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Questions of Faith

Nov. 24, 2008

By Barbara Elmore


The co-directors of the Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) were surprised when more than half of those responding to their latest survey on religious belief said that a guardian angel protected them. Fifty-five percent of Americans surveyed-not just evangelicals, but the entire United States-agreed with the statement, "I was protected from harm by a guardian angel."

Dr. Rodney Stark describes the result as "extraordinary" in a new book detailing the findings called What Americans Really Believe. "I would have believed 10 percent or less would have had an experience with a guardian angel."

Stark also tells a story that a journalist related to him at a news conference where the survey results were unveiled. She recounted her own experience of years before, when she was pregnant. Wearing high heels, she stepped off a curb and started to fall. Before she hit the ground, she felt hands on her arms, lifting her up. But when she looked around, no one was there. She believes a guardian angel saved her from serious harm.

Another man reported to the Baylor researchers his account of being pulled from a burning car by a rescuer he never saw. And others who hear of the statistic have sent e-mails recounting their own experiences with guardian angels.

Equal rank for religion

Stark and ISR co-director Dr. Byron Johnson say that asking about religious belief and experience is precisely the point of the research they and other scholars affiliated with the ISR are conducting worldwide. They believe religion requires as much study as other important societal issues, so they are providing the resources and expertise to find answers.

And they have been successful in their endeavors. Followers of ISR research will soon discover what it is like to be Christian or Buddhist in China; how Latin Americans view faith; and how spiritual life affects the attitudes and behavior of young people.

Right now, ISR is probably best known for its every-other-year polls of American faith and religious practice, which it has contracted with the Gallup organization to conduct. The first survey polled about 1,700 people in 2005 with findings reported in 2006. The second and latest survey, with about the same number of respondents, went into the field in 2007. Results came out this year in the book written by Stark and published by Baylor Press.

The 200-page book is suitable for cover-to-cover reading or for looking up specific portions of the survey. "The chapters are eight to 10 pages," Johnson says. "You can read them quickly. If you're interested in certain topics, you can go to certain topics. We wanted to make the findings as accessible as possible."

Some surprises--and some confirmations

No trends are evident yet, Johnson notes, because two surveys are not enough to reveal trends. Nor are three. "With four to five waves of data, we can begin to see trends. What we are seeing now is snapshots."

Generally, the snapshots reveal some surprises--the guardian angel statistic, for example--and some expected results. In the latter category, responses show that just 4 percent of the population is atheist--a result that might not be expected by those who have seen book after book on atheism hit the bestseller lists in recent years, but one "that doesn't surprise us," Johnson says. "It has been that way for decades. If it were 8 percent, we would be stunned."

He and Stark are more fascinated by survey findings comparing megachurches (those with attendance of more than 1,000 people) with small churches (attendance of less than 100) that show the larger congregations belie stereotypes about their warmth. Over 40 percent of megachurch attendants say that half or more of their friends attend their congregation; in small congregations, only 25 percent of attendants report seeing their friends in church. And just 12 percent of megachurch attendees report having no friends in church, whereas 22 percent of small-congregation members say the same.

"In the sense of having friends in the congregation, the megachurch is the more intimate community," writes Stark. "One reason for this is evident when outreach is examined." He then notes that 83 percent of megachurch members say they have witnessed or shared their faith with friends in the past month, whereas about half (52 percent) of those in smaller churches say the same thing. And 53 percent of megachurch members say they are likely to share their beliefs with strangers, compared to 35 percent in small churches.

Vision leads elsewhere

Because of the vision of ISR leaders Johnson and Stark, the Institute will soon be revealing similar snapshots of other countries. China is one example. The ISR is using a major grant to do a series of studies focusing on values and religion, Johnson says. The goal is to provide a look at China's religious landscape similar to the one the ISR is providing in the United States.

The ISR is training post-doctoral researchers from China who will return there armed with resources and knowledge to determine what religions in China look like. "You hear about [China's] persecution and enormous economic growth," Johnson says. "The survey work will help us understand more clearly what Christianity vs. Buddhism looks like in China."

Conducting the research will be "high-powered researchers," post-doctoral students who trained at Baylor. In this way, the ISR is ushering in a new generation of international scholars schooled in social science techniques. Five will leave Baylor over the summer, and new research students will join the ISR in the fall.

Although the Chinese government allows the American-trained scholars to do religion research, the scholars understand the challenges associated with doing this work in a nation where the government is officially atheist. "We would hope there are ways that solid research can be done that would add value and be of interest to the government," Johnson says. "Sometimes [outsiders] think the Chinese government does nothing but persecute, but many people regularly attend churches and are not persecuted." The researchers will ask questions to discover beliefs about religious change--whether it exists or not--and government openness.

The ISR's work in China is some of the most exciting international scholarship in the world, says Dr. Harold G. Koenig, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and associate professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center. He knows Johnson because of their common interests in religion, spirituality and health.

No one else is doing similar research in a systematic way, Koenig says, and the documentation of religious values is critical to understanding the intersection of religious beliefs and health. "If you have 100 million people [acting out of religious faith], it can have a huge public health effect," he says, affecting individuals and nations.

The ISR has raised more than $8 million in research grants since it was started four years ago, and those funds have allowed the Institute to continue to expand its efforts.

