Thursday, October 13, 2011

I've moved to Patheos...

After a mere 1,107 posts on this blog, I've moved. The good people at Patheos asked me to blog on their site, and I'm using the change to try something new.

Also with several other sociologists who are also Christians. In it, we "share our observations and research and reflect on its meaning for Christian faith and practice."

The name of the blog is Black, White, and Gray. While Christianity has some black and white truths, Sociology is very much the study of gray, so it's interesting, and hopefully informative, to bring them together.

Here's a post on how Christian love might be swayed by concepts of deservingness.

So long blogspot, hello Patheos.  I hope that you join me there.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An interview with me on

Here's an interview with me about the religion in the media, as it appears in

The first question:

What should journalists watch out for when they report on new religion surveys? What problems do you usually see?

I would recommend that journalists read the reports for themselves and see what they find interesting and significant. What often happens is that a large report will contain a small piece of negative, “newsworthy” material, and it’s that piece that gets reported, with much of the rest of the report being ignored. Also, even with that piece, news reports often oversimplify it whereas the report itself will usually (and hopefully) present it in context and with some nuance.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Stark and Johnson on religious statistics in the media

Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson have written a provocative essay for the Wall Street Journal. In it, they document the various ways that the media selects "scare" stories about Christianity for publication while ignoring "stay-the-same" or "getting-better" stories.

They start:

"The national news media yawned over the Baylor Survey's findings that the number of American atheists has remained steady at 4% since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high. But when a study by the Barna Research Group claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation—even though it was a false alarm."

For the rest of the article...

They are right, but, frankly, I don't think that it matters.  There is simply too much demand for bad news about Christianity, both by Christians and non-Christians, and so we can expect the media to continue to provide it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Christian Smith on religious pluralism

Christian Smith has a wonderful op-ed on the Huffington Post.

He makes a strong case for "authentic pluralism"--avoiding both sectarian conflict on one side and what he terms "liberal whateverism" on the other. Here is part of his conclusion:

I think we need to reject both sectarian conflict and liberal whateverism and commit ourselves instead to an authentic pluralism. Genuine pluralism fosters a culture that honors rather than isolates and disparages religious difference. It affirms the right of others to believe and practice their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square -- while expecting them to allow still others to do the same. Authentic pluralism does not minimize religious differences by saying that "all religions are ultimately the same." That is false and insipid. Pluralism encourages good conversations and arguments across differences, taking them seriously precisely because they are understood to be about important truths, not merely private "opinions." It is possible, authentic pluralism insists, to profoundly disagree with others while at the same time respecting, honoring, and perhaps even loving them. Genuine pluralism suspects the multi-cultural regime's too-easy blanket affirmations of "tolerance" of being patronizing and dismissive. Pluralism, however, also counts atheist Americans as deserving equal public respect, since their beliefs are based as much on a considered faith as are religious views and so should not be automatically denigrated."

Despite the quality of his arguments, I'm guessing that the longest-lasting contribution of this piece will be the catchy, and somewhat dismissive, phrase "liberal whateverism." Nicely done.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Changes in the Importance of Religion

Is religion less important now than it used to be? There are many ways to think of this question. For example, is religion less important in politics, in local communities, in education, in community life, and so forth. However, one critical feature of the importance of religion regards its importance to individual people.

Since 1986, the New York Times, CBS, Gallup, and several other groups have surveyed Americans about the importance of religion. In particular, they have asked Americans the following question: “How important is religion in your daily life? Is it extremely important, very important, somewhat important, or not at all important?”

This question has been asked more than 50 times over a 25-year period, which gives a sense of how Americans have changed on this issue.

In the latest survey, collected in February 2011, 26% of respondents reported that religion is “extremely important to them,” 25% said “very important,” 33% said “somewhat important,” and 14% said “not at all important.” As such, about of Americans experience religion as highly important in their lives (i.e., “extremely” or “very”). About one-third hold it as marginally important (i.e., “somewhat”), and the rest not important.

To understand how this has changed over time, I have plotted answers to this survey question over the past 25 years. (I averaged across surveys when multiple surveys asked this question in a given year. Also, this question wasn’t asked in every year). The results are shown in the following figure.

(Click to enlarge)

As shown in this figure, the number of Americans who view religion as not at all important in their daily life held steady from 1985 to about 2003 at around 8-9%. Since then, however, it has risen steadily to 14% in 2011.

At the other end of the spectrum, the percentage of Americans who view religion as extremely important in their daily lives has also increased. In the 1980s, only 21%-22% of Americans viewed religion as extremely important. This percentage increased steadily over the next to decades, to where it’s now at 26%--a change almost as large as the increase in Americans who view religion as not at all important.

Religion as moderately to strongly important. Through 2007, at least, the percentage of Americans who viewed religion as “very” important said steady at about 33%. However, the percentage who viewed it as “somewhat” important dropped, from the most frequently-given answer, 36% in 1986, to only 22% in 2007. In 2010 and 2011, however, the percentage of “very” dropped considerably and the percentage of “somewhat” has risen. It’s too early to tell if this is a robust trend.

A more simple examination compares 1986 to 2011.

Extremely important  22% 26%
Very important           34% 25%
Somewhat important  36% 33%
Not important at all     8% 14%

From these data, several trends seem to emerge.

1) Over the past 25 years, Americans are more polarized regarding the importance of religion. More Americans view it as not at all important in their daily lives, and more Americans view it as extremely important.
2) For the most part, the increase in viewing religion as not at all important has come at the expense of those who view it as somewhat important. In other words, some of the people who view religion as moderately important as downgrading it to not important at all.
3) The last two years *may* represent a change in the importance of religion. While the most devout religious people (i.e., “extremely important) hold on to their beliefs, there is a significant drop in those who religion as “very” important, with these people appearing to transition to viewing it as only “somewhat” important. It’s too early to tell, however, whether this is a robust long-term trend. If it is, it could portend further polarization—as the middle ground of religious importance disappears.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Interview on 100 Huntley Street

Here's an interview that I did on 100 Huntley Street, which is one of Canada's top religious programs. Note the white socks... I forgot to pack dress socks.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A radio interview for my book, Upside

Something that I've learned writing books is that there are lot of Christian radio shows that like to interview authors. It's kind of fun having someone talk with me about my search for 10-60 minutes, and a surprising high number of the hosts seem to have read the book, and they ask rather thoughtful questions.

