Skip to content

We’ve Moved!

Please head on over to my new blogs page to view and interact with this site. These pages will remain visible, but future posts will only appear on the new server. Not only that, if you stay here, you’ll miss the conversations going on there even on the old pages.

You may also want to check out The Narthex, a religion and society magazine where I’ve taken on the role of occasional contributor.


LEGO Society

*SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen The LEGO Movie yet, do so and then return and read this. I have no idea if anything I say will ruin anything for you. If you teach Sociology, you should consider doing so sooner rather than later*

I watched The LEGO Movie for the first time this weekend, and it was enjoyable and even occasionally surprising. It had a nice message and (in the spirit of Rocky and Bullwinkle) could be subtitled either “Rugged Individualism FTW” or “Rage Against the Machine.” In short, Lego society is nice and orderly and filled with nice, orderly minifigures who follow rules and use instruction books. The nicest, orderliest, most boring one of all is Emmett, a construction worker who, while somewhat lonely with no family, goes about life every day doing what he should. By fate or accident, he ends up falling into a pit and finding the “piece of resistance” (did I mention the movie is pleasantly corny), the only thing that can stop the prophesied destruction of the world by “The Kragl,” (i.e. KRazy GLue) the most powerful relic in history.

Emmett is clueless about his task, but is promptly whisked away by the few remaining uncaptured master builders, minifigures (including among others Batman, Wonder Woman, Shakespeare, a robot pirate, and a generic space minifigure from when I was growing up in the 80s) who can construct amazing creations out of LEGO pieces that happen to be nearby. Of course the master builders, with Emmett’s help, save the day and stop the evil “President Business” from using the Kragl to freeze the perfect orderly society exactly as it is forever. Because that’s the American way: people who do cool stuff that’s different from everybody else (without being evil) win. Loosen the grip on your instruction books and all that.

Except… I think there’s more that could be added, specifically an alternate moral that you could take away that suggests a different vision of ideal society.

Read more…

Religion and AIDS in Africa

If you are reading this, I am guessing you are either a)Interested in some way in Religion and/or AIDS and/or Africa OR b)Misdirected. In the latter case, you can probably stop reading. In any other case, you should probably read this book.

If, as a religious person, you think African religion and AIDS don’t matter to your church, Religion and AIDS in Africa may challenge you to think again. It provides one of the best empirical investigations of practical theology (how what people believe affects daily life) I have seen and it will challenge you to think more carefully about the importance of everything you say and do.

If you’re interested in the AIDS epidemic or sub-Saharan African society at all, I challenge you to read it without coming away believing that religion is somehow critical in this whole thing. Not only that, it is never preachy or didactic, presenting the data in a compelling manner without making blanket statements about what is right or wrong or even trying to guilt the reader into caring. Read more…

Why Common Sense is Wrong on Voter ID

I’ve been asked by more than one person to clarify online why voter ID laws are so controversial. To put it simply: they make brilliant sense until you systematically consider the consequences for different groups of people in American society. So, recognizing that the idea of showing ID at the poll is intuitive, simple, and a seeming non-issue; I argue below why I think these laws are not only bad but outright discriminatory.

If you are a reader of Sociofaithful, wondering where the “faithful” is in this, you can skip to the last section of this posting, although I would encourage you to read the whole article. You can also find fairly forceful faith-based voices from the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) here. I try to focus on more direct faith-related issues here, but certain issues are important enough to include regardless of the distance from the core focus of this blog.

The typical arguments for voter ID have basically two embedded questions. First, the why: Shouldn’t we be making sure voter fraud isn’t happening? Second, the common sense appeal: Don’t people (or more specifically, legal voters) already need to have photo ID to do lots of common everyday things? The answers to both are less straightforward than one might expect, at least depending on their social position. Read more…

Making Religion(s) Count: Comments from a Religious Sociologist on the 2010 US Religious Census

Last week, something fairly momentous happened, at least if you’re a student of American religion: The 2010 Religious Congregations and Membership Study was released. Every 10 years the ASARB, a group of church statisticians across the country, works together to collect information on how many people are associated with every congregations (temple, mosque, etc) across the country. This year’s was by far the most complete ever; congregations were reported for 263 religious groups, most of whom also provided data on adherents down to the county level. Maybe even more importantly, extensive effort was made to account for groups which historically have remained uncounted or poorly counted, including African-American Christian churches, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim groups.

