Effects of social factors vary widely in different religions
- Published on 21 February 2012
- Written by Nicholas C. DiDonato
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In everyday conversation, people speak of “religion” as if it existed as a single entity. Even in scientific journals, researchers find x effect on “religion,” meaning religion as a whole (whatever that means). However, sometimes religion’s complexity throws researchers a curveball. For instance, research by sociologist Brandon Vaidyanathan (University of Notre Dame) found that parental religiosity, church support, religious education, and youth group involvement impacts church attendance in widely different ways across Christian denominations.
On the whole, teen church attendance has declined in the past generation. Vaidyanathan sought a social explanation for this phenomenon, formulating four hypotheses. First, a combination of parental religiosity, church support, religious education, and youth group attendance will explain why teens stop going to church. Second, parental religiosity will reduce down to church socialization, religious education, and interaction with peers (who could encourage or discourage one from attending church). Third, different social factors matter more for different denominations. Finally, parental religiosity will resist reduction under certain circumstances.
Vaidyanathan relied on data from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). This study tracked teenagers’ church attendance, among other variables, from the age of 13 to 24. More specifically, Vaidyanathan focused on the “first” and “third” waves of the NSYR, that is, when the participants’ ages ranged from 13-17 years old (first wave) and when they ranged from 18-24 years old (third wave). Following the RELTRAD classification of denominations, Vaidyanathan labeled participants as evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, black Protestant, or Catholic.
He also broke “parental religiosity” down into two categories: parental religious participation (i.e., how actively one’s parents participated in the life of their church), and parental religious environment (how actively one’s parents practiced their faith at home). Lastly, Vaidyanathan controlled for region, parents’ marital status, parental income, whether both parents attended the same church, mother’s education, amount of time the mother spends at work, and the mother’s influence.
Vaidyanathan’s research uncovered some surprising results. The results disconfirmed Vaidyanathan’s first, third, and fourth hypotheses: parental religiosity, church support, religious education, and youth group involvement could not consistently account for the differences between the declines of Catholic church attendance with mainline and black Protestant church attendance.
For instance, mainline Protestants who attended Sunday school on a weekly basis saw greater decline in future church attendance compared to Catholics who did the same. However, black Protestants who went to Sunday school weekly had greater future church attendance. Thus the same variable, weekly Sunday school attendance, had a radically different effect for mainline Protestants and black Protestants. Similarly, regular youth group participation greatly increased future church attendance for mainline Protestants but made very little difference for Catholics.
Other such findings occurred. Parental religious participation played a significant and positive role in the future attendance of Catholics and mainline Protestants, but had a negative effect on black Protestants. On the other hand, parental religious environment significantly and positively impacted the future attendance of black Protestants, but did not do the same for Catholics, mainline Protestants, or evangelical Protestants. Again, the same variable produced different results in different denominations.
Vaidyanathan continues with many more examples (e.g., private religious schooling increases future church attendance for evangelical Protestants but has no effect for Catholics), but all of these make the same point: as Vaidyanathan puts it, “agents of socialization differ in their effects across religious traditions.” In other words, the same social variable spells different consequences for different Christian denominations, let alone different religions.
Thus, one should take with a huge grain of salt any scientific finding that studies only one small segment of the religious population (e.g., evangelical Christians), and then extrapolates from that generalizations that become applied to all Christians or all religious believers. Whenever a study uses scientific methods, people feel afraid to challenge its findings and in many cases rightly so. That said, even in science, people should read conclusions with a skeptical eye. In short, question authorities—even if that authority is science.
For more, see “Religious Resources or Differential Returns? Early Religious Socialization and Declining Attendance in Emerging Adulthood” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.