Saturday, December 13, 2008


Tell us about what you experience as the good parts of the holiday season,
the traditions that mark it, the practices you find most beneficial.

Bob Longman,

Friday, December 12, 2008

Stark cold truth

In his book *What Americans Really Believe*, Rodney Stark also made a critical, crucial mistake in his reading of the data on church attendance and membership. Or, just as important, the Baylor study itself made the mistake, and he followed it to prove his point.

The extremely critical mistake? They asked the respondents about it.

Why is that a mistake? Because even people who don't go to church want to be seen as if they're part of a church. Or, they want to see themselves as someone who goes. On image questions of this kind, there's just too much lying. And they'll do it even when the information is to be kept confidential; many people don't trust that, either. So it is not something that is accurately studied by way of self-reporting.

The truth? According to those who look at actual counts, actual church attendance and membership are down overall. Attendance has been dropping noticeably for the last 10 years or so, with a brief interruption for 9/11. (Before that there was about two decades of 'shuffling', largely of folks leaving mainline churches for Pentecostal ones.) Many people, even those with strong Christian beliefs, don't bother with church at all anymore. Being an actual member of an actual congregation or church body isn't as important to their identity as in past generations. The drop isn't as large or as deep as the doomsday folks are saying, but it is real, and the churches must take action about it now. They must give a clear answer to the question, "what good does it do for Christians to gather together?"

The best way to measure such subjects by surveys? Indirectly. By creating a scale of indirect questions and doing a cluster analysis of them in relation to the other questions on the survey. By running a cross-check on it by looking at an area's actual attendance counts. By having enough respondents on these specific questions that you can have a high enough number of respondents (Ns) to be in effect a statistically-significant survey for each issue breakdown.

Stark et al.'s sunny analysis about current church attendance has no ground in fact except for the distorted 'self-reported' attendance and membership. This is one of the two instances in the book where the Baylor data was, from the start, not what it seemed to be.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gallows Humor on Spiritual Gifts

( as found in Cybersalt, )

During the French Revolution, there were three Christians who were sentenced to die by the guillotine. One Christian had the gift of faith, the other had the gift of prophecy, the other had the gift of helps.

The Christian with the gift of faith was to be executed first. He was asked if he wanted to wear a hood over his head. He declined and said he was not afraid to die. "I have faith that God will deliver me!" he shouted bravely. His head was positioned under the guillotine, with his neck on the chopping block. He looked up at the sharp blade, said a short prayer and waited confidently. The rope was pulled, but nothing happened.

His executioners were amazed and, believing that this must have been an act of God, they freed the man.

The Christian with the gift of prophecy was next. His head was positioned under the guillotine blade and he too was asked if he wanted the hood. "No," he said, "I am not afraid to die. However, I predict that God will deliver me from this guillotine!" At that, the rope was pulled and again, nothing happened. Once, again the puzzled executioners assumed this must be a miracle of God, and they freed the man.

The third Christian, with the gift of helps, was next. He was brought to the guillotine and likewise asked if he wanted to wear a hood. "No," he said, "I'm just as brave as those other two guys." The executioners then positioned him face up under the guillotine and were about to pull the rope when the man stopped them. "Hey wait a minute," he said. "I think I just found the problem with your guillotine."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Feedback on Church Words

What applies to words about the Bible also applies to churchly words. The definitions at are my best attempt to make sense out some of the most important words of the Christian tradition, including words that are better not to use at all, or only when addressing specialists.

I need to hear from you if the Spirithome definitions are right, or most importantly, what they miss. So go ahead. Make my day....

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Words About the Word

A year or so ago I had to think a lot about how to describe Scripture's place in the lives of Christians. I sensed something wrong with much of what I was reading about it.

(1) There was an important discrepancy between what what we say we believe about it and what our thoughts and actions showed we really believed about it.

(2) The vocabulary we used was clearly too narrow, and damaged by abuse and misunderstanding.

I had already put up some definitions on, but they needed to be clearer, more systematic, and the vocabulary needed to be wider-ranging. I have a new appreciation for the limits of using words to describe the Bible, but I'm even more convinced that we need to try.

I'm inviting more comment about this. Read the pages linked through the title of this note. I'm looking for real insight from you-all. Fire away!


Friday, December 05, 2008

Surveys on Religion : More of the Expected

I finally got a chance to read Rodney Stark & his crew's take on the Baylor Religion Surveys, most of which is found in Stark's book "What Americans Really Believe".

Before I go on, I should be honest about my own split feelings about Stark. On the one hand, his work with Glock in the late '60s-early '70s, notably American Piety and Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism, are seminal works in applying survey techniques to religious belief and practice. Those studies dispelled many fables. And Stark himself has been a part of the birth and growth of multivariate methods of sociological data analysis. On the other hand, in his own books the conclusions he writes are often very opinionated, and he doesn't think through the possible different slants on the data and account for them, as a good statistical analyst should do. His method is to set up straw men of popular beliefs about belief, then knock them down with the stats. (The only thing that makes the approach somewhat acceptable is that, unfortunately, most Americans' beliefs about other Americans' beliefs are based on the same straw men. But one could hope for more insight than that.)

One of the key things supported by the studies is something I've written and spoken about many times over the years : Christians on the whole are not credulous people. We don't believe in most stuff that seems mysterious or supernatural, and a lot of non-believers do believe in such things. Yes, I know where the general public image comes from : the fuss over weeping statues of Mary or gold glitter on the skin or the latest strong-talking preacher. But on the whole, most of us aren't into that. Stark's data shows that most Americans believe in dreams that foretell the future or reveal hidden truths, and large proportions believe in the existence of lost ancient civilizations, in ghost hauntings, and UFOs. This is especially true of those who are "spiritual but not religious". Next to all that, attending to a crying statue seems downright level-headed. The studies also show that Christians, across the board, even of a less-intense variety, are significantly less likely to believe such things.

Then, there is the existence of angels and demons. According to this study, and every other statistical or subjective-case study I've ever read on the matter (including a very recent Pew Center study), not only do most Americans and most Christians believe in angels, most "spiritual but not religious" folks do, too, by 2 to 1. Who's credulous?

Interpretation, of course, should account for the different ways people perceive angels. Also, belief in angels as a measure of credulousness goes one way if there really aren't any, but an entirely different way if there really are some. It's as wrong to believe something doesn't exist that does as it is to believe something does exist that doesn't. The key to which way it goes depends on what the truth is.

To me at least, there were very few surprises in the data. And, predictably, Stark and his coworkers ripped apart the straw men. Hopefully, in future studies they'll take down some more vigorous misperceptions.