Posts

The Important Tasks Facing American Religious Demographers

Listen to RSP’s interview with Dr. Robert P. Jones, “America’s Changing Religious Demographics.”

By Dr. Cyrus Schleifer

It is an exciting time to be mapping out the population and demographic level changes in the American religious landscape. The advent of high-quality data collection strategies – like those pursued by Dr. Robert P Jones and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) – as well as the speed by which religion is transforming in the face of modernizing processes and technological advances have created opportunities for scholars and students of religion in America to revisit and refine our understanding of religion’s place in our society. As Dr. Jones notes in this interview, the rise of the religiously unaffiliated marks a sea change in religious belonging in American over the past 30 years. These PRRI data suggest that around 25% of the entire population and 40% of young Americans no longer identify with any particular religious denomination. These statistics are echoed in the General Social Survey (22% of full population and 33% of those younger than 35 as of 2016), the National Survey of Youth and Religion, and several PEW datasets as well. Given that the rise of the religiously non-affiliated represents a large and potentially growing block of the American populace, understanding the mechanisms that might explain this shift has become one of the more important tasks facing American religious demographers. Below, I briefly outline some of the possible accounts that those studying the sociology of religion have theorized to explain these changes.

One prominent explanation is that America is now – however slowly – beginning to look more and more like Europe in terms of secularization. Indeed, David Voas and Mark Chaves (2016) have recently argued that American can no longer be viewed as an exceptional case in terms of secularization within modernized Western world. Instead, they observe decline in American religiosity that can largely be explained by cohort turnover – changes due to older, more traditionally religious generations passing away and being replace by less religious younger cohorts. These processes could explain the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, particularly among younger Americans.

However, other scholars have rejected this interpretation. In particular, Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock (2017) argued that these population-level shifts are not occurring among intensely religious Americans, who have remained a stable subpopulation when viewed as a proportion of the American populace. Instead, they observe declines in religiosity among the religiously moderate, who are opting into a more secular lifestyles or – though much more rarely – into more intensely religious groups. These findings are echoed in Dr. Jones’ study, and both these findings suggest that the American religious landscape no longer has room for these religious moderates. Untangling these processes will remain a major source of debate within the sociology of religion in light of these and other demographic shifts.  

Above, a map from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies provides a county-by-county view of the dominant religious groups in the United States. ASARB conducts a census every 10 years, on the same schedule as the US Census. 

One potential move forward would be to acknowledge that individual religiosity can change alongside population level processes. In other words, by focusing entirely on cohort turnover, we may be missing some important individual-level changes in religious expression across the life course. Some of my own research has suggested that we need to begin collecting more panel and longitudinal data to order to better capture individual level change in religion. Panel data observes the same individuals at multiple time points and thereby can map how they change (or do not change) religiously across their life course. Using General Social Survey Panel data, my co-author and I (Bartlett and Schleifer 2016) observe that while young Americans (under 35 years old) are the most likely to disaffiliate religiously, those in the middle age groups (35-64 years old) are more likely to join an evangelical or conservative Protestant groups, and older individuals (65 years or older) – while these least likely age group to change affiliation – are also disaffiliating if they change at all. Accounting for these possibilities could lead to better projections of religious belonging across the US population.

Another popular explanation of the rise of in the religiously unaffiliated among the younger generation is the association of particular religious groups with conservative politics. In their now classic article, Hout and Fischer (2002) find that religious disaffiliation can be partially explained by religious individuals leaving traditional denominations for political reasons. In other words, these Americans remain religious but no longer identify with religious groups who have come to define themselves along political lines (see also: Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam 2010). This maybe further complicated by the emergence of political figures such as President Trump, who has been accused of extramarital infidelity that may have raised concerns among the religiously conservative in the past (Whitehead, Perry and Baker 2018) but whose commitment to appointing a judiciary aligned with their religio-political concerns (Martí 2018) allowed these religious conservatives to effectively overlook these potential moral failings.

The final note I wanted to raise in response to this interview is how complicated it is to disentangle one demographic process from another. While Dr. Jones has outlined the End of White Christian America, it is important to recognize that there are two trends that are at once distinct and intertwined: (1) The growth in the proportion of Americans who report no formal religious belonging and (2) the shifting racial composition in the US with new projections suggesting that by mid-century White Americans will make up less than 50 percent of the total population (Frey 2018). Dr. Jones makes a compelling argument that these two trends are, in part, related and can play a role in shaping American politics and religion. But it remains important to understand the ways in which these trends can be understood as distinct and separate as well. While the way forward is complicated, it is also vital. The best approach we have remains careful data collection as well thoughtful, rigorous, and innovative analyses of this information.

References

Bartlett, Bryce and Cyrus Schleifer. 2016.“Projecting Religious Switching in America: An Increment-decrement Life Tables Approach.” Population Association of America Annual Meeting, Washington, DC.

Frey, William H. 2018. Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics and Remaking America. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165-90.

Jones, Robert, P. 2016. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol A. MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49 (4):596-618.

Martí, Gerardo. 2018. “The Unexpected Orthodoxy of Donald J. Trump: White Evangelical Support for the 45th President of the United States.” Sociology of Religion 80(1):1-8.

Schnabel, Landon and Sean Bock. 2017. “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion: A Response to Recent Research.” Sociological Science 4(28):2330-6696.

Voas, David and Mark Chaves. 2016. “Is the United States a Counterexample to the Secularization Thesis?” American Journal of Sociology 121(5):1517-56.

Whitehead, Andrew L., Samuel L. Perry and Joseph O. Baker. 2018. “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election.” Sociology of Religion 79(2):147-71.

Religious Demography in the US

In this week’s podcast we focus on religious demography and identification, survey tools used for religious demography in America, differences between religious identities and identifications, Americans’ shifting religious identifications, correlations between religion and social positions such as ethnicity or generational cohort, and correlations with various social and political issues.

