23 posts categorized "Religion"

September 09, 2013

Ritual and Renewal

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

At the start of the fall semester, my university held a convocation to formally welcome incoming freshmen and transfer students to the student body. Students wore ceremonial gowns, and faculty wore the decorative gowns of their alma maters. Parents of incoming students looked on with pride, and applauded loudly when their student’s dean formally “presented” them to the university president.

Although most students I observed seemed less than excited to be at the early morning ceremony, rituals have a purpose.  That’s why we have so many.

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August 12, 2013

Sacred Lines and Symbols: A Journey Through Japan

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

One of the first things I noticed when walking around Shinagawa-ku, an area in Tokyo, were these folded paper ornaments outside of many homes and businesses. They looked like this:

Jw 1

I later learned that these paper streamers, called shide, were hung in preparation for a Shinto festival. A piece of paper might not be a particularly religious object and yet, folded in this fashion, it became a significant symbol to believers. 

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June 28, 2012

Civil Religion


By Karen Sternheimer

For most people, the word “religion” connotes one of the major organized faiths humans have practiced for centuries. Religious traditions typically involve a sacred text, holidays and rituals, and deeply held beliefs practiced within a congregation. Sociologist Emile Durkheim noted that religion helps to create solidarity, and is marked by distinguishing the sacred from the profane.

But we also practice another form of religion, often without our awareness, which sociologists call civil religion. In his 1967 article, “Civil Religion in America,” sociologist Robert N. Bellah wrote of how American ideals have taken on a role similar to those of traditional religious symbols in the United States.

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March 08, 2012

Subcultures among Us: The Amish

clip_image001By Karen Sternheimer

Many people navigate living within both the broader society and a subculture that connects people together within a smaller group.The Amish are a unique subculture living in the U.S., in that they generally do not adopt the norms, customs, and lifestyle of the broader society.

As a recently aired PBS documentary detailed, the Amish live much as many other Americans did before the Industrial Revolution, in rural areas typically without electricity or most modern conveniences that many of us take for granted. They wear simple clothing and believe that too great a focus on individuality distracts from the devotion to God; likewise, technology interferes with this devotion as well as family connections. As one member told filmmakers, working the land is the best way to be closest to God, and many of the Amish today as in the past are farmers. (Click here to see a clip from another documentary, The Amish and Us.)

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February 22, 2012

Whitney Houston’s Funeral: The Most Integrated Church Service

clip_image001By Janis Prince Inniss

Whitney Houston’s first album came out in 1985, the time as I was getting into my own music, going to parties and to nightclubs. Perhaps, not surprisingly then, I have found myself drawn to the coverage of the superstar’s death.

When I first learned that her family opted to have a private, invitation-only funeral service, I surprised myself by feeling left out. What about the fans, I thought? What about the idea of having a huge event at an arena in New Jersey, her home state?

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January 12, 2012

A Durkheimian Christmas

clip_image001By Janis Prince Inniss

As I set off to the mall a couple nights before Christmas, I was thinking about how I might apply sociological concepts to holiday rituals. My husband had just introduced my Mum to Festivus (you know, "for the rest of us") from the TV show Seinfeld. She had never seen that episode and because my husband sounded fairly convincing, she had no way of knowing that Festivus does not include washing cars, watering the garden or opening a gift - all of the things we had done earlier in the day.

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June 01, 2011

Enraptured with Sociology

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

I heard that the “rapture” was supposed to happen on May 21st. But it is apparent that it didn’t happen.

The group who believed that the world would end on May 21st could be considered a cult. In sociology, a cult is a “fragmentary religious group that lacks a permanent structure.” They have fragmented out of an established legitimately recognized religion, yet it may not last because of a lack of structure. If it lasts over time and achieves legitimacy from a host culture, then it could achieve the status of a religion. Of course, that’s not their current goal.File:Teachings of Jesus 40 of 40. the rapture. one in the bed. Jan Luyken etching. Bowyer Bible.gif

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February 21, 2010

The Function of Religion

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

When we were first married, my husband and I did not go to church on a regular basis. We only attended church with my father-in-law on special occasions: Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter Sunday, and Christmas. So we weren’t exactly CEOs—people who attend church on Christmas and Easter only, but we weren’t regulars either.

We talked about the kind of church we would be interested in, but didn’t look for one. Once, however, we attended a function in which my father-in-law’s church showed a video of all their ministries, and we realized that this church was already doing many of the things we were looking for. So our decision was easy; we started attending that church on a weekly basis and found it fulfilling.

After we moved from Texas and once we settled into our Florida home, my husband and I started looking for a church to attend. We found the nearest church of the same denomination as the one in clip_image002Texas and made that our new church (Church One). The experience was okay; we liked many of the church members and were happy to meet several people with whom we have become good friends.

We did not enjoy the sermons however, since they were boring! Yep—I said it. They were boring. Boiled down to essential elements, church services are music and sermon. The music at this church was definitely not my favored style, but that was okay with me. I hoped to find the sermons inspiring and educational though. Instead, they were dull; most Sundays we had trouble finding a take-home kernel.