One of the best interviews so far happened last Friday, on the radio show Steve Brown Etc. I'm glad that it went well, because it's broadcast on over 60 stations as well as Sirius/XM. The hosts were funny, insightful, challenging, and complimentary, and it made for a lot of fun.

Here's the link for the show, if you would like to listen to it.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Cover story in Christianity Today... based on my first book.

This month's issue of Christianity Today has an article by me as its cover story. It was both a challenge and a joy to write as it forced me into a bit of a different style of writing, one that I hope is more effective for reaching non-academic types. After 20 years or so of learning to write as boringly as possible, to maximize the chance of getting through peer-review, I'm having to learn some new tricks.

Here's the link for the article, and below is the first part of it. Let me know what you think.


American evangelical Christianity is ready for its Sally Field moment.

The actress's 1985 Academy Award acceptance speech is famously quoted as, "You like me! You really like me!"

But we often forget that Field was accepting her second Oscar in five years. She had already won the recognition of her peers. What she really said in 1985 was, "I've wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn't feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!"

Similarly, somewhere along the line we evangelical Christians have gotten it into our heads that our neighbors, peers, and most Americans don't like us, and that they like us less every year. I've heard this idea stated in sermons and everyday conversation; I've read it in books and articles.

There's a problem, though. It doesn't appear to be true....

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Building a platform and increased demand for stuff

On Monday I posted about how people need to make it small, on their own, before someone comes along to make them big. This gets me thinking about the larger implications of this pattern of business, and I wonder if it will result in greater choice, and thus more interest, among the general population.

Here's what I mean. Take books, for example. If it's important to have people already following what you're saying to get a book contract (or at least it helps), this might strike some as unfair. It seems like the old adages of you need money to make money or you need experience to get a job that will give you experience.

But, in today's exciting world of the interweb (btw, I still type "www" in front of URLs, just so the computer knows which web I'm talking about), just about anyone can post just about anything. This makes for a much more competitive, open market for ideas. As a result, people who had ideas that previously might have been ignored, and thus effectively stifled, by traditional publishers, can now find a following on their own. Once they have this following, then the traditional publishers will move in quickly.

As such, this opens up book publishing (and music recording and inventing) to more people.

Also, the increased competition should produce "better" products. I use quotations because I don't mean better in some sort of critical sense, but rather appealing to popular tastes (which, obviously, may not be well-received critically--again, see Rebecca Black).

This increased appeal of books, recordings, inventions, and so on should thus increase the size of the market for them, no? Ultimately, the fact that people can initiate their own writing, recording, or business products should increase the amount of sales (in whatever form) for their products.

If this line of thinking holds, then the internet should actually increase book reading and music listening and so on. Now, whether traditional book and music companies can make more money is a different question, but they should have more potential customers to court.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Needing a platform to make it big

Last weekend I had a conversation with my neighbor in which he started telling me about a television show called Shark Tank. I haven't seen it (watch little-to-know tv), but apparently entrepreneurs and inventors pitch their ideas to a group of wealthy experts, and then, if things go well, one of the experts chooses to invest in the inventor's idea, making them wealthy. It sounds like Antique Road Show for inventors.

According to my friend, the experts aren't just looking for a good idea, but they want a good idea that is already getting some traction in the marketplace, and then they will infuse money and take it big time. Basically, they want to take a small, but growing concern, to the next level, as opposed to taking an idea all the way from the drawing board to a business.

This observation interested me because I've heard it in other industries as well.

Last summer I spent several days in a recording studio recording a books-on-tape version of my first book. During the breaks (and by the way, that much reading was surprising hard work. I have new respect for voice-over artists!), I talked with the young guys who owned the studio, and they told the same story. According to them, record labels aren't looking for the most talented singers to make into stars, rather they want people who have already developed a following, and then the label can increase their success. (For a recent example, see Rebecca Black).

Likewise, I've heard from several authors, an agent, and an editor that the book publishing world is the same. Publishers prefer authors who already have a big "platform"--basically a group of people who pay attention to what the author is already saying, whether via a blog, sermons, articles, or whatever.

This leads me to wonder what it is that I do that can be taken to the next level, with the right amount of money. For a long time it was obvious... with sufficient funding I could have become a spokesperson for Ben and Jerry's! But, now, I've given up the hard stuff, so that's out. I really like presenting social statistics, especially about religion, but it's not clear to me that there's a "big time" for that. So that leaves me with either building stone walls or making smoothies, both of which I've developed quite a reputation for, at least among my immediate family. So, venture capitalists, give me a call!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

John Ortberg's foreword for my book

John Ortberg, one of the best known Christian teachers and writers in the country, very kindly agreed to write a foreword for my book.  Here it is, he does a really nice job of capturing the essence of the book.  There's just one problem, though.  He's such a gifted writer, that I'm afraid that my own writing will suffer in comparison.  So, read the foreword, but then try to forget just how good it is.  ;-)

"The good news about bad news is that there is not nearly as much of it to go around as you might think.

The bad news about good news is that good news doesn’t tend to sell. Everybody wants to get good news from the doctor and their boss and their (choose one) therapist/stockbroker/fantasy football league commissioner. But it turns out that articles which indicate that the economy should run along OK or that rivers are relatively clean don’t tend to sell newspapers, which means they don’t tend to get writers promoted, which means they don’t tend to get written.

People go to conferences that warn about dire situations.

People buy books that say the world is falling apart.

Bad news has probably always had this pull. Paul Revere didn’t get famous by riding around saying: “The British stayed home. Go ahead and sleep in tomorrow.”

But living in the information age (or perhaps more accurately the Anxious Information Age), we seem to get bad news more often, on more channels, in high def.