Expanding beyond the introduction to quantitative sociology of religion the RSP conducted earlier with David Voas, this conversation with Darren Sherkat covers religious demography in the American context. Unlike in the UK, or elsewhere, the U.S. census does not include questions about religion. U.S. religious demographers rely on privately-funded surveys, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, Baylor Religion Survey, and Gallup polls, among others, for large-scale nationally representative data on religion. Sherkat evaluates the reliability of various surveys as well as the quality of the data on non-Christian populations in the U.S., given that the vast majority of respondents self-identify as Christians or as “nones.” demography (Ariela Keysar), belief and belonging (Abby Day), and identity and identification (with the Culture on the Edge group). Based on findings explored further in his book, Changing Faith (2014), Sherkat explains how generational cohort, lifecourse position, immigration, ethnicity, and religious switching affect religious identifications in America, as well as correlations between religious identifications and sexuality, among other topics.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, model airplanes, snow globes and more!

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic […], and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

By Pavol Kosnac, Oxford University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 30 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ryan Cragun on Mormonism, Growth and Decline (28 January 2013).

As Professor Cragun suggests in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Mormonism in USA has, from the viewpoint of sociology, undergone a process of socialization. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints are generally on the edge, and probably even within,  wider public acceptance. They are considered to be a truly American religion; they have been there for some 180 years, which is longer than many Christian evangelical groups, which nowadays consist  largely of Pentecostals (the youngest members of the evangelical family), and they are considered to be conservative, defenders of family values, and an important part of the Republican voting base. However, the same factors that may have granted Mormons respectability in USA, may prevent them from gaining it elsewhere any time soon. I will focus on Europe, since this is area in which I have most practical experience in general, and particularly with Latter-Day Saints.

In Europe, LDS members are still mostly well known for one characteristic, which has not been a valid stereotype for about 120 years – that is, that they engage in polygamy. People, especially in non-English speaking countries, do not yet recognise their typical uniform – white shirt, dark trousers, name badge –  and often mix them up with Jehovah´s Witnesses, mostly because they, same as Mormon missionaries, always move in pairs and want to talk about Jesus, and partially – especially in areas east  of Germany – because Jehovah´s Witnesses are generally the only contextually well-known religious movement that does this kind of mission (stopping people on street, house to house mission). This small mistake can damage their cause before they even speak to someone. Besides some anti-American sentiment in parts of European society, I would agree with some of the missionaries I have talked to, who said that the America-centric nature of their message is somehow damaging for their mission on several levels. Many people, who would possibly be interested in a new version of the Christian message, when told that Jesus will come to Salt Lake City, or that Lehi’s family (from the biblical tribe of  Manasseh) floated to America to build the true Christianity there, consider these details too much to bear, break contact and stop coming to the meetings.

The problem with applying terms like ‘new religious movements’ to movements that are approaching 200 years of existence is obvious, even if the term is not only descriptive of age. Yet, however disputable this may be in the Americas, it is not in Europe. In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic (for other Christians absolutely heretical), and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area – from their American Pentecostal compatriots to new and ‘westernized’ types of far-east inspired spiritual groups

I would agree with Professor Cragun that most people in Europe, as in the US, who start to become more interested in Mormonism and consider entering it, are of lower socio-economic standing, especially in new Mormon mission areas. My personal experiences relate to Prague and Bratislava, where this is true for at least 70% of new members. Another constituency of members that you can meet at regular Sunday gatherings are students and foreigners, a large number of whom do not speak language of their country of residence very well and/or do not have another community there. In these cases, the Mormon community – traditionally very welcoming – may attract them as a friendly (if small) social group, where they can belong.

To disagree with Professor Cragun, however,  I would question some of the reasons which he considers important factors influencing the low membership retention rate: namely,  sexual conservatism, such as opposing pre-marital sex, cohabitation, and restricting pornography and practiced homosexuality. Mormons are not particularly special in these requirements; the same rules can be found in the most conservative of Protestant or Catholic groups, many of whom have very high retention rates.  If there is not another specific which makes conservative sexual ethics somehow more problematic for members of the LDS church, I would be quite sceptical of the influence of this factor upon membership retention.

On the other hand, I would certainly agree with the problems surrounding counting new members  by baptism. During my field research in Bratislava, it appear to me that becoming a member is not a very complicated process, with much less involved than I would have expected after having the official church regulations for membership explained to me by several ex-members. It seemed to me to be possible to be interested in the idea of converting, or to only enjoy the very nice and welcoming social atmosphere, yet leave after several months, having been baptised during that time. If what Professor Cragun said is true, which I have no reason to doubt, that “once a Mormon, until the age of 110 a Mormon“, then their membership numbers may be very highly inflated, and not only in USA, but also in Europe, where Mormon groups seem to have very small numbers indeed.

Success of LDS missionaries in converting Europeans is generally very small. The only large official numbers are in the United Kingdom – where, according to an LDS webpage, it has 188 000 members. Problems with these number will probably be same as problems with US numbers. Other states in Western Europe have several tens of thousands, in other parts of Europe it is from several thousand to several hundred. In some western European countries,  Mormon missionaries have been active for more than 150 years (in Britain, for example, they have been since1837). In terms of mere numbers, in comparison to younger groups who come from the USA, like Jehovah´s Witnesses or Assemblies of God, this has not been a  very successful mission.

Finally, there may be also other local specifics that inflate the numbers, for example, in Slovak case, the “phantom Mormons“. The phenomenon which I call ”phantom membership“ happened in Slovakia´s last national census in 2011, where 972 people identified themselves as Mormons. This was an unbelievable number, since I know the situation of Mormons in Slovakia very well. I have never seen more than 50 practicing Mormons in their biggest Slovak group, and when I talked to several Slovak missionaries and representatives, their estimates of the number of Mormons in Slovakia were never higher than 300, and they also suggested that the results from census were very surprising for them also. I think that a possible explanation might be that, because Mormons are little known in Slovak environment, and their official name is generally unknown, when they were listed in the census options (for first time in Slovak history), many non-denominational Christians who were not sure what box to tick, and may not have wanted to tick the “Other“ box, saw “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints“ and ticked the box with ”Church of Jesus Christ“, filtering out the rest of the name since they had no idea what it meant means, but it sounded about right (no other registered church in Slovakia has “Jesus Christ” in its name). It is possible that this hypothesis is incorrect, but if not it would explain those almost 700 invisible Mormons, which even the most optimistic church officials never knew they “had”.