Even more troubling was that my stepdaughter—then only about 12—got even less than my husband and I did from the sermons. (There weren’t enough youth at this church to support a separate ministry, so there was no respite from the impenetrable sermons for her.) When I learned that our minister was retiring, I decided that must explain his lack of enthusiasm for a subject he had spent decades studying. Without another church in our neighborhood of the same denomination, and not being willing to take a long drive on Sunday mornings, we stuck it out.

A few years after we had been attending Church One, on my own, I decided to stop in at Church Two to see why there were always so many cars heading there clip_image004on Sunday mornings. Church Two is a different denomination from Church One, and is actually the one in which I was christened. I loved the sermon! The minister—the fictitiously named Pastor Smith—was a fantastic public speaker. As soon as I got home, I encouraged the rest of the family to give Church Two a try.

The next Sunday when the three of us arrived, someone whisked my step-daughter away to the Youth Ministry. The sermon was like any good talk: clearly laid out with excellent examples to demonstrate the major points, sprinkled with a few drops of humor. My husband enjoyed the service, as did I. But the true test was yet to come: What was my stepdaughter’s response to her experience? She was engaged. Excited. Curious. She talked all the way home about what she learned. And she was anxious to return to Church Two! And that’s how we became church members at Church Two.

Fast-forward some years. We still loved attending Church Two and continued to attend regularly. One Saturday afternoon as I read the newspaper, a headline caught my eye: it said something like “Pastor Admits Internet Pornography Addiction”. Stunned does not begin to describe my reaction. There was MY pastor—pictured—admitting that he was addicted to internet pornography. That was part of the news. The other major part: Pastor Smith was voluntarily stepping down from the church (although given that he confessed his addiction to church higher-ups, I suspect they helped him decide to resign). I called my husband over and together we read the shocking news.

There is no indication that Pastor Smith broke the law; he was not involved with child pornography, and as far as I know, even with a search from an outside computer firm, no pornography was found on any church computers. So should Pastor Smith have stepped down? Would his marital status affect your answer to this question? In light of other high-profile scandals, such as former megachurch pastor Ted Haggard's admission to using methamphetamines and visiting a male prostitute, Pastor Smith’s behavior seems less troubling.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim argued from a functionalist perspective that the function of religion in society is for cohesion. Religious people meet, usually at church, so that they can, with regularity, share a common set of values and beliefs. What happens, then, when a leading figure of the church behaves in a way that conflicts with church doctrine? How much imperfection can we and should we tolerate in church leaders? In the case of Church Two, the answer was swift and unequivocal: church administrators would decide when and if Pastor Smith could return to the pulpit after addiction treatment, but he would never be allowed to lead Church Two again. Does that response make sense to you from a functionalist perspective? What other sociological theories might explain why Pastor Smith might have lost is position in our church?

May 26, 2009

Age, Cohort, and Period Effects of Religion

author_brad By Bradley Wright

In sociological research, we often study the change of things over time. It’s reasonably easy to demonstrate how something changes over time, but it’s more difficult to explain why it changes because there are multiple causal processes that produce such change. In particular, three that are frequently described in demographic research are age, cohort, and period effects. I’ll illustrate each one using data about religious change over time.

An age effect is how people change as they get older. As people progress from childhood to adolescence to adulthood they go through various changes. Not only do their bodies change (as we start to lament once we hit middle age), but they change socially as well. For example, political beliefs can change with age; many people report being more liberal in their youth and more conservative in their older age. People tend to earn more money as they age too (at least until they hit retirement).

In terms of religion, it’s commonly observed the people become more religious as they age. To illustrate this, I examined data from the General Social Survey (GSS), a survey collected every two or three years from 1972 to the present. One of the questions asked if respondents identified with a formal religion, and, if so, which one. In the following figure, I chart how many of the respondents professed themselves to be Christians as a function of age. About 75% of the respondents in their twenties professed Christianity (the bar on the left), and this increased steadily until almost 90% of those in their seventies and eighties professed Christianity. This illustrates an age effect—adherence to Christianity increases with age.

clip_image002Not only do people change with age, but they also change with when they were born. Different cohorts (or generations) act and believe differently than other generations.

Here’s an easy example: If you’re a college student, go find your parents’ high school yearbooks and get a laugh out of how they dressed. In the 1970s and 80s, boys wore their hair long, and girls had frizzy hair, and we all wore embarrassingly short shorts. If you want to see something really crazy, go back another generation and look at young people from the 1960s.

With religion, we might expect a similar effect. Maybe different generations experience religion differently, beyond how they age. To examine this, I used GSS data to look at the relationship between age and Christianity for three different birth cohorts—respondents born in the 1940s and the 1950s. The first graph replicates the graph above, levels of Christianity over age, for people born in the 1940s. The next for those in the 1950s. As you can see, the relationship between age and Christianity changes by cohort. The respondents who were born in the 1940s held steady in their profession of Christianity as they aged, but the later cohort actually declined somewhat.