For a variety of reasons, folks in the evangelical Christian community are often seem to have a particularly sharp appetite for bad news. Authors and speakers who can document that the younger generation is about to lose their faith, or that churches are about to lose their congregations, or that the nation is about to lose its soul, never seem to run short of listeners no matter how shaky their case may be.

The gravitational pull of bad news is a problem. Like the little boy who cried wolf, the purveyors of doom can eventually lose all credibility, so that when bad news really does happen no one is listening anymore.

But there is Good News.  Bradley Wright has written a terrific book.

The good news about this book is that it is not based on optimism. Its based on reality. It turns out that much of what gets repeated as bad news is often based on bad data. 90% of all statistics in the media are both negative and inaccurate. (I just made that up. But I’ll bet there’s a bias in that direction.)

Brad is an academician, a bona fide believer, and a highly engaging writer. He has a passion for all people—particular for people of faith—to think well and honor the life of the mind and treat statistics with discernment and not to chronically alarmist.

He wants to help us quit mistaking negativity with thoughtfulness.

He wants to help us stop mindlessly passing on pessimistic diagnoses that either neither helpful nor accurate.

He wants us to actually be aware of and celebrate good news that is spreading on multiple fronts.
--Crime is getting better (but we think its getting worse)
--we are working less and playing more (but we think we’re playing less and working more)
--Poverty is going down

Two thousand years ago, a book began to be widely read whose core was summarized as euaggelion—good news. Not dysaggelion.

We, of all people, should be able to recognize and celebrate and express gratitude wherever we find it.

For all good news is God’s good news. And to ignore it, hide it, minimize it, or distort it is neither mentally healthy nor spiritually sound.

So take a deep breath, turn the page, and get ready to be happy."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My new book, Upside, is now available

My second book has been released. It’s entitled Upside: Surprising Good News about the State of Our World, and it’s available on Amazon, Christian bookstores, and various other places… if there are any left ;-)

The guiding question for this book is whether the world is getting better or worse. Now, I realize that you’re probably thinking right now that that’s too narrow of a topic, but bear with me, it’s a question worth asking.

People with naturally disagree as to whether things are “good” or “bad”, since that involves a value judgment. However, we should all be able to agree as to whether things are getting better or worse; i.e., which direction trends are going.

My book develops two paradoxes. One, many, many things in the world are getting better, but most people are convinced that things are getting worse. Two, most people think that their lives are getting better, but their community and nation is getting worse. In my book I explore the reasons for these paradoxes.

After that—since I’m a data-driven guy—I present information about what’s happening in the world. I cover areas that most people take as important, such as income and poverty, health, education, happiness, crime, freedom, faith, marriage, families, and the environment.

In each of these areas, I present the best available data about how things are changing. The data come from sources such as the US Census Bureau, the World Bank, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, and various sociological surveys.

I finish with examining various explanations for why so many things are getting better, and what we should do in response.

Interwoven throughout the book are stories of Christians making a positive difference in the world. These stories range from the actions of individual Christians to Christian organizations, from people feeding the sick to saving the environment.  As a quantitative sociologist, I am slowly realizing that sometimes just facts and figures aren't enough to make a case, that sometimes we need specific stories about how things are working to understand the larger picture.  These stories highlight all the good things that people are doing in the world, and it has an effect—many things are getting better. 

We should be encouraged.  It seems that our actions to make life better are working, so let’s keep up the good work and do even better!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Goodbye, Ervin Tackman

Last night one of my favorite people in the world died.

Ervin Tackman was my father-in-law (Cathy’s stepfather), and he was an Iowa farmer, a hard worker, a provider, and a great grandfather.

I grew up on the mean streets of suburban Fresno, California (think miles and miles of houses that come in one of four styles), so I had never met an old-school farmer like Erv before, and I learned so much from him, besides the fact that he was an absolute joy to be around.

Among other things, he connected me to a different time in America’s history, back when so many Americans worked the land. Erv was raised in the same little valley, a couple of miles from the Mississippi River, that his father, grandfather, and (I think) his great-grandfather had farmed. Erv and his family actually used horse and plow to work the land until his teens, when they got their first tractor.

Because they raised livestock, hogs, cattle, and at one time milk cows, they had to do “chores” twice a day as well as be available for the occasional livestock emergency. This meant that it was difficult for him to get too far from the house, because he had to be back every day.  As such, Erv spent most of his 79 years within a few miles of where he grew up.

Erv had many, many good qualities, an easy laugh, a twinkle in his eye, a rock-steady solidness to him, but more than anything, the one thing he was probably best known for was his ability to work hard. Not just a little hard, really hard. More than once he told me that he knew what God had put him on earth for, and that was to work. Not only did he take care of his own acres of land, livestock, and gardens, but he was always ready to help his neighbors and extended family when they wanted it (and, given how well he worked, they wanted it often).

Erv grew up working hard, and he never lost his appetite for it. In fact, when he was drafted into the Army in the 1950s, he found boot camp to be so much easier than his daily schedule that he actually gained weight. The first time I shook hands with Erv, I was astonished by how big and strong his hands were. I was a couple inches taller than him, but when we shook hands it might as well have been an adult holding a child’s hand. (Apparently endless typing didn’t give me “ripped” hands).

It wasn’t just Erv’s physical capacity for work that impressed me, but it was also his attitude. He never complained, even when things went wrong or people asked him to do things. Once I was with him one late afternoon during harvest season, and he was watching the combine harvest rows and rows of corn. (He would often walk behind the combine and pick up corn that it had missed--might as well do what he could to pitch in). Suddenly, the trailer being towed behind the combine broke an axle, and it dug into the earth, leaning precariously. This meant that he’d be out in the field late into the night, unloading the corn into a new trailer and pulling out and repairing the trailer. If it were me, I would have been pounding the cornfield and cursing the sky, but Erv accepted it without missing a beat. He was always ready to work harder when needed.

