Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Book Review: What Americans Really Believe


This book is an interesting fast check out from the library. I can't recommend buying it, but I wouldn't have read it if it were any longer or denser (therefore, more "worth the money"). Stark is a sociologist who used to be at UW for three decades and then moved to Baylor. This is a summary of recent polls in which he has asked Americans what they believe about x, y, and z. He will often take a poll question that's been interpreted one way and ask those type of respondents a few more questions to show that the results were correct but the interpretation of the results was wrong. I get the feeling once in a while that if someone turned the tables and asked a few more questions of HIS respondents, maybe some of HIS conclusions would be reversed back! But this is a valuable antidote to some ossifying common wisdom.

One point is a piece of data I thought I quoted on this blog not long ago (but now can't find it, maybe I just thought about blogging it!), that upwards of 30% of Vermont residents claim no religion when asked, making them the "least religious" part of the US and overtaking the Pacific Northwest for that category. The headline on the story of course was that religion's on the decline and has been for decades (a common-sense datum repeated off-hand in a blog interview with the skeptic Penn Jillette recently). Stark goes back to the data and finds that, funny, atheism's holding steady at 5 percent or less of the population, so he asks the people who say they have no religion just what they believe. A minority are atheists, but some are just anti-organized religion people and many are "New Age" types (not sure what to call them these days?). They're just not claiming a religion but statistically they're just about as "spiritual" as any other group (not that there's anything wrong with that). So it's not that people are believing stuff less. If anything they're believing more -- too much!

The common-sense datum I got deflated in myself was the conviction that people who went to mega-churches would be less active in service than those who went to smaller churches. Nope, because mega-churches score high in every measurable quantity across the board, hours of service, agreement with doctrinal statements, and everything inbetween. The mega-churches apparently grow for some good reasons. As someone who's seen his congregation grow from a couple hundred per Sunday to about 1600 ... I guess I should stop carping about the "sit back and take it in" mode of big churches, because I guess by the statistics they're doing more right than the little ones. Huh.

So take this book, read it quickly, and find out which of your myths need to be punctured by a little data.

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