If what I wrote above already has you hooked and you want to dive into numbers right now, feel free. There are plenty to occupy you for some time over at the ARDA (full disclosure: I am a research associate with the ARDA as part of my graduate studies and also a trained church leader; the opinions and conclusions in this post are mine however and do not represent any organization). If you prefer maps, try the RCMS 2010 homepage. If you’re not yet convinced why you should care, keep reading… Read more…

Big R or little r?

While it is more personal and subjective than a typical post here, you are invited to check out my most recent post at my ministry blog, faithfulchange. It relates to a personal struggle of identity and vocation and to approaches toward sociology of religion and learning in general. Find it below:

Big R or little r?


Data Don’t Lie… They Just Stretch the Truth

A graph caught my attention this week, both because of its provocative nature and because of its actual content.In fact, it struck me so much (and you’ll see why if you stay for show-and-tell) that I thought I would write about it instead of an article or book this week.

So I apologize if I end up sounding a little too preachy today. Also, please be aware that, while I have opinions about the actual issues addressed in the graph, it is just an example, and I am not trying to sway anyone’s political or religious leanings. You’ve been warned.

Welcome to storytime.

This is a fable about two people who liked numbers.

The first was a statistician who wanted to know more about the national debt. So she found some numbers about how it grew over the last 30 years or so and tried a bunch of ways to make them easier to understand.Eventually, she made some charts and put them up on the internet for people to ooh and ahh over. Then she forgot about them and got on with her number crunching. She decided the numbers needed a little more salt.

5s cut out of bread

Nomnomnom, needs salt!

The second was a progressive political organizer. Because he liked politics and spent 20 hours a day either at the local party headquarters or knocking on doors, with 24-hour news channels on in the background incessantly whenever he was indoors. He loved numbers, particularly when they showed that his candidates were ahead in the polls or that fundraising goals had been exceeded.

One day, the organizer stumbled upon the charts from the statistician and saw something he liked. Out of the collection, he spotted one he loved because, as previously mentioned, he liked numbers that made his candidates look good. Being a responsible organizer, he checked the reference and it checked out. The data was from the treasury department, and so he posted it on the organizational website and Facebook page and let the internet work its magic while he went back to watching the news and knocking on doors.

This is what the chart looked like:

Presidential Debt Increases

Simple story, open and closed. Republicans like to spend a lot more money than they make; Democrats kind of do but not so much. Here’s the thing. I spent 10 minutes with Calculator and Notepad (i.e. things you have access to or you couldn’t be reading this) and didn’t even have to look up any other data (like, say, the actual dollar values) to paint 2 very different pictures with the numbers. Then I spent another 10 minutes in Excel making the charts below to show you. It’s not hard, but it requires two things:

  1. Stop.
  2. Think for yourself.

Let’s tell the story a little differently than the organizer did, using the rest of the charts our imaginary statistician slaved over:

We’ll start simple, by just controlling for the number of years a president was in office. It makes sense that increasing the debt 100% (i.e. doubling it) in 8 years would be different than 4 (George H.W. Bush) or, say, 2 and change (Obama so far). This one’s not too bad and the story’s basically the same, except it doesn’t let the short-timers off the hook quite so much. But the story still seems to be that Democratic presidents do a better job than Republican ones at controlling deficits.

Now, look at the 3rd chart. Here, I just put it in terms of proportions of the national debt at the beginning of 1981. I didn’t have to look up actual dollar values, because I already had the percentages. So, for example, you can see that George W Bush actually increased the debt around four times as much as Reagan, because Reagan started with a smaller percentage of our country owned by, say, China and friends.

When you do this and frame it in terms of dollars, rather than the percentage of the debt they started with, the story itself looks very different. Now, there is a more definite pattern (a social scientist might call it a regression line or line of best fit after doing some math) of constantly increasing deficits over time with a small break (an outlier) during the Clinton administration. The practical implication could be that W and Obama are really the greatest culprits for our national debt, but also (if you think for a minute) that maybe there is a larger pattern that has nothing to do with the political party of the president at all but is a function of something else in how the U.S. political system functions.