As he got older, he sold his livestock, which meant he could travel more. This resulted in more trips out to Connecticut to see us. He wouldn’t be here for more than about an hour before he’d politely ask if there was anything he could do to help. When we said “no”, and encouraged him just to relax, he’d try that for a bit, but eventually he’d be out in our yard looking for things needing done. On one trip, he found several stumps from trees that had been cut down, and he knew what to do. He went to the garage and got out an ax, a sledgehammer, and a shovel and proceeded to dig the stumps out (and these were big stumps—several feet across!). It took several days, but he got the job done.

On another visit, he was doing some digging and came across a large buried rock in his way (yes, this New England). Me? I would have given up or found another place to dig the hole. Erv? He got a sledgehammer, and he pounded the rock all afternoon until it was small enough to move. (I kept the main remnant of the rock as a fond reminder of him). This event serves as a metaphor for his life—that most problems could be solved with steady, hard work.

Erv was also a very skilled worker. His vegetable gardens produced more than anyone else’s. He stacked wood so tight that a chord of his wood was about a chord and a half of someone else’s.

At one point, when I was in graduate school, I was grumbling about how long some academic project was taking. (Imagine that, a graduate student complaining!). Although he didn’t know the first thing about what I was doing, he just said that it was okay that I was working so hard on that project because “no one ever sees how much time you put into something.” By this he meant that people just see, and appreciate, the finished product, so you might as well make it as good as possible, regardless of the time it took. This advice, as much as anything I heard in academics, has guided me in my own work.

Erv only had an eighth-grade education, whereas I had 25 years of schooling, but there was no doubt that in many ways he was far more intelligent than me. His intelligence was about the physical world, and when he was walking his farmland or the local hills, he was as much a part of them as the rocks or deer or trees.

I appreciated Erv’s savvy many times. We he visited us here in Connecticut, I took him for a walk in the woods (and despite his being in his 60s, I had trouble keeping up with him). After about 12 paces, he stopped and remarked at how young the woods were. To me the woods are the woods, but with a practiced eye, he could tell that they were less than a century old by their composition.

Erv knew how to live off the land. He remarked once that as long as he had electricity, to run the several freezers in the basement, he could probably live without needing to buy food. He had cold storage rooms full of winter vegetables. He hunted deer for food and trapped otters, beavers, and muskrats for their pelts. He made maple syrup in spring, and in summer collected and sold ginseng. The steaks from his cattle were the best that I’ve ever had (I viewed them as my wife’s dowry). His freezers had many quarts of blackberries and black raspberries that he had picked in the woods, and they were perfect for putting on grandson’s bowls of ice cream (which he sometimes made too).

Put Erv down anywhere, and you’d soon be enjoying the fruit of his work.

With age and health problems, Erv had to cut back on what he did. One year it was trapping, the next it was his couple acres of sweet corn, and so on. Like so many men, he lost part of himself when he had to stop working. In the end, in his last year he was in an assisted living home, and he liked to be wheeled outside, to the edge of the property on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, and he would watch and comment on what was going on in what he could see.

I, like everyone who knew him, will miss Erv, and I, my wife, and my sons are better people for having known him. Thank you, Erv, and goodbye.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fireproof and the media's portrayal of marriage

As I wrote about on Friday, I watched the Christian-themed movie Fireproof. It’s a story about a man who finds his marriage in deep trouble, decides to try and save it, and then goes to great lengths to do so.

I appreciated the movies portrayal of marriage. Its take-home message is that marriages are really, really important, and that we should put lots of time and effort into making them as good as possible. Furthermore, moral conviction drives our commitment to marriage, above and beyond whatever we happen to be feeling about the marriage or our spouse. The movie ends with the couple reaffirming their marriage vows in a Christian-themed ceremony.

This got me to thinking about other, more common themes in the portrayal of marriage in the movies or on television.

One theme is along the lines of “my spouse, the hidden monster.” In this plot device, a couple is married for some time and the protagonist discovers hidden, creepy things about who they married. Maybe they have some addiction, or they are secretly a cold-blooded killer, or they are a Yankees fan, or something other nefarious activity.

Perhaps more common than that is the “happily ever after” view of marriage. Here movies focus on the various ups and downs of courting, and the big pay-off at the end is the couple getting married. The really interesting, story-telling stuff happens during dating, and marriage is a happily-ever-after state of affairs. A happy marriage is a function of finding the right person, and these movies focus on the ups and downs of doing so.

Most commonly, however, are movies that present marriage as a stable backdrop to the important things in life. In these movies, the dramatic tension comes elsewhere—from the protagonists’ work, hobbies, past history, whatever. Marriage is just a form of scenery, in the background giving some context to the characters but not being particularly important in and of itself.

Now, I’m not advocating that all films focus on marriage, or that those that do always take a particular viewpoint on it. However, it was very refreshing to watch a movie that held up marriage as important above and beyond the romantic impulses that lead people into it.

This fresh take on marriage is probably what made Fireproof a commercial success, grossing more than 30 million dollars (and clearly not costing that much to make). Because it made money, I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll see more films like it in the future.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Squirming at the gospel

Last night I watched the movie Fireproof. It came out in 2008, and it’s a story of a fireman whose career is going well but his marriage is falling apart. The movie presents his feelings and efforts as he tries to save his marriage.

What makes this movie unique are its explicitly Christian messages. Specifically, at several points in the film a character presents the gospel message to another. Also, the film emphasizes the importance of marriage as a sacred bond, something important above and beyond the feelings of the moment.

I’m not much of a film critic, but I would say that in terms of production value, this movie is better than a Lifetime channel movie but not up to the standards of a big-budget Hollywood film. It stars former child-star Kirk Cameron, who did a credible job as the lead, and much—but not all—of the film was believable.

I woke up this morning thinking about several aspects of the film, or, more accurately, my reaction to it. The thing that surprised me the most was that I found myself a bit uncomfortable with the gospel-presentation scenes. It’s not that they were done badly nor did I disagree with their message in any way. Rather, I found myself cringing at how openly the movie presented the gospel. I watched it on the computer, and during those scenes I wanted to check my e-mail or read the newspaper headlines.