In summary, we can conclude, that official LDS estimates of Mormon demography are strongly inflated in Europe , just as in the Americas. Many of the advantages that Mormons have in the USA because of their unique “American-ness” may become more of a burden in Europe, and because of this their retention rate may be worse in Europe than in the USA. One way or another, it is difficult to imagine how LDS Church officials could consider the Mormon mission to Europe a success.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Pavol Kosnac completed his B.A. and M.A. in Religious Studies at Comenius University in Bratislava, and studies of political philosophy, jurisprudence and ethics at Collegium of Anton Neuwirth. He is currently studying for a MSt. In the Study of Religion at Oxford University and applying for DPhil studies. His focus is mainly on the study of new religiosity, new religious movements and non-religiosity in (but not exclusively) central and eastern Europe, and the methodology of research in these categories in general.

 

References:

LDS official membership information by country:

http://www.ldschurchnews.com/almanac/1/Almanac.html, accessed 12.1.2013

Information on Slovak national poll from Slovak statistical Institute:

http://portal.statistics.sk/files/tab-14.pdf

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion, by Tim Hutchings

A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion

By Tim Hutchings, Durham University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 4 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Callum Brown on Historical Approaches to (Losing) Religion (30 April 2012). For a more ‘informal’ response, you can listen to our roundtable discussion session on the question Can We Trust the Social Sciences?.

In his new podcast for the Religious Studies Project, Callum Brown has given us an excellent introduction to the historical approach to the study of religion. In conversation with Christopher Cotter, Brown outlines rival traditions within the history of religion and demonstrates what each has contributed to our understanding of secularisation. Along the way, Brown summarises his research career and offers some tantalising hints about his current interview-based study of the life stories of people who have left religion. He also emphasises the value of demographics, arguing that sophisticated analyses of census data reveal that people develop ‘an entirely new sense of self’ when they leave religion.  This is a fascinating and challenging claim, but I have chosen to focus in this response on another of the main themes of this podcast: the relationship between history and sociology.

At the end of this interview, Brown distinguishes the history of religion sharply from sociology. According to Brown, there is a “huge gap” in method, approach and interests between the two disciplines. Sociologists, he argues, believe that the world is governed by rules. They undertake research to study the contemporary religious landscape, interpret this snapshot in time by framing it within a particular model of fixed, linear change, and then make predictions about the future. Historians, on the other hand, believe that nothing is inevitable and assume that “when” must be the first step in working out “why”. Instead of collecting snapshots, historians map change year-on-year, using that longitudinal data to establish the effects of key events.

My own field of research is digital religion, an area with a particularly troubled relationship to history. Scholars and commentators interested in digital culture and its significance for religion have struggled to distinguish what is truly new from what has come before, and continue to search for helpful ways to talk about change.

One classic strategy since the 1990s has been to contrast an anecdotal snapshot of contemporary life against visions of the near future and the recent past.  In the most common forms of this argument, the past is characterised by stable local communities, face-to-face relationships and a secure, unchanging personal identity. Contemporary digital technology challenges this stability by supporting fluid, self-determined, global communication networks, so the argument goes, and these changes will intensify in the near future. Different observers have interpreted this same basic approach in positive, neutral and negative ways, seeing technology as the route to new spiritual awareness (Cobb 1998), a powerful tool that can be used to promote an unchanging religious message to the new mission field of digital culture (Estes 2009, Sweet 2012), or a dangerous threat to church, character and society. Sherry Turkle’s recent declaration that social media is facilitating a “flight from conversation” is a good example of this third type (2012). Young people now use their phones a lot, she argues, and they previously spent time face-to-face, and this shift is very bad for everyone. Her argument is simple and intuitively appealing, contrasting a recognisable snapshot of everyday life with a widely-accepted vision of the recent past and calling for immediate action to rescue the future, and her article has provoked much discussion online in recent weeks.

Scholars of media and religion have tried to challenge this approach over the last decade by framing their observations within a more rigorous historical perspective. The forms of religious community observed online are not unique after all, they argue: they actually continue long-running trajectories of social change from groups to networks (Wellman 2012) or from stable to fluid religious identities (Wagner 2012). Heidi Campbell’s recent work (2010) focuses on the power of religious groups to construct and interpret the technology they use, a process that includes engagement with group history. For Campbell, contemporary religious uses of the internet must be interpreted in the context of the theology and values of particular communities, including how those communities have changed their approach to media over time.  Many other scholars have tried to complicate popular understandings of the past and present of media religion, undertaking detailed comparative studies to show that religious authority, community and identity have not changed in the ways some observers allege.

Listening to Callum Brown’s interview, it becomes clear that all of these scholarly approaches represent a distinctively sociological way of using history. These scholars analyse the past to identify long-term trajectories in social or religious change and use that model to interpret the present. “When” questions are rarely considered: the purpose of the exercise is to establish a tension between a stable (or predictably-changing) past and a snapshot of the present, to generate insights into continuity and change.

There is clear scope here for inter-disciplinary collaboration. Sociological interest in the history of religion and media has generated a space for interventions by historians, who can greatly benefit the study of digital culture by offering detailed critiques of our assumed trajectories of change. Recent examples include Jeremy Stolow’s keynote speech on the spirituality of the telegraph, delivered to the Digital Religion conference in Colorado earlier this year (see Stolow 2011), and Stefan Gelfgren’s work (2012) on the history of religious attitudes to media. Sociologists of digital religion are still not as interested in the connection between “when” and “why” as Callum Brown might like, but clear progress is being made to forge connections with historians. This podcast is an excellent provocation to think harder about the questions we overlook and the interdisciplinary conversations that might help us uncover them.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Tim Hutchings recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the HUMlab digital humanities centre in Umeå, Sweden and has now returned to the UK to join the CODEC research initiative at St John’s College, Durham. Tim is currently working with CODEC to develop a series of digital art exhibitions and installations in response to the Lindisfarne Gospels. His PhD thesis (Durham University, 2010) was an ethnographic study of five online Christian churches, focusing on the relationship between online and offline religion. Research interests include e-vangelism, online Christian storytelling, the future of the Bible as a digital sacred text and the role of new media in death and mourning.