Now tell me, when in the rash days of your youth, you ran up credit cards, which was more important: That the new Plasma-3D-rific TV was only 5% of your total debt (since you took out all those student loans) or that it was $2000 you had to pay back eventually at interest? While we may do the same kind of mental gymnastics to justify spending money we don’t have because “Really, what’s another dinner out or album on iTunes in the scheme of things?” that doesn’t somehow mitigate the absolute cost of what we’re doing. It generally makes it worse.

To be clear, I am not saying you should be pro- or anti- any particular party because of this. Both parties do it. It’s human nature, just like the organizer, to look for “statistics” that support what you already think.

You want proof? Search for websites justifying KJV-onlyism . It’s sometimes hard to find them because there are so many anti-KJV-only websites. Try this one for a start. In the third paragraph from the bottom, it makes an argument about the reading level of the KJV being lower (i.e. easier) than all other English translations. This person is even kind enough to say why: the words are short.

That’s it. That’s all the reading level is based on. Not the complexity of the sentences. Not the use of language that has either disappeared from English or has changed dramatically in meaning. Not that fact that, being word-for-word, it uses basically Hebrew and Greek grammar, not English.

And yet: that one test of reading level (by the way, the KJV tests harder on every other major scale of reading level) continues to be cited, especially in this 400th Anniversary year of the Authorized Version (KJV). Because it says what people want it to.

So the moral of the story today is this: PAY ATTENTION!

While the organizer may have accomplished his goal of making his party look good, and even done so with good intentions, it was only with spin. There is more than enough data in the world to justify whatever you happen to think, if you just search hard enough and spin it properly. If you actually care about the national debt, or the “decline” of liberal protestantism, or whatever it may be, stop and think about what you’re being fed. And if you can’t tell what the numbers actually mean, then don’t trust it and do not, under any circumstances, spew it forth just because somebody with a fancy job title said it.

This has been story-time with Nathaniel. And rant time with Nathaniel. Please tune in next week for more exciting morals and numbers and stuff. Thank you.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Happy Smiley FaceWe hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” –United States Declaration of Independence

The problem with this (brilliant) statement is how you measure and promote happiness. A constitutional scholar will probably argue that the founders intended this to refer to property. Other contemporary formulations used that kind of verbiage, after and Jefferson et al tended to agree with that kind of idea. But one economist today, Carol Graham has dedicated her career to exploring exactly what the pursuit of happiness really entails. Even though it’s a little out of the field of sociology, landing somewhere between social psychology, health studies, and economics, I’m going to tackle her new book (titled, drum roll please… The Pursuit of Happiness) here in terms of its implications both for national policy and for religious leaders.

First of all, the question should be asked: what in the world is an economist doing studying happiness? In case you have not made the acquaintance of any, I have, and can tell you that they like numbers. A lot. They like hard data like gross national product, unemployment rates, and the natural log of personal income (as opposed to the Duraflame). So why happiness?

Well, apparently there is a movement afoot, lead by the associates of a certain economist who shall remain nameless (but whose book is reviewed on this page), to find out what causes happiness and satisfaction and integrate these measures of “subjective well-being” into national policy debates. In other words, in addition to a measure of gross national product, government reports might have another number call gross national happiness.

While you might be tempted to write this off as over-the-top or nanny-state-ism, consider this for a second. Graham and company have found a whole slough of correlates of happiness, ranging from income to health care, and all are generally things we like to encourage. But by using happiness data, we can discuss things like the amount of extra income it takes to recover the lost happiness from getting laid off or losing your home. It’s common sense that losing your job costs more than just the money you lose, but now there is a way to quantify that and consider the true costs of these events when crafting policy.

More useful than that to religious leaders is this: Graham has developed a theory of happiness and life satisfaction based on her research that has broad-ranging implications for understanding the ways in which religion and faith provide support to practitioners and others.

In a nutshell, here it is: People can be happy in almost any conditions as long as:
A) Their conditions are stable and
B) They have little hope of mobility.

No, wait, that can’t be right… The great insight is that it’s ok that you scrape by in the war-torn desert of Afghanistan and I have an iPhone mount in my shiny new Hummer? No.