For whatever reason, whether it’s because of my being in academics, a less-religious part of the country, or whatever, I’ve inadvertently bought into a peculiar view of the appropriateness of talking about the gospel with other people. Namely, it’s violating a social norm—something not to be done.

As I experience it, the norm about talking about religious beliefs goes something like this. It’s okay to have your own beliefs, even to hold them strongly. It’s also okay to discreetly acknowledge your affiliation with a particular set of beliefs. However, if you’re going to talk about your religious beliefs openly, you should do so with someone who shares your beliefs. It’s probably not appropriate to talk about them with people who don’t already agree with them. As Stephen Carter wrote about it in The Culture of Disbelief, the message is that Christian faith should be kept almost as a hobby—fine if you do it at home, but don’t bring it into the public sphere.

My squirming at the gospel message in Fireproof may just reflect that I squirm at a lot of things, but I think it also results from me having partially bought into the “don’t ask, don’t tell” view of the Christian message.

Now, I realize that this can be taken too far the other direction, and people can become obnoxious bores with the gospel (or anything else for that matter), but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

So, I guess that my goal is to talk about my religious convictions as freely as I talk about other things that I care about or am thinking about, such as bicycling, gardening, or In-N-Out hamburgers (though, that last one may put me into obnoxious territory).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Excellence in promoting fear

I was teaching today about the culture of fear hypothesis, and a student gave this commercial as an example. When she described it, I actually didn't believe her, but as usually happens, truth is stranger than lecture.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

How to celebrate graduation

Our seventeen-year-old, Gus, graduated from high school this week, so we had the traditional end-of-the-year pool party, and went to his graduation. All good and proper. My favorite moment, though, was learning how he celebrated the last day of class. After getting up way to early for four long years (class starts at 7:20), on his first day done, Gus set his alarm for the usual 6 am. He did this so that he could turn it off and go back to sleep for the rest of the morning, something he's been wanting to do for some time.

He's taking a year off to work (save up money) and travel (spend money). In fall 2012, he'll attend Wheaton College.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


One of my life goals--believe it or not--is to play more jokes on people. I used to all the time, but somewhere along the line I kind of got boring; hence my renewed commitment to silliness.

As this video shows, really funny jokes can be simple and playful.

Thanks Gus (with whom I laughed really hard with at this video while in line at the new Sonic drive-in)

Thursday, June 09, 2011

More God, Less Crime... the Website

In support of his new book, More God Less Crime, Byron Johnson, of Baylor, has put up a wonderful website about the relationship of religion and crime.

Years ago, an undergraduate student and I published a meta-analysis of this literature, and we found an overall negative correlation between religion on crime. (I.e., religious involvement and affiliation corresponded with less criminal behavior). I haven't done much in the area since, and clearly this book is the definitive statement on research on this area. (Also, it's a great book-support site).

Check it out.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Chance favors a connected mind

Some interesting ideas, in a compelling video, from Stephen Johnson.

Found on

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Religion incongruence as the norm

Mark Chaves, of Duke sociology, has written this very interesting paper about what he calls religious congruence (or, more appropriately, religious incongruence).

He uses "'religious congruence' in three related senses: (1) individuals' religious ideas constitute a tight, logically connected, integrated network of internally consistent beliefs and values; (2) religious and other practices and actions follow directly from those beliefs and values; and (3) the religious beliefs and values that individuals express in certain, mainly religious, contexts are consistently held and chronically accessible across contexts, situations, and life domains. In short, it can mean that religious ideas hang together, that religious beliefs and actions hang together, or that religious beliefs and values indicate stable and chronically accessible dispositions in people."

He then makes the case that "people's religious ideas and practices generally are fragmented, compartmentalized, loosely connected, unexamined, and context dependent. This is not a controversial claim; it's established knowledge. But this established knowledge does not inform our research and thinking as centrally and deeply as it should."

I like this article because it moves us away from holding up an ideal of religion as some tight, consistent scientific proposition, and it allows for a messier, richer understanding of it. In that sense, religion is much more like everything else in life than it is a scientific equation.

Thanks Jay!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Becoming a diva

It's a well-known unvalidated assumption that best-selling authors are also high-maintenance people to work with; in short, they are divas. Because I've never seen any studies that establish the causality direction of this relationship, I'm not taking any chances. As such, I am trying to become (even) more difficult to work with, just in case it helps with sales.

My first effort: The publicist at Bethany House asked me to get a cellphone so that he could get a hold of me more easily for last minute interviews regarding my new book.

Well, the old me would have happily agreed, but I put some thought into it, and I replied that I would, as long as I got the request as a Haiku.

I received the following Haiku, which I enjoyed quite a bit, and off I went to get a cell phone.

Hungry media
monster never satisfied;
cell phone appeases

I think I like this high-maintenance thing!

Monday, May 16, 2011

An article on deconversion from Christianity

I've just published an article on deconversion from Christianity, i.e., why some Christians leave the faith. In it, three coauthors and I examined 50 on-line accounts in which people who have left Christianity explain why they did so. Their accounts coalesce into several themes, including:
* Theological concerns
* God failing them
* Interactions with Christians
* and interactions with non-Christians.

It's in the Journal of Religion & Society, an interesting on-line journal.

Here's the abstract: 

"This article examines the written narratives from fifty former Christians. In these narratives, drawn from an online community of deconverts, the writers described their experiences with and explanations for leaving the Christian faith. Several themes emerged as to why they left, including: intellectual and theological concerns, a feeling that God had failed them, and various frustrations with Christians. The writers gave little mention to non-Christians as pulling them out of the faith. These narratives emphasized external, rather than internal, attributions for the deconversion. They also identified primarily “push” rather than “pull” factors as the cause of deconversion. While some narratives outlined the costs and benefits of deconversion, others told of seeking moral rightness regardless of the cost."

Let me know what you think...

Friday, May 13, 2011

On the receiving end of the Flynn Effect

The Flynn Effect is the observation that IQ scores have steadily risen across the world for decades now. While this social fact is open to multiple interpretations, I have certainly witnessed in my own life. That is, my kids are definitely smarter and better educated than I was at their age.