Bibliography

Campbell, Heidi. When Religion Meets New Media. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.

Cobb, Jennifer. CyberGrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. New York: Crown, 1998.

Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Gelfgren, Stefan. “Let there be digital networks and God will provide growth?” Comparing the aims and hopes of 19th-century and post-millenial Christianity. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 227-242.

Hogan, Bernie and Barry Wellman. The immanent internet redux. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 43-62.

Stolow, Jeremy. ‘Telegraph’, in freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality. September 7 2011. Available online: http://freq.uenci.es/2011/09/07/telegraph/.  Accessed May 2 2012.

Sweet, Leonard. Viral: How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2012.

Turkle, Sherry. The flight from conversation. New York Times, April 21 2012. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html. Accessed May 2 2012.

Wagner, Rachel. Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

 

Roundtable: Can We Trust the Social Sciences?

We have another ‘treat’ for you this week – we’ll let you decide whether that was an accurate description or not – in the form of another roundtable discussion, with a slightly different group of people. This was recorded late on the 28th of March at the University of Chester during the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL for short)’s conference (although, of course, this is an ‘unofficial’ discussion).

Ethan: “We ask a question on a survey, we get an answer… and then we have to fill in the space…”

The topic of discussion grew out of a presentation delivered by Callum Brown at the University of Edinburgh (at the same time as we recorded our podcast with him) on the topic of “People of no religion: The demographics of secularisation in the English speaking world since 1900”, which presented, amongst other things, some conclusions from large-scale demographic surveys of religious identification. Ethan Quillen disagreed forcefully that conclusions drawn from questionnaires and censuses can be used to draw large-scale conclusions, and tabled the motion, “Can We Trust the Social Sciences?”

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not; either way, we are back to normal with Jolyon Mitchell’s interview on Religion, Media and Violence on Monday. For an interesting and more rigorous response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion.

David and Ethan

David and Ethan

Conversation ranges from the strengths and weaknesses of such data, whether there is more to the social sciences than quantitative methods, and the place of the social sciences within a multi-disciplinary Religious Studies field. Can we trust social sciences when we study religion? Is a social scientific approach the future of religious studies? What is an alternative to a social scientific approach?  These questions and more form the basis for what we intend to act as a bridge between our previous roundtable (“What is the Future of Religious Studies?”) and our forthcoming roundtable (“Should scholars of religion be critics or caretakers?”), timetabled for release on 6 June 2012.

Discussion largely focussed upon Quantitative Methods… something which future podcasts with Ariela Keysar and David Voas shall be focusing on more explicitly:

Do social scientists depend upon assumptive reasoning when it comes to filling in the blanks in their data? Does a decline in church attendance mean a decline in conviction, or simply a decline in one’s attendance at church? By providing boxes do we force people into boxes? What does one individual tell us about a category? What is it specifically about religion that makes this such an issue? How do we trust people to answer in a certain way?

Kevin: “Aren’t you better hypothesising by going out and asking people questions than by sitting around and hypothesising?”

Reference is made to the panel session on Religious Conspiracies at which David, Kevin and Ethan had presented earlier in the day. We also refer to Tom Rees’ excellent Epiphenom blog. Ethan plays Devil’s advocate, whilst Chris throws himself on the pyre and asks Ethan what he thought was wrong with his approach in his MSc Thesis.

Mat: “It’s not perfect, and I would love to go out and buy a tailored pair of trousers but… I’m not gonna get it. So I’ll go out and buy a pair that are closest to my size, and that’s the most economic way…”

It was late… two thirds of the panel had been up since 7 am travelling down from Edinburgh.

The conclusion? Should there be a balance between quantitative and qualitative approaches? Well… yes. But individual scholars may have to side with one or the other. We need a holistic approach, and this isn’t generally something one scholar can accomplish by themselves…

Sponsored by Pepsi Max, and pink gin.

Katie clearly found Ethan “hilarious”

The Discussants:

Katie Aston

Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.

Christopher R. Cotter

Chris recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to pursue PhD applications, present at conferences, and work on projects such as this. His future research will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Matthew Francis

Matthew graduated from Leeds with a joint-honours degree in Philosophy and Theology and Religious Studies. He subsequently undertook a Masters by Research, where he examined the ideas of Georges Bataille in relation to the problem of meaning in death in contemporary society. Matthew is the Postgraduate Officer for the Sociology of Religion study group (SocRel) of the British Sociological Association (BSA). He has taught on undergraduate and postgraduate modules on subjects including the Sociology of Religion and Religion in Modern Britain.

Matthew recently completed an AHRC-funded PhD at Leeds, which investigated the move to violence in the beliefs of groups. He is the editor for RadicalisationResearch.org, an AHRC/ESRC funded website which provides a resource for policy-makers and the media on radicalisation and extremism, and works at Goldsmiths University managing the Religious Literacy Leadership Project.

Ethan Quillen

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

David G. Robertson

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Forthcoming publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and his MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see his Academia page or personal blog.

Kevin Whitesides

Kevin Whitesides completed his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University. He is currently developing an MSc dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on ’2012′ millennialism as part of a broader emphasis on countercultural transmission. Kevin has contributed articles to ‘Archaeoastronomy’ and ‘Zeitschrift fur Anomalistik’, has contributed chapters for two anthologies on apocalypse and prophecy, and has presented widely on the ’2012′ milieu at academic conferences and universities.