Here’s why: that metric of happiness accounts for only short-term contentment. Ask someone a question like “How satisfied are you with your life?” or even “Compare your life to the best possible life” and you in fact often get a different answer.

You see, Jeremy Bentham had a theory of what he called hedonic utility, which basically stated that we should make as many people as happy (content, etc) as possible. In that way, Afghans can be happy with their life, Tanzanians can be happier with their healthcare than Americans, and so on.

Aristotle, who lived long before Bentham, had a different theory of happiness, related more closely to the ideas of agency and free will. It had more to do with having power over your life, to choose how you live and what’s important to you.

People can be happy without agency, but it is less likely that they would sit back and say, yeah, having no control over my life is the best thing I can imagine. And the data bear that out. And then you say: “That’s great. You’ve convinced that if I was in congress I might care. But I’m not.”

Don’t sell yourself short. It matters as much if not more for churches, and here’s why. There is not only material content (i.e. happiness) to this discussion but a theological content (free will). From a Christian theological perspective, the less personal agency a person has, the less they resemble God and the more they resemble animals. The reformations reflected this insight- they were essentially about giving the people a place as producers of their own faiths, not just passive consumers of theology. Bible reading and sermons which taught listeners to reason all point to the importance of agency.

By this measure, you can think about and evaluate how worship is organized and content is taught. On the one hand, you have happy Benthamite Afghans. They come together to be encouraged and supported in their present situation. Joel Osteen’s message of prosperity is an extreme example of this in the context of American culture. If you ask “What are most Americans already trying to do?” and then compare Osteen’s message, they line up.

By contrast, Martin Luther King Jr taught a very different type of message. Read (or better, listen) to some of his sermons and speeches and you will quickly discover the copious exhortations to actively seek change in the status quo, all supported by biblical references. One of his great messages was that all Americans must seek to have a measure of freedom and control in their own lives and in the life of the nation, regardless of their background. Aristotle would be proud.

That is not to say that Osteen doesn’t encourage people to improve their lives. All you have to do is watch an interview with him or read any of his books to see he believes God has great plans to prosper you. Nor is it to say that King did not seek to provide comfort to his parishioners; he was a pastor in every sense of the word. But if you compare results, King clearly made more people uncomfortable and Osteen did less to promote the long-term advancement of human self-determination.

Graham’s ideas about politics could equally well be made about churches with a little modification. After wrestling with data, philosophy, and political theory, she comes to the conclusion that (assuming a few basic conditions of subsistence are met) the government’s job is not to make us happy. But it has a vital role in promoting agency.

Whether you use her words or call it something else like living into your potential or having the freedom to exercise your free will, happiness in full is more than just contentment. It is a challenge to nations, to people, and to faith leaders.

God(s) Make You Happy, But How?

Buddy Jesus Magic: The Gathering CardWelcome to Sociofaithful! How do I know this is your first time here? Well, it’s either that or you were crazy enough to wade through the first post however many months ago. Trust me, you probably shouldn’t.

So just to review why I’m here:
1)Sociologists say interesting and useful things. I hope. Otherwise, it would be rather silly of me to devote my life to it.
2)Said sociologists are unfortunately liable to say aforementioned things in jargony statisticalese in obscure journals that you will never see outside of an institute of higher education.
3)Useful things are of limited value if they are inaccessible to end users. Seriously limited. Not that someone entering the 20th grade should be down on knowledge for its own sake, but I do have a slight preference for useful things to be used.

All that is to say again, Welcome! My goal is to interpret current sociological research related to religion (with an acknowledged bias toward Christian-related research) and translate it so it is actually usable to the people who could use it, i.e. pastors, lay leaders, seminary leaders, and pretty much anyone involved in the (little c) catholic church. Oh, and I’ll try not to take myself too seriously.

So… “Who’s your buddy?” – Buddy Jesus

That’s pretty much what a whole highly-fashionable group of sociologists is asking people these days. It’s called Social Network Theory and I’ll write more about it as I go, but basically it’s founded on the idea that the people we associate with (especially as friends) matter. This is true in at least two ways:

  1. You can tell quite a bit about people (particularly if you’re dealing with large samples of them, as sociologists are wont to do) by who they interact with and how. Sometimes, you can even predict to a greater or lesser degree how people are likely to act in certain situations based on their social networks.
  2. We are affected by the people we interact with. Duh. To one extent or another, people rub off on each other, even the ones we don’t care for as much.

