Last week, we reviewed a recent book by Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark, America’s Blessings. In the book, Stark (left) critiques public opinion surveys that purport to show the decline of religion in America and an increase in Americans without a religious affiliation, the so-called “Nones.” This week, Stark kindly agrees to answer some questions. He talks about church attendance in America, now at an all-time high; the surprisingly traditional beliefs of the Nones; and the reasons why the media and academy often ignore the socially beneficial effects of religion–lower crime rates, for example. He also explains why regular church goers may report greater satisfaction in their marriages, and talks about his future projects.
CLR Forum: Rod, we’ve heard a great deal in the past year about the rise of the “Nones.” According to reports, about 20% of Americans, the highest percentage ever, tell surveyors that they have no religious affiliation. Yet in America’s Blessings you note that 70% of Americans, also the highest percentage in our history, belong to religious congregations. What explains these two, apparently contradictory, developments?
Stark: First of all, few of the “Nones” aren’t religious. Most of them even pray. What they mean when they say “None” is that they do not belong to a specific church. As for the increase in their numbers over the past 20 years, that probably is mostly caused by the decline in the percentage of Americans willing to take part in a survey. Those who do are very disproportionately the less affluent and less educated. Believe it or not, repeated studies going back to the 1940s always show that this is the group least likely to belong to a local church—the more educated Americans are the more religious segment (excluding PhDs). Meanwhile, partly because Americans move less often than they used to, and many more remain in their home towns as adults, membership in local churches has been rising—now estimated at 70 percent, the all-time high.
CLR Forum: You point out that the large majority of the Nones are rather religious, in their own way. How would you describe the religion of the religiously unaffiliated? What are its salient features?
Stark: The unaffiliated are religious in the traditional ways. They believe in God and in life after death–many believe in guardian angels. But, since they do not attend a local church (and probably never attended Sunday school) their faith is unsophisticated and often includes non-Christian supernaturalism—belief in ghosts and the like.
CLR Forum: You criticize the academy and media for ignoring many reliable surveys that suggest the socially beneficial aspects of religion, while focusing on unreliable surveys that show the anti-social impact of religion. Why is this, do you think? How do you think these academics would respond to your criticisms?
Stark: Surveys have demonstrated the irreligiousness of the media and of academics (especially social scientists and at the elite schools). I am unable to explain why this is so—but I do know from experience (both as a reporter at major newspapers and as an academic) that there is a remarkable combination of snobbery and ignorance involved.
CLR Forum: You show convincingly that there’s a correlation between religiosity and low crime rates. To explain this, you rely on the concept of “moral communities.” What is the mechanism here? Do the values of religiously observant people permeate the wider society? It makes one think of the famous “broken window” theory of criminality. People take cues from the behaviors they observe around them. Is that the idea?
Stark: To the extent that communities are made up of religious people, crime rates will be lower both because the religious folks are far less likely to commit crimes and because religious values and references will be more openly and commonly expressed, setting a moral tone for everyone. For example, it will be harder for kids to think that they are to be admired for stealing.
CLR Forum: Much of America’s Blessings deals with religion as a general category. Were there any religious-specific effects you’d like to discuss? For example, do Presbyterians turn out to have happier marriages than Baptists, or vice versa?
Stark: Very few surveys have enough cases to permit denominational comparisons on such matters, but many do show that Evangelical Protestants excel on desirable attitudes and actions.
CLR Forum: As to marriage, what would you say to this criticism? You show pretty convincingly that regular churchgoers report greater marital satisfaction than non-churchgoers. But maybe this reflects social pressure. Regular churchgoers may feel they have to tell people they have happy marriages, even if they don’t, because that’s what’s expected of them. Could this skew the results?
Stark: If it were true that regular church-goers feel pressure to report their marriages as happy, they also must feel pressure to try to make their marriages happy. And such efforts have real effects.
CLR Forum: What’s your next project?
Stark: I have just finished a book: Religious Hostility: A Global Assessment of Hatred and Terror (with Katie Corcoran). We are able to draw on many huge international surveys to assess the whole range of issues here, including religious freedom. After that I am doing a book on the destruction of high culture, good manners, taste, and virtue.