In addition to age and cohort effects, there are also have history effects. Here society changes in some way that affects everyone. The classic example is the Great Depression of the 1930s. It affected people regardless of their age or their birth cohort. Various aspects of religion change with historical changes. Wars and other times of trouble might reinforce the strength of religious beliefs. The social turmoil of the 1960s led young people to question existing social institutions, including organized religion.

As a simple illustration of a historical effect, I took levels of professed Christianity by decade, for the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and the 2000s. As shown in the graph, a smaller percentage of the population is professing Christianity with each decade. (To be clear, since the population is growing, there are actually more


professed Christians in the country now than in the 1970s, they just constitute a smaller percentage.) This appears to be a historical effect—the times they are a changing.

If this weren’t confusing enough, age effects can change by both cohorts and periods. (In statistical terms, this is a called an interaction effect.) So, the relationship between age and Christianity now might be different than it was in the past. Who knows, maybe the relationship between age and cohort various by historical period.

The upshot of all of this is that it’s rather difficult to make sense of social changes over time, and this leads to a fair amount of confusion about what’s really going on in society. What seems to be an easy question, for example, changes in professed Christianity over time, is somewhat difficult to make sense of. In this post, I’ve only looked at one aspect of religion, but we could do similar analyses for other religions as well as other aspects of religion, such as belief in God, importance of religion, and attendance at religious services.

I suppose that this post serves as a warning about over-simplifying social trends. If nothing else, this difficulty will always give us sociologists something to do with our time.

March 14, 2009

How American Congregations are Changing (and Staying the Same)

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Have you ever picked up a sociology journal and tried to read one of its articles? Well, good luck if the article uses numbers because most quantitative sociological research uses multivariate analysis such as regression that can be difficult for those without a background in statistics to understand. Now, once you get used to this type of research, these articles can make sense, but the methods do pose a barrier for most non-academics . (Qualitative studies have their own problems that typically involve using way too many big, funny sounding words that probably don’t mean anything). That’s probably why the journal American Sociological Review is not sold in supermarket checkout lines.

Every once in awhile, however, studies come along that demonstrate that some of the most important things we learn are simple percentages. Sociologist Mark Chaves provides an example with his National Congregations Study. For this study, conducted in 2006-7, Chaves interviewed pastors or other church leaders from about 1,500 churches drawn from a nationwide, random sample, and he asked them a bunch of questions about their churches. He had done a similar study in 1998, and this allowed him to measure how American congregations have changed over the last decade.

Any guesses as to how?
As reported in the Winter 2008 issue of Sociology of Religion, he and a coauthor found four main changes in congregations in the last ten years:

1) clip_image002Churches use a lot more technology than they used to. They are much more likely to use e-mail to communicate with their members and web pages to advertise themselves in the community. I suppose that this change didn’t surprise me much. The church I attend now has blogs, web pages, Facebook groups, and uses something called Twitter, which may or may not involve birds. This technological change has implications for congregations. By better advertising their beliefs and values, churches might attract like-minded people from further away. This might increase the theological homogeneity of congregations—having people who have similar beliefs with one another than might have previously been the case. Technology also costs money and time, which raises the question of what are churches cutting back on to support their use of technology.

2) Worship services have become more informal. Services are now less likely to have choirs and to use written programs. Instead, they are more likely to have services featuring drums, jumping, shouting, dancing, raised hands in praise, applause, and calling out “amen.” There are some variation in which churches do which—with Catholic churches less increased informality and black churches showing more—but this increased informality appears to be a general trend in religion as it is in society as a whole. clip_image004In line with this trend, probably the best known Evangelical pastor, Rick Warren, who said the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration, is known for wearing Hawaiian shirts when he preaches.

3) Clergy age. From 1998 to 2006, the average age of the American adults has increased by 1 year, but the average age of pastors has increased by 5 years! The median age of the head clergy in the study went from 48 years to 53 years old. That’s a big change, and it’s happening the most in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches (and least in Evangelical and black churches.) What is causing this big change? One explanation is that fewer future-pastors are going into seminary right after college, and more are taking on the ministry as a second career, after retiring from a secular career.

4) The demographic make-up of congregations is changing. Overall, the average age of congregation members is increasing faster than the general population. For example, in 2006, 30 percent of the congregants were over age 60, but in 1998, only 25% were. Also, the racial and ethnic make-up of congregations is becoming more diverse. For example, from 1998 to 2006 the number of completely white congregations dropped from 20% to 14%.

Now, so far I have focused on the changes in American churches because, for some reason, discussing changes is more interesting than thinking about what stays the same; nonetheless, the study found a number of things that have stayed about the same over the past decade. They include the median size of congregations (about 75 people), the high number of women in the pews, the low number of women in the pulpit, and involvement in social services.

There, wasn’t that interesting, and you didn’t have to read a single regression coefficient. Maybe sociology journals just need to make themselves more accessible to the general public. I’m thinking more pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on the cover?

(By the way, you get extra credit if you recognized the drummer pictured above).

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