A Pew Puzzle

It’s not fair. It’s not pretty. But I get it—Anglicans get more seats in the US Congress than Pentecostals do. What I DON’T understand is the Catholic question. Any ideas?Pew congress faith

Here’s what we know: the Pew Research Center released its new numbers for the religious makeup of the new US Congress.  As usual, Protestants are heavily overrepresented in power, some denominations more than others. Anglicans, for example, make up almost five percent of Congress, even though they only make up one percent of the (adult) population. On the other hand, groups such as Pentecostals don’t get a fair shake. They are only 0.4% of Congress, even though they are five percent of the population.

It’s ugly, but at least it makes sense. Anglicans tend to be richer and whiter than America as a whole, whereas Pentecostals have traditionally been poorer and blacker. Not that it’s fair, but it isn’t a shocker to anyone who understands American politics. Money and power have always gone hand in hand.

But what’s the deal with Catholics? They represent a whopping 30.5% of Congress, even though they are only 21% of the population. What gives?

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College Really IS Bad for Jesus

A century ago, conservative evangelicals rallied around William Jennings Bryan and his warnings that college was bad for students’ evangelical faith. One of the results was the network of evangelical universities I studied in Fundamentalist U. A new poll suggests that Bryan was right all along.

pew college graduates belief in god

Was Bryan right?

In his anti-evolution stump speeches in the early 1920s, Bryan liked to cite the work of Bryn Mawr psychologist James Leuba. According to Leuba, 85% of college freshman believed in god, but only 70% of juniors did, and only 60-65% of graduates did. The evidence seemed clear, Bryan reported: College kills religion.

Bryan also liked to tell personal anecdotes about the deleterious spiritual effects of college attendance. As he put it in 1921,

There is a professor in Yale of whom it is said that no one leaves his class a believer in God. . . . A father (a Congressman) tells me that a daughter on her return from Wellesley told him that nobody believed in the Bible stories now.  Another father (a Congressman) tells me of a son whose faith was undermined by this doctrine in a Divinity School.

Was it true? Who knows. Bryan was famous for rhetorical excellence and factual carelessness. A new Pew survey, though, finds that college graduates, as a group, tend to be less literal about their religious beliefs than the rest of America.

As the Pewsters report, about two-thirds of respondents with a high-school diploma or less believe in the God of the Bible. Among college graduates, that number drops to 45%. College graduates are still plenty religious, with 84% of them saying they believe in God or some sort of higher spiritual power, compared to 94% of high-school grads.

Still, the difference is notable. And we have to ask: Were Bryan and the 1920s fundamentalists right all along? Is college—at least, in its mainstream and elite forms—bad for faith in Jesus?

Creationists: Have You Stopped Beating Your Wives?

Sometimes, it’s all in the way you phrase the question. Newish poll results from the Pewsters underscore the fact: Americans aren’t really sure what to think about creation and evolution. It all depends on how you ask.

Here’s what we know: The folks at Pew Research Center experimented with different ways to ask respondents about evolution and creationism. As they discovered,

our estimate of the share of Americans who reject evolution and express a creationist view drops considerably (from 31% to 18% of U.S. adults) when respondents are immediately given the opportunity to say God played a role in human evolution. [Emphasis in original.]

Pew evolution questionsOther pollsters have come to similar conclusions. As the National Science Board found, what people say about evolution can change wildly when the questions are worded differently. In 2012, NSB asked two different sets of questions. When they asked people if “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” a small majority (52%) said no.

But when NSB asked if “according to the theory of evolution,” humans evolved from other species, a much larger group (72%) said yes. In a way, those responses make perfect sense. Lots of people might know that mainstream scientists agree about evolution, but still not think evolution really happened.

Other poll results, though, get weirder. A decade ago, George Bishop looked at poll numbers and came up with some flatly contradictory results. For example, it seems some people—a lot of people—agree that dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago (69%). However, because 40% of respondents also think that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans, there seems to be some impossible crossovers going on.

What do Americans really think about evolution and creationism? Depends on how you ask the question. By and large, people don’t care too much about it and they certainly don’t care about intellectual consistency. And that’s not a jab at creationists alone—people who say they accept evolution often can’t explain its basic ideas. (Don’t believe it? Check out this study or this one.)

One thing seems likely: Those of us who want more and better evolution education should be encouraged by the fact that the number of intentional, hard-core, consistent radical creationists is nowhere near as high as we are sometimes told.