Podcasts

The Important Tasks Facing American Religious Demographers

Listen to RSP’s interview with Dr. Robert P. Jones, “America’s Changing Religious Demographics.”

By Dr. Cyrus Schleifer

It is an exciting time to be mapping out the population and demographic level changes in the American religious landscape. The advent of high-quality data collection strategies – like those pursued by Dr. Robert P Jones and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) – as well as the speed by which religion is transforming in the face of modernizing processes and technological advances have created opportunities for scholars and students of religion in America to revisit and refine our understanding of religion’s place in our society. As Dr. Jones notes in this interview, the rise of the religiously unaffiliated marks a sea change in religious belonging in American over the past 30 years. These PRRI data suggest that around 25% of the entire population and 40% of young Americans no longer identify with any particular religious denomination. These statistics are echoed in the General Social Survey (22% of full population and 33% of those younger than 35 as of 2016), the National Survey of Youth and Religion, and several PEW datasets as well. Given that the rise of the religiously non-affiliated represents a large and potentially growing block of the American populace, understanding the mechanisms that might explain this shift has become one of the more important tasks facing American religious demographers. Below, I briefly outline some of the possible accounts that those studying the sociology of religion have theorized to explain these changes.

One prominent explanation is that America is now – however slowly – beginning to look more and more like Europe in terms of secularization. Indeed, David Voas and Mark Chaves (2016) have recently argued that American can no longer be viewed as an exceptional case in terms of secularization within modernized Western world. Instead, they observe decline in American religiosity that can largely be explained by cohort turnover – changes due to older, more traditionally religious generations passing away and being replace by less religious younger cohorts. These processes could explain the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, particularly among younger Americans.

However, other scholars have rejected this interpretation. In particular, Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock (2017) argued that these population-level shifts are not occurring among intensely religious Americans, who have remained a stable subpopulation when viewed as a proportion of the American populace. Instead, they observe declines in religiosity among the religiously moderate, who are opting into a more secular lifestyles or – though much more rarely – into more intensely religious groups. These findings are echoed in Dr. Jones’ study, and both these findings suggest that the American religious landscape no longer has room for these religious moderates. Untangling these processes will remain a major source of debate within the sociology of religion in light of these and other demographic shifts.  

Above, a map from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies provides a county-by-county view of the dominant religious groups in the United States. ASARB conducts a census every 10 years, on the same schedule as the US Census. 

One potential move forward would be to acknowledge that individual religiosity can change alongside population level processes. In other words, by focusing entirely on cohort turnover, we may be missing some important individual-level changes in religious expression across the life course. Some of my own research has suggested that we need to begin collecting more panel and longitudinal data to order to better capture individual level change in religion. Panel data observes the same individuals at multiple time points and thereby can map how they change (or do not change) religiously across their life course. Using General Social Survey Panel data, my co-author and I (Bartlett and Schleifer 2016) observe that while young Americans (under 35 years old) are the most likely to disaffiliate religiously, those in the middle age groups (35-64 years old) are more likely to join an evangelical or conservative Protestant groups, and older individuals (65 years or older) – while these least likely age group to change affiliation – are also disaffiliating if they change at all. Accounting for these possibilities could lead to better projections of religious belonging across the US population.

Another popular explanation of the rise of in the religiously unaffiliated among the younger generation is the association of particular religious groups with conservative politics. In their now classic article, Hout and Fischer (2002) find that religious disaffiliation can be partially explained by religious individuals leaving traditional denominations for political reasons. In other words, these Americans remain religious but no longer identify with religious groups who have come to define themselves along political lines (see also: Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam 2010). This maybe further complicated by the emergence of political figures such as President Trump, who has been accused of extramarital infidelity that may have raised concerns among the religiously conservative in the past (Whitehead, Perry and Baker 2018) but whose commitment to appointing a judiciary aligned with their religio-political concerns (Martí 2018) allowed these religious conservatives to effectively overlook these potential moral failings.

The final note I wanted to raise in response to this interview is how complicated it is to disentangle one demographic process from another. While Dr. Jones has outlined the End of White Christian America, it is important to recognize that there are two trends that are at once distinct and intertwined: (1) The growth in the proportion of Americans who report no formal religious belonging and (2) the shifting racial composition in the US with new projections suggesting that by mid-century White Americans will make up less than 50 percent of the total population (Frey 2018). Dr. Jones makes a compelling argument that these two trends are, in part, related and can play a role in shaping American politics and religion. But it remains important to understand the ways in which these trends can be understood as distinct and separate as well. While the way forward is complicated, it is also vital. The best approach we have remains careful data collection as well thoughtful, rigorous, and innovative analyses of this information.

References

Bartlett, Bryce and Cyrus Schleifer. 2016.“Projecting Religious Switching in America: An Increment-decrement Life Tables Approach.” Population Association of America Annual Meeting, Washington, DC.

Frey, William H. 2018. Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics and Remaking America. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165-90.

Jones, Robert, P. 2016. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol A. MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49 (4):596-618.

Martí, Gerardo. 2018. “The Unexpected Orthodoxy of Donald J. Trump: White Evangelical Support for the 45th President of the United States.” Sociology of Religion 80(1):1-8.

Schnabel, Landon and Sean Bock. 2017. “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion: A Response to Recent Research.” Sociological Science 4(28):2330-6696.

Voas, David and Mark Chaves. 2016. “Is the United States a Counterexample to the Secularization Thesis?” American Journal of Sociology 121(5):1517-56.

Whitehead, Andrew L., Samuel L. Perry and Joseph O. Baker. 2018. “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election.” Sociology of Religion 79(2):147-71.

Religious Demography in the US

In this week’s podcast we focus on religious demography and identification, survey tools used for religious demography in America, differences between religious identities and identifications, Americans’ shifting religious identifications, correlations between religion and social positions such as ethnicity or generational cohort, and correlations with various social and political issues.

