Tuesday, December 2, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: What Americans Really Believe

Recently, I picked up the book, What Americans Really Believe, by Rodney Stark and others. As near as I can figure, the book is an outgrowth of the sociology department at Baylor University. All of the authors (there are several) save one are Baylor social science faculty. The book is a report and analysis of a 2007 survey conducted by Gallop for Baylor regarding religious beliefs of Americans.

If one were to read the book, especially the analysis of the data collected, one would get the opinion that the authors are saying a few things loud and clear and in many, many ways:
  1. Evangelical churches are thriving
  2. Most Americans are really evangelical in their outlook
  3. The Mainline denominations (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) are irrelevant and on their way out.
  4. Even those in those dying denominations think a whole lot like evangelicals.
  5. Evangelical churches (not to be redundant-- the authors sure are!) are thriving.
As I see it, the book supplies some useful data. But, it is dismissive of other major surveys of the religious landscape. The claim is thus: If only the other major surveys asked the right questions, they would know that we are right. And, I might add, they dismiss just about everybody. Now, I quoted some earlier Baylor surveys in my book (see left sidebar). As I said, they have something to say. Still, I think this idea-- others ask the wrong (or maybe right) questions in the wrong way-- plays both ways. Hey, Baylor Folks, did it ever occur to you that YOU might be asking the wrong questions in the wrong ways? It's sad that Baylor's Southern Baptist agenda comes through so loud and clear from scholars in a fine institution whom one would think would embrace impartiality. (Compare the Baylor survey to the recent Pew "Religious Landscape Survey.")

I am also concerned that Baylor seems to dismiss even its own data when it appears to be uncomplimentary. For example, charts included in the book indicate that those with the most evangelical/fundamentalist orientation are the least open to new experience. As has been frequently noted, evangelicals/fundamentalists are often xenophobic and easily threatened by different views, issues of diversity, etc. They have made up their mids and don't want to be "confused by the facts." This seems to be implied by the Baylor data, but it remains unexamined.

Even the Baylor survey indicates that only around 35 percent of Americans are "churched" in any meaningful sense. Other surveys have indicated that the "unaffiliated but spiritual" group is the fastest growing segment on the religious landscape. Baylor attempts (poorly) to show that this group is really some variant of the "religious" and probably Christian (perhaps evangelical as well??). It is such dismissive treatment of research conducted by those who do not share the Southern Baptist fundamentalist paradigm and the far-fetched conclusions reached that brings the entire Baylor endeavor into question. I guess I expected more sociology and less "faith-based" apologetics from such a fine institution.

All-in-all, I'm disappointed!

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