The Accidental Creationist Conspiracy

We didn’t mean to. But those of us who fight for more and better evolution education have occasionally unwittingly teamed up with radical creationists to promulgate a false myth about the nature of American creationism. We should stop.

Pew Creation eighty one

I’ll take those odds…

Here’s what we know: Most Americans know—or admit—that humans evolved. You may have heard the old Gallup poll results, the ones that keep finding almost half of Americans think God created humans in pretty much their present form at some time within the past ten thousand years.

More careful survey questions—it’s all about the questions—reveal much different numbers. The folks at Pew Research have found that about four in every five Americans accept human evolution. The numbers of die-hard evolution deniers is much smaller than you might have thought.

Why is that? Why do so many of us think that there are many more radical creationists out there than there really are?

For one thing, it might be because of the publicity. Whenever a high-profile radical creationist gets anywhere, it attracts a lot of attention. Consider the ill-starred campaign of Mary Lou Bruner in Texas. She didn’t win her race for state school board, but when she told her facebook friends that there had to have been dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark, and that Obama had put himself through law school as a prostitute, it attracted international attention to her campaign.

But there’s another reason, too. Radical creationists like Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis have an obvious interest in inflating the numbers of followers they have. When it comes to the attendance figures at AIG’s Ark Encounter in Kentucky, for example, Ham seems fond of exaggerating the number of people who trickle through his gopher-wood gates.

There’s a less obvious angle, too. Not only do Ham and other radical creationists exaggerate their own influence, so do Ham’s fiercest opponents. For instance, Americans United campaigns vigorously for secular public schools. They fight against any whiff of religiously inspired creationist curriculum. In doing so, however, they unintentionally promote the myth of vast creationist armies massing outside the schoolhouse door.

Now, to be clear, I personally support their work, and that of other anti-creationist groups such as the National Center for Science Education. Nevertheless, when AU rightly condemns the creationist activities of lawmakers such as Indiana’s Dennis Kruse, AU tends to imply that Kruse is not part of a desperate, go-nowhere radical creationist rump, but rather part and parcel of what they call elsewhere a

a coordinated national effort to codify a far-right, evangelical Christian America. [Emphasis in original.]

A casual reader might be forgiving for thinking that a “coordinated national effort” is scarier than what we might more appropriately describe in other terms. Instead of inflating the influence of radical creationism, what if we called it by more appropriate labels? How about “desperate?” How about “disappearing?” How about “shrinking and increasingly isolated?”

As I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism, the vast majority of Americans don’t really disagree about evolution. Not in ways that really matter. Instead, most of us are friendly to the mainstream science of evolution. We’re also friendly to religious ideas about divine involvement in the origins of life. Few of us agree with the radical positions on either side of the creationism culture war.

shipley war on modern science

“Vast armies?” or sad little cliques?

Instead of harping on the threat of radical creationism, it will be better strategy to emphasize the out-of-step nature of radical creationism. Instead of warning incorrectly—as NCSE godfather Maynard Shipley did in the 1920s—that “the armies of ignorance are being organized, literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science,” we should be celebrating and publicizing the fact that only a small and shrinking band of out-of-touch radicals still deny the essentials of mainstream science.

Does This Help?

We all know it doesn’t help much to know someone’s religion. That is, just knowing that someone is Catholic, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Protestant doesn’t really tell us much about them. We want to know what KIND of Protestant someone is, what KIND of religious person. The folks at Pew have taken a stab at a new way of grouping religious people. Instead of denominations, sects, or faiths, Pew offers new “typologies.” Do they help you understand American religious and culture better? And do they confirm Professor Hunter’s twenty-five-(plus!)-year-old prediction?Pew typologies

Here’s what we know: The typologies cluster Americans into three categories and seven groups. Some people are “highly” religious, others are “somewhat” religious, and the rest are “non-religious.” The highly religious folks are subdivided into “Sunday Stalwarts,” “God-and-Country,” and “Diversely Devout.” The somewhats are broken down into “Relaxed Religious” and “Spiritually Awake.” The non-religious are cut up into “Religion Resisters” and the “Solidly Secular.”

In some ways, these categories point out surprising facts. For example, as Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta pointed out, the Solidly Secular are surprisingly similar to the stereotype of the GOP: Richer, whiter, and maler than the American average.