Expanding beyond the introduction to quantitative sociology of religion the RSP conducted earlier with David Voas, this conversation with Darren Sherkat covers religious demography in the American context. Unlike in the UK, or elsewhere, the U.S. census does not include questions about religion. U.S. religious demographers rely on privately-funded surveys, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, Baylor Religion Survey, and Gallup polls, among others, for large-scale nationally representative data on religion. Sherkat evaluates the reliability of various surveys as well as the quality of the data on non-Christian populations in the U.S., given that the vast majority of respondents self-identify as Christians or as “nones.” demography (Ariela Keysar), belief and belonging (Abby Day), and identity and identification (with the Culture on the Edge group). Based on findings explored further in his book, Changing Faith (2014), Sherkat explains how generational cohort, lifecourse position, immigration, ethnicity, and religious switching affect religious identifications in America, as well as correlations between religious identifications and sexuality, among other topics.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, model airplanes, snow globes and more!

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic […], and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

By Pavol Kosnac, Oxford University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 30 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ryan Cragun on Mormonism, Growth and Decline (28 January 2013).

As Professor Cragun suggests in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Mormonism in USA has, from the viewpoint of sociology, undergone a process of socialization. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints are generally on the edge, and probably even within,  wider public acceptance. They are considered to be a truly American religion; they have been there for some 180 years, which is longer than many Christian evangelical groups, which nowadays consist  largely of Pentecostals (the youngest members of the evangelical family), and they are considered to be conservative, defenders of family values, and an important part of the Republican voting base. However, the same factors that may have granted Mormons respectability in USA, may prevent them from gaining it elsewhere any time soon. I will focus on Europe, since this is area in which I have most practical experience in general, and particularly with Latter-Day Saints.

In Europe, LDS members are still mostly well known for one characteristic, which has not been a valid stereotype for about 120 years – that is, that they engage in polygamy. People, especially in non-English speaking countries, do not yet recognise their typical uniform – white shirt, dark trousers, name badge –  and often mix them up with Jehovah´s Witnesses, mostly because they, same as Mormon missionaries, always move in pairs and want to talk about Jesus, and partially – especially in areas east  of Germany – because Jehovah´s Witnesses are generally the only contextually well-known religious movement that does this kind of mission (stopping people on street, house to house mission). This small mistake can damage their cause before they even speak to someone. Besides some anti-American sentiment in parts of European society, I would agree with some of the missionaries I have talked to, who said that the America-centric nature of their message is somehow damaging for their mission on several levels. Many people, who would possibly be interested in a new version of the Christian message, when told that Jesus will come to Salt Lake City, or that Lehi’s family (from the biblical tribe of  Manasseh) floated to America to build the true Christianity there, consider these details too much to bear, break contact and stop coming to the meetings.

The problem with applying terms like ‘new religious movements’ to movements that are approaching 200 years of existence is obvious, even if the term is not only descriptive of age. Yet, however disputable this may be in the Americas, it is not in Europe. In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic (for other Christians absolutely heretical), and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area – from their American Pentecostal compatriots to new and ‘westernized’ types of far-east inspired spiritual groups

I would agree with Professor Cragun that most people in Europe, as in the US, who start to become more interested in Mormonism and consider entering it, are of lower socio-economic standing, especially in new Mormon mission areas. My personal experiences relate to Prague and Bratislava, where this is true for at least 70% of new members. Another constituency of members that you can meet at regular Sunday gatherings are students and foreigners, a large number of whom do not speak language of their country of residence very well and/or do not have another community there. In these cases, the Mormon community – traditionally very welcoming – may attract them as a friendly (if small) social group, where they can belong.

To disagree with Professor Cragun, however,  I would question some of the reasons which he considers important factors influencing the low membership retention rate: namely,  sexual conservatism, such as opposing pre-marital sex, cohabitation, and restricting pornography and practiced homosexuality. Mormons are not particularly special in these requirements; the same rules can be found in the most conservative of Protestant or Catholic groups, many of whom have very high retention rates.  If there is not another specific which makes conservative sexual ethics somehow more problematic for members of the LDS church, I would be quite sceptical of the influence of this factor upon membership retention.

On the other hand, I would certainly agree with the problems surrounding counting new members  by baptism. During my field research in Bratislava, it appear to me that becoming a member is not a very complicated process, with much less involved than I would have expected after having the official church regulations for membership explained to me by several ex-members. It seemed to me to be possible to be interested in the idea of converting, or to only enjoy the very nice and welcoming social atmosphere, yet leave after several months, having been baptised during that time. If what Professor Cragun said is true, which I have no reason to doubt, that “once a Mormon, until the age of 110 a Mormon“, then their membership numbers may be very highly inflated, and not only in USA, but also in Europe, where Mormon groups seem to have very small numbers indeed.

Success of LDS missionaries in converting Europeans is generally very small. The only large official numbers are in the United Kingdom – where, according to an LDS webpage, it has 188 000 members. Problems with these number will probably be same as problems with US numbers. Other states in Western Europe have several tens of thousands, in other parts of Europe it is from several thousand to several hundred. In some western European countries,  Mormon missionaries have been active for more than 150 years (in Britain, for example, they have been since1837). In terms of mere numbers, in comparison to younger groups who come from the USA, like Jehovah´s Witnesses or Assemblies of God, this has not been a  very successful mission.

Finally, there may be also other local specifics that inflate the numbers, for example, in Slovak case, the “phantom Mormons“. The phenomenon which I call ”phantom membership“ happened in Slovakia´s last national census in 2011, where 972 people identified themselves as Mormons. This was an unbelievable number, since I know the situation of Mormons in Slovakia very well. I have never seen more than 50 practicing Mormons in their biggest Slovak group, and when I talked to several Slovak missionaries and representatives, their estimates of the number of Mormons in Slovakia were never higher than 300, and they also suggested that the results from census were very surprising for them also. I think that a possible explanation might be that, because Mormons are little known in Slovak environment, and their official name is generally unknown, when they were listed in the census options (for first time in Slovak history), many non-denominational Christians who were not sure what box to tick, and may not have wanted to tick the “Other“ box, saw “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints“ and ticked the box with ”Church of Jesus Christ“, filtering out the rest of the name since they had no idea what it meant means, but it sounded about right (no other registered church in Slovakia has “Jesus Christ” in its name). It is possible that this hypothesis is incorrect, but if not it would explain those almost 700 invisible Mormons, which even the most optimistic church officials never knew they “had”.