One particular noteworthy nerd in this department is Robert Putnam. His book Bowling Alone argued that Americans have become much more solitary in how they spend their time, both working and leisure. More recently, he and his co-conspirator Chaeyoon Lim have spent their time examining social networks in religious contexts. While they’ve published a book on the topic now called American Grace that you could (and should) probably find at your local library, they also do things like publish articles in disciplinary journals related to their research. They have to look smart somehow.

Thus, I finally get to the stated purpose, i.e. interpreting social science data for real people. The article I’m focusing on can be found here, although:

  1. I don’t recommend it for the faint of heart and
  2. You probably can’t read very much unless you’re at a University with a subscription.

Here’s the gist of what they did: Lim and Putnam used panel data (that means they survey the same people more than once over time) to try and figure out how the well-known connection between religion and happiness works. To put it simply, people keep finding that people who say they go to church more also say they are more satisfied with their lives.

People have come up with a bunch of ideas (hypotheses) about why this is. One is that faith gives people a way to interpret the world going on around them. Another is that strong personal religious practices improve people’s self-esteem. One that’s very current is that the social connections made in churches serve as a support network that helps people both directly (by providing access to resources) and indirectly (think “Lean on Me”).

So here’s the (hopefully) interesting parts about what they found. First of all, your social network does play a part in how your religious involvement plays out in happiness, and it has more to do with how many close friends you have in your faith community than with what particular brand (or denomination) of faith it is. In fact, belonging to a church without having friends there makes you statistically less likely to be happy. This should make intuitive sense to people who have been to a few different churches.

But wait… there’s more! The authors write:

“Only when people have both a strong sense of religious identity and within-congregation networks does religion lead to greater life satisfaction… The effects of religious social networks [further] do not depend on religious similarity among close social ties, but on regular encounters and shared religious experiences with congregational friends.”

What exactly does all this mean? Worshiping and participating in Bible Study with people you are close to makes you happier, whether or not you agree with them. In other words, when  you know what you believe and hang out with others who do in a way that you can feel you belong, even if they don’t believe the exact same way you do, it improves your life.

Put simply, faith matters, and it matters most in the context of shared seeking. According to this paradigm, ecumenical partnership can build up identity and belonging just as well as hanging out with a bunch of like-minded confessionalists. Also, it presents a challenge to congregations to genuinely seek to engage every person where they are, because being at the periphery looking in can be much lonelier than just going about life without caring about church.

Of course, the only value statement here is a survey question about how happy you are with your life. But in a sense that provides a complementary approach. What you’re seeing thus is less an artifact of someone’s convictions as to right and wrong as just a seeking to understand how something works.

If you are a person of faith, of course, you could easily read more into these and understanding them through the lens of your faith. In fact, if you don’t, it may not matter at all and will become just more trivia. But there it is. Hopefully, you find it helpful, though-provoking… something.


So You’re here… That was Pointless

So you’re here. That’s rather silly, or at least fruitless, because I’m not, at least not yet. But come by again sometime. Eventually this page may host an amazing blog that will interpret the pants off some of the best research in the sociology of religion so that it is naked (so to speak) to the lay observer, meaning anyone who would actually like to do something immediately useful with it, rather than its sitting around in a room filled with sociologists grunting and nodding at each other. No, we don’t really do that, by the way. We’re actually a pretty laid back group of down to earth people, just with a lot of education that sometimes causes forgetfulness and/or willful ignorance of the limited value of research per se without praxis. Self included. So, seriously, take some headache medicine to recover from the eye-crossing length of this paragraph and sheer quantity of commas, and then follow @faithfulchange on twitter and watch expectantly for the next few days to months to years until this project gets off the ground. Or you could read my other, somewhat sporadic blog that is slightly more partisan and/or theological and substantially less focused than this one intends to be. Congratulations for reading to the end of this. To claim your prize, direct message or @reply me on Twitter and I will say something really great about you. Yeah.