In other cases, the categories seem to confirm culture-war stereotypes. As the report notes,

Although no political measures were used to create the typology, arraying the groups from most to least religious also effectively sorts Americans by party identification and political ideology. Republicans make up a majority of Sunday Stalwarts and God-and-Country Believers, while even larger majorities of Democrats comprise the two nonreligious groups. Similarly, self-described conservatives prevail among the two most religious groups, while, by comparison, the two nonreligious groups lean left.

Certainly, when we look at the three “highly” religious typologies, they seem to tilt hard to the cultural right. For example, they are more likely than average to think homosexuality is morally wrong. They are more likely to be leery of immigrants. And the Sunday Stalwarts and God-and-Country folks are more likely to think racial inequalities are a thing of the past.Pew typologies 3 very religious

To my mind, these typologies are much more useful than traditional labels such as “evangelical.” Lots of self-identified evangelicals, for example, cluster in the Sunday Stalwart, God-and-Country, and Diversely Devout types. But there are also plenty of evangelicals who are more “relaxed” about their faiths.

In part, these types seem to confirm what sociologist James Davison Hunter predicted back in the early 1990s. His claim at the time was that traditional religious labels would become less and less important. It would matter less and less, Professor Hunter argued, if someone was Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim. Instead, people would tend to cluster around the culture-war poles, either “orthodox” or “progressive.”

Does it work for you? Do you feel these types are more useful than traditional labels to understand religious and cultural life in America? Do you fit into one of these typologies, or do they seem too simplistic?

College Has Gone to the Dogs

Who hates college? Nobody, really. But if you squinted your eyes a little when you read the recent Pew poll results, you might be fooled into thinking conservatives had suddenly turned against higher education.PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_party

Here’s what we know: Since 2010, Pew has surveyed American adults about their feelings toward major institutions. In just the last few years, more and more respondents who identify as Republican or Republican-ish say that higher education is having a negative overall effect on American society. In 2010, only a third of Republicans thought so. Today, it is up to 58%.

What’s going on? As always, Pew wisely doesn’t jump to hasty conclusions. My guess is that many of us chatterers will rush to say that conservatives in general are anti-intellectual, or that conservatives think college is a waste of time. Or, given the sudden shift in numbers, maybe that conservatives are dismayed by the snowflake protests that seem to be sweeping American campuses.

Maybe, but I think there’s more to it.

First of all, obviously, we can’t equate “conservative” with “Republican.” True enough, these days most conservatives’ votes have been captured by the GOP. Not all, though. And certainly not all Republicans are conservatives.pp second graph

I think there’s also something more important going on. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’ve been up to my eyeballs for the past few years in research about American higher education. The group of conservative dissenting college founders I’m studying was often accused of being anti-intellectual and anti-college. They were neither.

As I’m arguing in my upcoming book, Protestant fundamentalists cared a lot about ideas and about college. They loved college. But if you only listened to their rhetoric, it would be easy to assume too quickly that they were somehow opposed to higher education.

Consider, for example, one apocryphal story that made the rounds among 1920s fundamentalist pundits. It was supposed to be a letter home from an evangelical college grad. As he supposedly told his mother,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water. . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.  I hope you will warn the young men of the impending danger just ahead of them.

For fundamentalists in the 1920s, college was a terrible spiritual danger. But that didn’t mean they were against college. Rather, they were fervently against college done wrong. They were against the trends that they correctly perceived to be driving mainstream trends in higher ed.

What did they do? They didn’t stop sending their kids to college. Rather, they founded their own institutions, reliably fundamentalist colleges such as Bob Jones College (now Bob Jones University) and Bryan University (now Bryan College). They also flocked to existing reliably fundamentalist institutions such as Wheaton College and the Moody Bible Institute.

My hunch is that today’s Pew respondents are similar. When they tell pollsters they don’t trust college or “the media,” it doesn’t mean they don’t like higher education or newspapers. Rather, it means they don’t trust the smarmy elites that they think run such institutions.

Here’s what I wish I could do: Have the Pewsters add some follow-up questions. When people say they don’t trust colleges, ask them if they want their kids to go to college anyway. And then ask them what would restore their trust in higher education.

Here’s what I think people would say: Even if they don’t trust college, they want their children to attend. But they would prefer to find a school that reflected their own values, instead of the radical leftism that many people think dominates colleges today.