Case in point: 10-year-old Gus and I last night went to the local middle school orientation for next year, and he came home talking about whether he wanted to learn Latin or German (French, Spanish, and Chinese being the other options). When I was entering fifth grade, I think the only new words that I was learning were vulgarities.

This morning, when I was making him breakfast, I listened to him humming a classical tune that he's learning in his piano lessons. At that point, I realized that I too had been humming--the theme from the Flintstones.

I'm all for my kids doing better in life than I have, but they are taking it too far!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thanks that I'm thankful for today

I had a nice conversation yesterday with my friend Mark, and he talked about how our perception of what we need in life varies substantially by where we live in the world--distinguishing "first-world" vs. "third-world" needs.

So, today I have been thankful for many of the things that I normally don't take time to be thankful for, including:
* fresh, safe food to eat
* clean water to drink
* a sewer system to remove waste
* a sturdy house to keep the elements out
* the prospect of decades more life to enjoy.

What are you thankful for today?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why denominations grow internationally?

Here's an abstract from a paper "Exporting Christianity: Governance and Doctrine in the Globalization of US Denominations" by Gordon H. Hanson and Chong Xiang

"In this paper we build a model of market competition among religious denominations, using a framework that involves incomplete contracts and the production of club goods. We treat denominations akin to multinational enterprises, which decide which countries to enter based on local market conditions and their own “productivity.” The model yields predictions for how a denomination’s religious doctrine and governance structure affect its ability to attract adherents. We test these predictions using data on the foreign operations of US Protestant denominations in 2005 from the World Christian Database. Consistent with the model, we find that (1) denominations with stricter religious doctrine attract more adherents in countries in which the risk of natural disaster or disease outbreak is greater and in which government provision of health services is weaker, and (2) denominations with a decentralized governance structure attract more adherents in countries in which the productivity of pastor effort is higher. These findings shed light on factors determining the composition of religion within countries, helping account for the rise of new Protestant denominations in recent decades."

It's interesting to read scholars in other disciplines take such different approaches than sociologists.


Thanks David!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter one-up manship

Over the weekend, we attended a wonderful Easter service at our church, complete with very well-done drama. (Our church benefits from have several writers and drama-types in it). I was going to brag about this to my sister, but when we got home from church, there was an e-mail from her saying how beautiful were the Easter services at St. Peters in Rome (and they were just a couple of rows back). Wow, that's even more impressive than what we do here in Storrs, CT!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Going to college

My 17-year-old son, Gus, was accepted to a Christian college (hint: It's in a suburb west of Chicago named Wheaton), and today he sent back the acceptance form. One of the questions asked if he had any special dietary needs. Me being me, I suggested that you put that he can only eat steak and lobster. This time, however, Cathy seriously one-upped me... she suggested that he write "kosher". It's probably best that he's filling out the forms himself.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

An olympic sport for the rest of us...

Rabbit jumping Everyone's doing it now!

(Though it's just a matter of time before they need to start testing for BPEDs--Bunny Performance Enhancing Drugs).

Thanks KT Cat.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Love and poison ivy

We live near the local high school, and there's a nice stonewall at the end of our streets. Periodically I see teenage couples sitting on the wall while canoodling. It's not indecent, though it usually looks a bit awkward for them; however, the entire wall is covered with poison ivy. Sometimes when I'm passing by, I'll point this out to them, but other times I just think it's a useful metaphor for teenage love--not without its unexpected costs.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pass the gripes forward

I had an interesting experience with the concept of "passing it forward", but instead of charity, it was griping.

At the gym, I was getting dressed after going for a swim, and Person A walked in and launched into a several minute diatribe about some injustice that he perceived during his workout. Apparently he was walking around the track, and another walker, Person B, asked him to walk in slower lane. He felt that he was going fast enough to merit being on the faster lane. It didn't sound like that big of a deal, but by the time he got to the locker room he was spewing.

He left the locker room, and Persons C and D, who listened to the rant, started griping about how much he was griping. They complained about several minutes about it.

That left me, Person E, thinking about the whole interaction and just shaking my head about it.

So, there you have it... a simple unpleasant interaction rippled through various interactions. There is something to everyday love and courtesy in even the smallest of interactions.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Go Huskies! I mean, autism research.

Last night, while driving home from an errand, I noticed that the main building on campus was lighted in blue light. (Usually just a regular white light). It's final four, UConn is in it, and UConn's colors are blue and white. I thought that was a fun idea and hoped it would become a tradition for when UConn teams do well.

While... I spoke with a neighbor today, one who is in the University administration, and he explained that the blue light is to support autism.  Apparently an autism advocacy group has asked universities to shine a blue light on this weekend, and it just happens to be the final four.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Whatever happened to cogitation?

Periodically I'm blindsided by a cultural reference or a piece of information that I think is common knowledge but it turns out to be a generational thing. A recent example:

Last week I was in a meeting with a fellow faculty member and several graduate students. At one point, the other faculty member said that he wanted to "cogitate" on something. The graduate students (who are bright people) looked puzzled, and one of them asked what that word meant. I was really surprised because I thought that was one of those everyone-knows kind of words.

So, later that afternoon I asked my Sociological Methods class if they knew what it meant, and not one of the 40 kids did. I asked several other people who were over 40, and they all did.

So, here's my question: What happened to cogitation? (The word, not the action). Is it the case that most young people don't know it and most old do? If so, why? I don't think that it's just that young people know far fewer words; in fact, they probably know more than past generations. Also, I haven't found this big a generational difference with other words, so... what happened?

Something to cogitate on....


Friday, March 18, 2011

Interview with me in USA Today on divorce rates

Here is an article that came out in USA Today earlier this week about divorce rates. I enjoyed the interview, and the information comes from my book.

Still, I was surprised by the comments on it. It seems like many articles on Christianity devolve into the same type of discussion regardless of their content. Troll-magnets.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Taking a stand against standardized testing

This last week my fourth-grade son, Floyd, brought home a request from his school. They asked us parents to make an extra effort in encouraging our children that week. To facilitate our encouragement, they gave us 6 stickers, and we were to put some sort of praising statement calling for our children to perform as well as they could.

