of Evangelicals in the country has increased since 1970, the percentage Mainline Protestants has dropped considerable, and the percentage Catholics has remained about the same.

Now, there are a lot of things would could say (and have been said) about these data, but at just a glance, it's pretty clear that there's no evidence of the percentage of Evangelicals dropping precipitously--and the data go right up to 2008.

This has two implications.

1) Since these data give the percentage of American adults who attend an evangelical church, and the American population has been growing, that means the actual number of American Evangelicals has increased substantially in the past 35 years.

2) Given no evidence of a collapse, Mr. Spencer would seem to have the burden of explaining why this sudden change will happen.

For me, this finishes the discussion. Unless there's some sort of magic ball involved that can predict things that have yet started happening, the discussion is over.

Technical stuff: The data come from the General Social Survey using the Reltrad classification scheme which identifies evangelicals as people who go to evangelical churches (as opposed to people who describe themselves with that label). I smoothed out the lines using loess smoothing in STATA.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Norms for religious expression at the University

After Cliffe Knecktle came to campus a few weeks ago, my sociology of religion students and I got into a discussion about the social norms here on campus for talking about religion and morals.

Here's my take on it, albeit not terribly well thought-out.

1) There are some morals that represent absolute truths. E.g., anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, and a few other isms. We can all agree on these, and these beliefs provide social cohesion and mark moral boundaries. Disagreeing with them constitutes a serious norm violation.

2) Non-exclusive religious beliefs are acceptable. So, saying that you happen to believe in religion x, y, or z is fine, but it's best to be somewhat discreet in your discussion of your beliefs. Maybe passing references but not a main topic of conversation.

3) We're to listen to others' worldviews with acceptance and interest. Discussion of religious beliefs should approximate show-and-tell. Claiming any form of absolute truth for your own beliefs or falsity for others is a norm violation. This is why students reacted so, so strongly to Cliffe Knecktle's message, for he was saying that he was right.

What do you think? Is this accurate? It would be kind of interesting to talk to students in more depth about this to elaborate this issue.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Priest does good, news at 11:00

Usually priests only make news when they do something we don't expect them to do (think sex or stealing).

Here's a great story of a priest who epitomizes Christian charity, as so many priests do.

A mentally-imbalanced woman, thinking him to be the anti-Christ, stabbed him in the ribs--missing vital organs by a couple of centimeters.

His response:

"The priest feels compassion for the woman who attacked him, and he is turning the other cheek. "We have to continue to pray to do the church's work. To love, and most of all to forgive.""

Hm-m-m-m, I'm thinking it would take me awhile to offer grace like if I were in his shoes.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The randomness of family life

There is much to enjoy in family life, and one thing is the randomness it produces.

Point in case: About a month ago, I pulled a cereal box out of the cupboard for breakfast, and it turned out to be empty and had a ballpoint pen in it. I put the pen away, put the box in recycling, and continued with my morning forage.

Last week it happened again. Another empty cereal box with a pen in it.

I have several choices here:
* Let everyone know that we now have a rule that we can't leave pens in empty cereal boxes
* Ask Cathy and the boys if they know anything about it

But I think that I'll just treat it as a mystery and wonder periodically if it will happen again. Ah, randomness.