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Further Reading

The Crux Project Archives: Religion

THREE QUESTIONS

for Dr. Mark Regnerus, sociology professor at the University of Texas and member of the Center for the Scientific Study of Religion

by Bobby Maddex

What is the Center for the Scientific Study of Religion?
Basically, we are trying to produce high quality and high frequency research on religious influence. We don't study religion just to know it, and we're definitely not into studying all sorts of obscure religious groups. Rather, we study what religion does—its functions. Of course, you have to know religion to do that, its variations and distinctions, but religion is the input in what we do instead of the output.

A year ago, the College of Liberal Arts decided to make a significant investment in the sociology of religion and so hired two additional sociologists, myself and Bob Woodberry, to augment the work of Chris Ellison, Bob Hummer, and Mark Musick. We thus have three professors who devote their full time to the study of religion and another five who study religion in addition to things like mortality studies, social movements, aging, etc.

The Center is actually an ephemeral office. It's made up of human personnel, several university faculty members and a bunch of graduate students, but we don't have a physical location. We do have a web presence (www.prc.utexas.edu/cssr) and a set of productive researchers, but that's about it.

What are some of the results of your personal studies on the influence of religion on American adolescents?
One of the niftier findings that caught the press's attention was the positive correlation between churchgoing and kids' ability to stay on track at school. We found that churchgoing helped kids who lived in more impoverished neighborhoods to keep from falling behind academically. It didn’t help kids who lived in more affluent neighborhoods. The reason for this discrepancy can be traced back to basic social capital. When you have lots of resources, as is the case with affluent neighborhoods, the community simply functions better. When you lack those resources, you also lack effective functioning institutions. Indeed, in some cases, the church is the only functioning institution in a given impoverished area. Lots of things are funneled through churches in poor neighborhoods that are not in affluent ones.

Kids who are plugged into church, who are part of a ritual process of attending church—they go every week and sometimes several times a week—are building skills and being put into contact with people who hold them accountable and care about their lives. Such benefits are directly translatable to success in school, regardless of the child's particular religious denomination.

Another finding had to do with religion and family relations. When you don't have parents and children on the same track religiously during adolescence, you can have some problems. But when kids are more religious than their parents, they tend to self-report that their relationship with their parents is better than kids whose religiosity is equal to their parents, whether low or high. Something is going on when kids are programmed into religious activities and internalizing them outside of their parents' influence. They are taught to value families and do so. When it's the other way around, however, it's a recipe for rebellion. When parents are more religious than their kids, it doesn't create a happy family environment. I'm not excited that people aren't getting along, but it's an interesting finding.

Most recently, I studied the relationship in schools between the presence of conservative Protestant adolescents—those who self-identified as "born again"—and juvenile delinquency. In schools where there was a high percentage of born-again kids who attended church weekly, all of the students were less likely to get into trouble (even those who were not religious). The average levels of major and minor delinquency were distinct for kids for whom there was a moral community, where more of the kids were plugged into religion. When most of a school's students are Evangelical Protestant, it has a sort of leavening effect on the entire school. It's not drastic. Everybody wants the drastic story. Everybody wants to say that it's one-tenth of the delinquency, but it's not; it's not even half of that. But it is better.

In your opinion, what are the ramifications of such findings?
People always ask me for policy ramifications. Well, I'm not doing policy studies. You can draw your own policy ramifications if you can figure them out, but I don't think they're straightforward. No, I think that these findings have value in that the Church can pick them up and ask, "Are we doing a good job, and where do we need improvement?" I'm going to tell them the good news and the bad news, and they can either feel patted on the back or challenged to do better.

For example, this thing about staying on track in school: it's sort of a pat on the back. Churches in impoverished communities should feel good about what they're doing. It is mattering. Not necessarily for every kid, but it is mattering. So they should not only feel good about that but challenged to continue the good work they are doing.

As for the family relations piece, parents should recognize the challenges they will face when their kids leave the church. It's not just value-free information. It has obviously been affecting family relations and so they should be challenged to pay attention to teenagers and bring them back. The adolescent years are notorious in terms of kids dropping out of organized religion. At the same time, it's also the period in life when people are most likely to make long-lasting religious commitments. It's not stable—let's put it that way.

It's this idea that religious belief matters that I hope to communicate with my studies. There have always been detractors who think that the West is becoming more and more secular, that eventually the whole world will become secularized. This is not happening. When you see that nineteen people committed to their religious beliefs can bring a halt to American society, if only briefly, that's powerful, right? Religion motivates people to do great things and to do terrible things. You always hear people say that religion is responsible for the Inquisition and all sorts of killing over the course of history, but the same could be said of irreligion. The point is that religion is powerful stuff. It seems to have finally garnered scholars' attention again.

Religion had the attention of the founding fathers of sociology: Max Weber, Emile Durkheim—even Karl Marx. But then it was off the radar screen for a long time, and this was intentional; people wanted it out. Religion was going to go away, they thought, so why bother studying it? It is only recently that people have begun to realize that religion may not only pay off in the afterlife, but it seems to pay off in the present: social support, social control, healthy lifestyle behaviors, all of these things. Religion is also good for the economy; it enhances trust, and trust is critical to the functioning of capitalism. People who don't care about religion don’t have a clue about the degree to which faith motivates human behavior. What matters to them are behavioral personality tendencies, genetic tendencies, socioeconomic factors, and gender. Such things are indeed powerful influences, but to say that religion does not also motivate is just plain goofy. •

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