In addition to the work in China, the ISR has also hired an expert on Latin American studies who lives in Brazil and is conducting studies on the role of religion in that region. "We hope to have people placed strategically throughout the world," Johnson adds. "Amazing things are happening in sub-Saharan Africa. There are fascinating developments in Europe. We hope to begin to produce studies from around the globe that focus on how religion is affecting different countries. The Latin American piece is just one."

The ISR is collaborating with the Gallup Organization on a "major initiative" to study religion in the world, Johnson says. The collaboration will be behind a launch of studies on tolerance and intolerance--anything that affects society in some way.

Accentuating the positive

The study of prosocial behavior is another leading focus for ISR. Much research has studied the link between behavior and crime. Using a Department of Justice grant, ISR is standing that research on its head and looking at the relationship between positive influence and prosocial behavior.

Led by Johnson, Stark, Baylor professor Dr. Christopher Bader and other scholars, the research asks why so many people are law-abiding; what factors inhibit illegal or anti-social behavior and promote positive behavior; what motivates people to stay out of trouble; how people from disadvantaged communities succeed in spite of living in bad places; what helps people to resist crime and choose positive behavioral paths; and the role religion plays in fostering good behavior.

The researchers are finding that faith undergirds prosocial behavior, Johnson says. "Typically, scholars don't write about this." Publishing the findings from this research will help bridge that gap, he says.

Beginning a dialogue

When ISR is not conducting its own research, it is often facilitating discussion between the religious research community and the lay organizations who can benefit from access to new findings.

A recently concluded ISR project that may become an annual event was a two-day Faith and Works Conference held last month in San Antonio. This is the first such conference the ISR has hosted, and indeed, the first of its kind, Johnson notes, in that it provided information to faith-based organizations, like the Salvation Army, that minister to the needy but do not have the resources to do their own research.

"These kinds of ministries exist everywhere," Johnson says. "We thought, 'What if we brought them together and had a discussion?' Here is a chance for researchers, who speak one language, and ministries, who speak another, to connect. We hope to begin a dialogue."

The conference included national leaders who talked about religion and civic engagement, charity and philanthropy, the future of faith-based initiatives, the role of religion in youth behavior, prison ministries, how to use case study models, and promising research. The goal of the meeting was for attendees to leave with information and materials that will help them do their work.

One of the conference leaders was Jay Hein, who for the last two years directed the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He recently joined Baylor as a distinguished senior fellow and will direct a national ISR program on faith and service, says Johnson, who calls his hiring a "major coup" for the University.

Working with the ISR is a story of continuity for Hein, who led faith-based initiatives for more than a decade at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research in Indianapolis. He was the founding president of the think tank, and in that role, he worked with President George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas, as well as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Dan Coats, former ambassador to Germany and one-time U.S. senator from Indiana.

Hein has collaborated with Johnson for about 10 years. "We have investigated faith-based practice. I admire [Johnson] as one of the best researchers in the country doing this work," Hein says.

Baylor as a hub

Such projects reflect the view of Johnson, Stark and other researchers that Baylor and the ISR should be the hub of high-quality studies on the international impact of religion. But why Baylor, particularly?

The answer is clear to Stark: because no one else is conducting Christian research. "We want to be a great Christian research university," he says. "We don't have one of those. Religion isn't really high on the list of priorities at major secular schools. There isn't anything like the ISR. That's why Baylor is the proper place and why it's easy for us to move around. We are becoming the place for religious research because we are willing to specialize. Baylor's edge is religion."

In the view of Hein, who hopes to continue his journey of researching effective faith-based practices, Baylor plays a leading role. "I think the future of the community and faith-based initiatives is at a place like Baylor," says Hein. "The president made it a part of the national conversation, but the continuation will be in communities, not in Washington. The thought leadership that will be offered by Baylor will be a key catalyst for the national conversation to continue."

Closer to home, Baylor graduate students are also reaping the benefits from ISR's research. For instance, students wrote some of the articles in What Americans Really Believe, Johnson says, and actively contributed to questions used in the national survey.

"One of the advantages of coming to Baylor as a graduate student is getting advance access to the data," he says. Although others will get full access in about three years, "Our students have carte blanche. It gives them a leg up and will add a lot to their value in the marketplace."

That's because publishing is so important to PhD students seeking work. "We have students coming out who have been published eight or nine times already," he says. "For a new PhD, coming out of Baylor already having published a significant amount of articles is a very big deal."

Looking ahead

Johnson says people respect the ISR because it relies on top scholars to study a neglected topic. "It's a tragedy," he says of the lack of studies worldwide on religious topics. "We know so much about so many things, and you'd think we'd know a whole lot about religion. We don't know that much. We don't have one single empirical study on the Salvation Army. They respond to every crisis, but there are no studies. A study would show how effective they are in reaching out to people in distress. That would be enormously valuable if we knew that--the response to crises undergirded by the faith community."

As a behavioral scientist, Koenig, the Duke professor, considers Johnson's work on the role and impact of faith critical to his own understanding of a variety of issues. Faith affects attitudes of youth, job performance, economic issues, health, and the ability to afford health insurance. "It affects everything," Koenig says. "Yet it's an area that has been excluded from scientific public discourse, and it's like the elephant in the room that...no one talks about. Having Baylor lead this effort is central to the credibility and to the momentum, and I think it's essential."

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