What was the special occasion for which we were to encourage our children?

Was it learning more material? No...

Was it doing something that would benefit themselves? No...

It was Connecticut Mastery Test week. This means that all the kids in town take a standardized test, and if they do well the district looks good.

I wasn't too thrilled about the school emphasizing this in a way they hadn't anything else, including things perhaps more important, such as learning.

So, I was asked to provide slogans, but I wasn't explicitly told what I could and couldn't use. So, I thought that as long as we were focused on the collective good, why not go to the professionals, and I modified revolutionary slogans developed in the Soviet Union back in the day.

So, Monday morning all the other kids had notes on their lockers telling them that their parents were proud of them, and calling on them to do their best. In contrast, here's a picture of Floyd's locker.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Enough with the upselling

Last week I took a several day trip to the Midwest, and it felt like I spent most of my travel time listening to people "upselling" me. You know, when you buy one thing, the person selling it to you starts asking if there are other things that you want as well.

* I checked in at United Airlines, and the check-in kiosk asked if I wanted to purchase seats with extra legroom or an earlier place in line.
* I bought a bottle of water at the newsstand as was asked if I would like to buy some tea (in bags, not even a bottle!) for my trip. Now, why would I want a tea bag for my trip?
* At Kohl's, after I arrived, I spend most the transaction explaining to the cashier that I really did not want a Kohl's charge card--even with the extra 10% off.
* At a supermarket, they have the "item of the week" at the checkout stand, and they ask if you want it.

I recently went to a hospital to visit a sick relative, and at least I didn't get any upselling there. For an extra $200, we will make sure that he doesn't get an infection." "Would you like to upgrade the quality of the food we serve?"

I'm probably just being cranky about it because I'm getting old (why, back in the good old days....).  Also, I realize that they're just doing what they are told to do.  Still, I wonder, though, if I should start practicing "downselling." Maybe each time I'm asked if I want something more with my purchase, I'll ask if I can have the item for less money. Or maybe reduce what I'm purchasing. "You know, I think I would like just half of a hamburger. Could you take 50% off?"

Or maybe I could start selling them something that I own.  "We've got an old television set at home, just sitting in the garage.  Would you like to buy it for 20% off today?"

Hey, if we're going to negotiate, why not?


Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Regulating my intake of information

This last week I was in the Midwest attending to my ailing father, and among other things during the trip, I changed my consumption of information. I carried a cellphone with me, so that I could be available to family and friends. I read the newspaper at the hotel (hey, it was free).  I even watched some television--mostly CNN in my father's hospital room. Normally I don't carry a cellphone, read the newspaper, or watch tv, and this last week reminded me of why I don't.

I strongly prefer exerting control over what I think about and react to and when I do it. Now, if I'm in a burning building--I want to know about it, even if I'm thinking about something else. But, most things in the paper and on TV are not things I really care about, and yet just being exposed to them takes up time and energy on my part that would be better spent elsewhere. Even after I turn off the television or fold the newspaper, I still think about about what I saw and read. With phone calls, while I appreciate talking with people, but the calls often interrupt other activities.  (Thank goodness for e-mail).

So, day-to-day, I carefully regulate incoming information as part of prioritizing what I think about. I read the Economist each week, for I tend to value what it covers and how it does so. Other than that... my ignorance of what the media says is is bliss, and, if something is really important, someone will tell me about it. Other than that, I want to be thinking about my research, my family, my faith, UConn basketball, etc... stuff that I see as even more important that the latest political scandal or what celebrities are saying.


Sunday, March 06, 2011

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Chesterton on committees

"I've searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees."
- G.K. Chesterton

Need I say more?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Religion story lines in the media

This week I've been reading various studies of how the news media regards religion. In 1993, Peter Steinfels, sketched out a list of basic story lines in the coverage of religion. They are:

* Religious leader has feet of clay (or is a scoundrel)
* Ancient faith struggles to adjust to modern times
* Scholars challenge long-standing beliefs
* Interfaith harmony overcomes inherited enmity
* New translation of sacred scripture sounds funny
* Devoted members of a zealous religious group turn out to be warm, ordinary folks.

Just thinking about recent stories that I've read, this list fits a lot of them. Though I might add something about religion in politics.

Can you think of other common story lines?

(Quoted from Silk 1995, Unsecular Media)

Monday, February 21, 2011

An attribution error in teaching

I had the most interesting experience in my criminology class. I've taught it maybe 8 times over the years, and it always go well. Hey, who doesn't love serial murderer jokes?

Well, this class has met five times, and the first four times were dreadful. Sure, I got the material out, and the students participated enough, but the whole atmosphere was dry and boring. Think tumbleweeds blowing through the classroom, crickets chirping, dry coughs--well, you get it.  They even didn't laugh at a particular slide that I put up that for 8 years running has caused uproarious laughter.

In thinking about it, I've had had this happen in two other classes here at UConn, and all three boring classes were in similar classrooms--about 80 people, old fashioned seats/desks, and crowded rooms, and so I started to wonder if part of the problem was the physical setting. I talked to a friend about this, and he suggested that I do an experiment and switch classrooms. I did, to a larger, auditorium-style classroom, and it went great. They were engaged, talkative, and, most importantly, laughed at my jokes.

I'm so attuned to person-attributions, such as I'm doing a good/bad job of teaching or the students are good/bad participants, that I overlook physical atmosphere effects. If nothing else, I'm requesting auditorium-style seating from now on.

This also makes me wonder about church seating. Seems like a lot of churches have a similar layout to my "boring" classrooms. Does anyone know of research on the effects of sanctuary layout? It would be interesting.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Yet another fear message

Last week, I flew out to Seattle for a conference, and, as I usually try to do, I sat in the back of the airplane (maximizes chance for open seat next to me). This meant that I got to listen to two stewardesses talking next to me, in between shifts of racing the food cart up and down the aisle.