In summary, we can conclude, that official LDS estimates of Mormon demography are strongly inflated in Europe , just as in the Americas. Many of the advantages that Mormons have in the USA because of their unique “American-ness” may become more of a burden in Europe, and because of this their retention rate may be worse in Europe than in the USA. One way or another, it is difficult to imagine how LDS Church officials could consider the Mormon mission to Europe a success.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Pavol Kosnac completed his B.A. and M.A. in Religious Studies at Comenius University in Bratislava, and studies of political philosophy, jurisprudence and ethics at Collegium of Anton Neuwirth. He is currently studying for a MSt. In the Study of Religion at Oxford University and applying for DPhil studies. His focus is mainly on the study of new religiosity, new religious movements and non-religiosity in (but not exclusively) central and eastern Europe, and the methodology of research in these categories in general.

 

References:

LDS official membership information by country:

http://www.ldschurchnews.com/almanac/1/Almanac.html, accessed 12.1.2013

Information on Slovak national poll from Slovak statistical Institute:

http://portal.statistics.sk/files/tab-14.pdf

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion, by Tim Hutchings

A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion

By Tim Hutchings, Durham University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 4 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Callum Brown on Historical Approaches to (Losing) Religion (30 April 2012). For a more ‘informal’ response, you can listen to our roundtable discussion session on the question Can We Trust the Social Sciences?.

In his new podcast for the Religious Studies Project, Callum Brown has given us an excellent introduction to the historical approach to the study of religion. In conversation with Christopher Cotter, Brown outlines rival traditions within the history of religion and demonstrates what each has contributed to our understanding of secularisation. Along the way, Brown summarises his research career and offers some tantalising hints about his current interview-based study of the life stories of people who have left religion. He also emphasises the value of demographics, arguing that sophisticated analyses of census data reveal that people develop ‘an entirely new sense of self’ when they leave religion.  This is a fascinating and challenging claim, but I have chosen to focus in this response on another of the main themes of this podcast: the relationship between history and sociology.

At the end of this interview, Brown distinguishes the history of religion sharply from sociology. According to Brown, there is a “huge gap” in method, approach and interests between the two disciplines. Sociologists, he argues, believe that the world is governed by rules. They undertake research to study the contemporary religious landscape, interpret this snapshot in time by framing it within a particular model of fixed, linear change, and then make predictions about the future. Historians, on the other hand, believe that nothing is inevitable and assume that “when” must be the first step in working out “why”. Instead of collecting snapshots, historians map change year-on-year, using that longitudinal data to establish the effects of key events.

My own field of research is digital religion, an area with a particularly troubled relationship to history. Scholars and commentators interested in digital culture and its significance for religion have struggled to distinguish what is truly new from what has come before, and continue to search for helpful ways to talk about change.

One classic strategy since the 1990s has been to contrast an anecdotal snapshot of contemporary life against visions of the near future and the recent past.  In the most common forms of this argument, the past is characterised by stable local communities, face-to-face relationships and a secure, unchanging personal identity. Contemporary digital technology challenges this stability by supporting fluid, self-determined, global communication networks, so the argument goes, and these changes will intensify in the near future. Different observers have interpreted this same basic approach in positive, neutral and negative ways, seeing technology as the route to new spiritual awareness (Cobb 1998), a powerful tool that can be used to promote an unchanging religious message to the new mission field of digital culture (Estes 2009, Sweet 2012), or a dangerous threat to church, character and society. Sherry Turkle’s recent declaration that social media is facilitating a “flight from conversation” is a good example of this third type (2012). Young people now use their phones a lot, she argues, and they previously spent time face-to-face, and this shift is very bad for everyone. Her argument is simple and intuitively appealing, contrasting a recognisable snapshot of everyday life with a widely-accepted vision of the recent past and calling for immediate action to rescue the future, and her article has provoked much discussion online in recent weeks.

Scholars of media and religion have tried to challenge this approach over the last decade by framing their observations within a more rigorous historical perspective. The forms of religious community observed online are not unique after all, they argue: they actually continue long-running trajectories of social change from groups to networks (Wellman 2012) or from stable to fluid religious identities (Wagner 2012). Heidi Campbell’s recent work (2010) focuses on the power of religious groups to construct and interpret the technology they use, a process that includes engagement with group history. For Campbell, contemporary religious uses of the internet must be interpreted in the context of the theology and values of particular communities, including how those communities have changed their approach to media over time.  Many other scholars have tried to complicate popular understandings of the past and present of media religion, undertaking detailed comparative studies to show that religious authority, community and identity have not changed in the ways some observers allege.

Listening to Callum Brown’s interview, it becomes clear that all of these scholarly approaches represent a distinctively sociological way of using history. These scholars analyse the past to identify long-term trajectories in social or religious change and use that model to interpret the present. “When” questions are rarely considered: the purpose of the exercise is to establish a tension between a stable (or predictably-changing) past and a snapshot of the present, to generate insights into continuity and change.

There is clear scope here for inter-disciplinary collaboration. Sociological interest in the history of religion and media has generated a space for interventions by historians, who can greatly benefit the study of digital culture by offering detailed critiques of our assumed trajectories of change. Recent examples include Jeremy Stolow’s keynote speech on the spirituality of the telegraph, delivered to the Digital Religion conference in Colorado earlier this year (see Stolow 2011), and Stefan Gelfgren’s work (2012) on the history of religious attitudes to media. Sociologists of digital religion are still not as interested in the connection between “when” and “why” as Callum Brown might like, but clear progress is being made to forge connections with historians. This podcast is an excellent provocation to think harder about the questions we overlook and the interdisciplinary conversations that might help us uncover them.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Tim Hutchings recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the HUMlab digital humanities centre in Umeå, Sweden and has now returned to the UK to join the CODEC research initiative at St John’s College, Durham. Tim is currently working with CODEC to develop a series of digital art exhibitions and installations in response to the Lindisfarne Gospels. His PhD thesis (Durham University, 2010) was an ethnographic study of five online Christian churches, focusing on the relationship between online and offline religion. Research interests include e-vangelism, online Christian storytelling, the future of the Bible as a digital sacred text and the role of new media in death and mourning.

