Conversations: Rodney Stark

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.

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4 responses to “Conversations: Rodney Stark

  1. Surveys are one thing, Bodies in pews are another. If this is about American churches, I would like statistics as to how many who say they belong to a church actually go regularly. Also, church-going is not necessarily connected to belief. Most Protestants and as many as half of the Catholics believe in contraception, for example, or even civil unions for homosexuals. What about a survey which indicates whether Christians in church are actually believing Christians and not merely mediocre, nominal church-goers? Numbers have never indicated anything about real belief. At least those who do not follow the Gospel and do not go to church are honest about their non-belief. As to nones, I meet them daily, but in Europe, and they do not believe and do not go to church.

  2. nobody.really

    Stark states that religion correlates with education, low crime, and good marriages. But do we know anything about causation?

    For example, I could imagine that education is a causal variable, or at least a marker for causal variables, that promote wealth and social integration. I would expect wealth and social integration to reduce stress on marriages and provide resources for addressing marital problems. I would expect wealth and social integration to reduce both the need for, and increase the cost of, engaging in crime. And I would expect wealth and social integration to promote membership in all kinds of organizations, including religious ones. In short, academics may well be justified in overlooking the alleged “socially beneficial aspects of religion” if religion is merely the effect, not the cause, of these beneficial factors.

  3. Not surprising, really. Christianity has always promoted social expectations that actions such as stealing, dishonesty and adultery are morally unacceptable and, therefore, socially reprehensible. Of course communities that embrace these standards are going to have less crime and push their youth toward more productive enterprises (such as doing well in school). Communities that don’t–those that live out the implications of moral relativism and realize that it entails the end of universal human rights and any disincentive to crime other than being caught–shouldn’t be surprised at an increase in crime.

  4. nobody.really

    “Christianity has always promoted social expectations that actions such as stealing, dishonesty and adultery are morally unacceptable and, therefore, socially reprehensible. Of course communities that embrace these standards are going to have less crime and push their youth toward more productive enterprises (such as doing well in school). Communities that don’t–those that live out the implications of moral relativism and realize that it entails the end of universal human rights and any disincentive to crime other than being caught–shouldn’t be surprised at an increase in crime.”

    Have we witnessed a decline in religiosity in Western Europe? Have we witnessed a corresponding increase in crime? Similarly, what parts of the US have the highest rates of religiosity, and what parts have the highest rates of crime?

    This is not to say that religiosity causes crime. To the contrary, perhaps crime causes religiosity. People confronted with social decay – a loss of economic and social status and stability – may respond with fight or flight. Some will give in and engage in crime. But others will respond with a dogged rejection of crime, and an emphatic embrace of the norms of whichever golden age they identify as being better than their current circumstances. As Joyce Armstrong theorizes, fundamentalism is not an authentic embrace of old culture; rather, it’s a modern invention, a nostalgic pastiche invented in reaction to modernity.

    Thus, Shark may well be right: People with the resources to fend off the social decay that surrounds them may be motivated to profess, and actually practice, a strict moral code.

    In contrast, people who don’t experience social decay feel neither the invitation to engage in antisocial behavior, nor the anxious need to condemn the antisocial behavior of others in moral terms. Thus, the people of Europe and New England are not known either for their antisocial behavior, nor for displays of religiosity designed to marshal a consensus against antisocial behavior.

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