One of them went of on a bit of a rant about high school girls getting pregnant, and she made the case that because of some reality tv show about teenage moms (we don't have TV, so I'll take it on faith that it exists), now high school girls are intentionally getting pregnant so that they can be on reality TV. The stewardess paused and mournfully exclaimed, "what is this country coming to?"

Certainly the number of out-of-wedlock births has increased, though much faster among women over 20 than under 20, still it's hard to see a reality-tv show tie in. Given all the stupid things that people do on reality tv, I certainly hope that not many people seek to emulate them.

At the very least, I've gotten to the point where I almost automatically discount statements that include the phrase: "what is xxxxx coming to."  They seem to almost always be wrong or at least very exaggerated.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why I'm not a computer tech

I used to think that I am reasonably competent when it comes to computer use, until this week.

First, I had a laptop given to me, and while I enjoyed using it, the screen was rather dark. So, if it was sunny outside, I would have to close the curtains. This has gone on for about a month before I realized that I could make the screen brighter.

Then, I was dragging a file in Windows, and I unexpectedly sneezed. When I looked up, the file was no where to be found. I had accidentally dragged it into some random folder, and it took me about 5 minutes to find it.

Finally, and this is the best, my high school son Floyd got a computer last Fall, and part of the agreement was that I would install a parental filter on it. I did, and several times I adjusted the settings on it to make it safer for a teenager to use. Well, come to find out that the filtering program that I use doesn't support Macs, so there's been not filter on his computer. Doh-h-h-h.

So, if you need any help with your computer, just let me know.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ted Haggard, falling down and not letting go

GQ recently had an interesting interview with Ted Haggard, former bigtime Evangelical pastor.

In it I was struck by how much difficulty he seems to have of letting go what happened--both by him, and, especially in reaction to him. As I understand it, New Life Church gave him a big severance payment but required him to leave the state for a couple of years.

Now Ted is back in Colorado Springs, staring a new church.

This article got me thinking about some pastors' ego-investment and identification with their churches--especially when the pastor either planted the church or had been with it for a long time.

When things are going well in that type of situation, what's good for the church is also good for the pastor. The church grows, s/he feels good about doing a good job. When the church has significant accomplishments, some of the credit goes to the pastor. In this sense, the ego-invested pastor basically spends most their work life doing things that can make them feel better about themselves and look better to others. (Not saying this happens to all or even most pastors).

This provides incentive for the pastor to put a lot of work and time into the church, making it all that more successful.

The problems with this approach are put into relief when the pastor is forced out of the church. It must be very confusing for the pastor when a group of people decide that what's best for the church (e.g., the pastor having to leave) is not what the pastor feels is best for himself/herself.

This must make it very confusing for someone like Ted Haggard to understand that an action deemed best for the church pushes him away from it.

I suppose a corollary to this might be that some pastors feel that what's good for them is, by definition, good for the church.

This highlights the need for pastors to have healthy, balanced lives outside of the church so that they don't view the church almost as an extension of themselves.


Monday, February 07, 2011

Body posture in a developing country

Over the break, my wife and I spent a glorious week on the Caribbean island of Nevis. We spent our time swimming, snorkeling, walking along the beach, and driving on the wrong side of the road.

After a few days, I started to notice something. When we were around both tourists (mostly American) and locals, the locals had much better body posture. As a whole, they stood up rather straight and had normal walking gaits. In contrast, it was not infrequent for the tourists to be slumping or hunched over. After I noticed this, I started paying more attention, and I found relatively few exceptions.

It made me wonder if the American (western?) lifestyle, complete with sedentary activity and high levels of stress, didn't manifest itself on our bodies. This certainly seems to be the case with peoples' weight, but I wonder if it's also the case with body posture.

I don't know if I stand up straighter now, after a week on Nevis, but it sure helped me get the real winter that we've had here for the past month.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Professor Hitler reacts to a snow day

The best part about yet another snow day... somebody had time to put together this video.  (Jay Hickey is the guy who announces class cancellations).

Saturday, January 29, 2011

ChristianityToday Book of the Year...

Christianity Today has named my book its Book of the Year on the topic of Christianity and Culture. They write:

"With wit and wisdom, Wright uses scholarly means to serve kingdom ends, defusing anxiety about the American evangelical prospect and reigniting vision. It's a work of both smart debunking and kind edification, utterly necessary in a time of statistically aided ideological warfare."

I really, really appreciate this. The last award that I won was in high school when I was voted to be the "most likely to have to wait a long time before winning another award."

It's most gratifying to have others appreciate my work for what I intended it to be. Thank you CT!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

200,000 visitors old...

This week my blog received its 200,000 visitor... boggles the mind. (Though, presumably 199,000 were looking for something else.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

The American ideal: Lukewarm religion?

Something that I enjoy in writing a blog is hearing other people's perspectives on things that I'm interested in. For example, awhile ago I posted a list of religious countries, and I got this comment:

"As a Brit living in the U.S., I find the religious angle the hardest thing to deal with. It is pretty much social and employment suicide to admit to being an atheist in these parts. There may be freedom of religion but there is no freedom from religion."

As an Evangelical Christian, I'm aware of the pressure in my workplace and in social situations to be discreet about my religion. As Stephen Carter wrote in his book The Culture of Disbelief, religion is expected to be like a hobby--fine if you do it at home, but you should bring it to others too much.

However, it seems that a similar dynamic works with atheism--that atheists feel pressure to keep mum about their beliefs.

I wonder, then, if the American ideal of religion is not take it too seriously. So, if you're a believer, try not to overdo it. If you don't believe, don't be too strident about it. Be lukewarm, and you'll fit in.

(For a biblical perspective on this, see Revelation 3:16).

What do you think?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Back from vacation

Cathy and I celebrated our 20th anniversary with 8 days in the Caribbean, on the wonderful island of Nevis. I'll post more on it, but here's a before and after picture from yesterday. What a difference 12 hours makes!

11 am (ferry to St. Kitts and airport), and then
11 pm (30 inches of snow while we were gone)