Bibliography

Campbell, Heidi. When Religion Meets New Media. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.

Cobb, Jennifer. CyberGrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. New York: Crown, 1998.

Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Gelfgren, Stefan. “Let there be digital networks and God will provide growth?” Comparing the aims and hopes of 19th-century and post-millenial Christianity. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 227-242.

Hogan, Bernie and Barry Wellman. The immanent internet redux. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 43-62.

Stolow, Jeremy. ‘Telegraph’, in freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality. September 7 2011. Available online: http://freq.uenci.es/2011/09/07/telegraph/.  Accessed May 2 2012.

Sweet, Leonard. Viral: How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2012.

Turkle, Sherry. The flight from conversation. New York Times, April 21 2012. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html. Accessed May 2 2012.

Wagner, Rachel. Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

 

Roundtable: Can We Trust the Social Sciences?

We have another ‘treat’ for you this week – we’ll let you decide whether that was an accurate description or not – in the form of another roundtable discussion, with a slightly different group of people. This was recorded late on the 28th of March at the University of Chester during the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL for short)’s conference (although, of course, this is an ‘unofficial’ discussion).

Ethan: “We ask a question on a survey, we get an answer… and then we have to fill in the space…”

The topic of discussion grew out of a presentation delivered by Callum Brown at the University of Edinburgh (at the same time as we recorded our podcast with him) on the topic of “People of no religion: The demographics of secularisation in the English speaking world since 1900”, which presented, amongst other things, some conclusions from large-scale demographic surveys of religious identification. Ethan Quillen disagreed forcefully that conclusions drawn from questionnaires and censuses can be used to draw large-scale conclusions, and tabled the motion, “Can We Trust the Social Sciences?”

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not; either way, we are back to normal with Jolyon Mitchell’s interview on Religion, Media and Violence on Monday. For an interesting and more rigorous response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion.

David and Ethan

David and Ethan

Conversation ranges from the strengths and weaknesses of such data, whether there is more to the social sciences than quantitative methods, and the place of the social sciences within a multi-disciplinary Religious Studies field. Can we trust social sciences when we study religion? Is a social scientific approach the future of religious studies? What is an alternative to a social scientific approach?  These questions and more form the basis for what we intend to act as a bridge between our previous roundtable (“What is the Future of Religious Studies?”) and our forthcoming roundtable (“Should scholars of religion be critics or caretakers?”), timetabled for release on 6 June 2012.

Discussion largely focussed upon Quantitative Methods… something which future podcasts with Ariela Keysar and David Voas shall be focusing on more explicitly:

Do social scientists depend upon assumptive reasoning when it comes to filling in the blanks in their data? Does a decline in church attendance mean a decline in conviction, or simply a decline in one’s attendance at church? By providing boxes do we force people into boxes? What does one individual tell us about a category? What is it specifically about religion that makes this such an issue? How do we trust people to answer in a certain way?

Kevin: “Aren’t you better hypothesising by going out and asking people questions than by sitting around and hypothesising?”

Reference is made to the panel session on Religious Conspiracies at which David, Kevin and Ethan had presented earlier in the day. We also refer to Tom Rees’ excellent Epiphenom blog. Ethan plays Devil’s advocate, whilst Chris throws himself on the pyre and asks Ethan what he thought was wrong with his approach in his MSc Thesis.

Mat: “It’s not perfect, and I would love to go out and buy a tailored pair of trousers but… I’m not gonna get it. So I’ll go out and buy a pair that are closest to my size, and that’s the most economic way…”

It was late… two thirds of the panel had been up since 7 am travelling down from Edinburgh.

The conclusion? Should there be a balance between quantitative and qualitative approaches? Well… yes. But individual scholars may have to side with one or the other. We need a holistic approach, and this isn’t generally something one scholar can accomplish by themselves…

Sponsored by Pepsi Max, and pink gin.

Katie clearly found Ethan “hilarious”

The Discussants:

Katie Aston

Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.

Christopher R. Cotter

Chris recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to pursue PhD applications, present at conferences, and work on projects such as this. His future research will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Matthew Francis

Matthew graduated from Leeds with a joint-honours degree in Philosophy and Theology and Religious Studies. He subsequently undertook a Masters by Research, where he examined the ideas of Georges Bataille in relation to the problem of meaning in death in contemporary society. Matthew is the Postgraduate Officer for the Sociology of Religion study group (SocRel) of the British Sociological Association (BSA). He has taught on undergraduate and postgraduate modules on subjects including the Sociology of Religion and Religion in Modern Britain.

Matthew recently completed an AHRC-funded PhD at Leeds, which investigated the move to violence in the beliefs of groups. He is the editor for RadicalisationResearch.org, an AHRC/ESRC funded website which provides a resource for policy-makers and the media on radicalisation and extremism, and works at Goldsmiths University managing the Religious Literacy Leadership Project.

Ethan Quillen

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

David G. Robertson

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Forthcoming publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and his MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see his Academia page or personal blog.

Kevin Whitesides

Kevin Whitesides completed his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University. He is currently developing an MSc dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on ’2012′ millennialism as part of a broader emphasis on countercultural transmission. Kevin has contributed articles to ‘Archaeoastronomy’ and ‘Zeitschrift fur Anomalistik’, has contributed chapters for two anthologies on apocalypse and prophecy, and has presented widely on the ’2012′ milieu at academic conferences and universities.