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Free Inquiry

Volume 18, Number 4
Fall, 1998

The following articles are from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 4.

True Churchgoing Revealed

by Tom Flynn

Americans may believe in a god who sees everything, but they lie about how often they go to church. Since 1939, the Gallup organization has reported that 40% of adults attend church weekly. (The most recent figure is 42%.) Gallup's figure has long attracted skepticism. Were it true, some 73 million people would throng the nation's houses of worship each week. Even the conservative Washington Times found that "hard to imagine." New research suggests that there may be only half to two-thirds that many people in the pews.

In 1992 C. Kirk Hadaway, a sociologist employed by the United Church of Christ, assembled an army of researchers and counted noses in every Protestant church in Ashtabula County, Ohio. Only 20 percent of adult members were there, half what Gallup predicted. After more such counts, Hadaway, Penny Long Marler, and Mark Chaves published a 1993 paper announcing that churchgoing was "probably one-half what everyone thinks it is" and suggesting that the secularization of society was real. Answering critics in the American Sociological Review, the trio announced a wealth of new counting studies that continue to show actual attendance at about half the levels reported in polls.

Other researchers agree that over-reporting is real, but think Hadaway and his colleagues overstate its scope. Stanley Presser of the University of Maryland and Linda Stinson of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics studied diaries that Americans kept as part of marketing and public health studies. They found that in 1965, church attendance was around 40%, just as Gallup claimed. In later years churchgoing declined. Presser and Stinson now peg churchgoing at 26%. This suggests that Gallup now overreports church attendance by about a third.

Some pollsters have refined their survey instruments after the 1993 Hadaway paper. Gallup changed its questions, but continued to report weekly churchgoing at over 40%. Yet when the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) redesigned its mammoth General Social Survey (GSS), church attendance figures declined sharply. For many years GSS data had supported Gallup's; the redesigned 1996 GSS reported that only between 29 and 30.5% of Americans attended church in the last week, a figure similar to Presser and Stinson's.

Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves wonder, "To what extent do these findings challenge the conventional wisdom that Americans are a very religious people?" At the least, they would seem to reinforce the claim that despite the rhetoric, active religious participation remains a minority interest in American life.

"New Age" Captures the Workplace

by Matt Nisbet

The workplace has become a cold, dark and soulless realm ... or so we are told by The Inner Edge: A Resource for Enlightened Business Practice. Published by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, Edge is a glossy catalogue disguised as a magazine that offers the New Age as the solution to worker unhappiness and business inefficiency.

"It's time to practice business as unusual," says Edge's editor Carol S. Pearson, Ph.D.. "People today are talking about their longing for community, spirituality, dignity, and sense of purpose in the workplace." According to the pages of The Inner Edge, from small business to Fortune 500, American offices are rife with Dilbert cynicism, sullied by "Ally McBeal" materialism and dangerously full of "L.A. Law" ruthlessness. It's an Orwellian environ dominated by cubicles, cold office technology, and organizational sclerosis. "Companies that do not attend to issues of emotional and spiritual intelligence risk going the way of the dinosaur," warns Pearson.

The Inner Edge offers solutions by way of author profiles, perspectives, and book reviews that are heavy on glamour photos of Ph.D. authors and consultants. Each article carries suggested books or audiotapes with 800 numbers to charge by phone.

Advice reaches heavily into New Age jargon, with gurus dressed in business suits outlining the "ritualized rites of passage" needed to become a "change master" or heralding the time to "heal the Split Lodgepole ... mend the Rainbow Hoop ... and restore the vision of the Braided Way." In the process, workers can throw away the shackles of servitude to the "God of economics" and start bettering themselves and American culture.

Whether The Inner Edge's approach to business can solve the problems of the American workplace is in doubt, but it's clear that The Inner Edge is the latest addition to a growing multi-million dollar New Age marketing web that relies on the lure of books, seminars, videos, magazines, merchandise, and audiotapes to capitalize on the yearnings of unhappy people. In the end, the most striking revelation found in The Inner Edge is that a few entrepreneurial gurus have grown an industry out of nothing.

Preaching Allowed in Public Schools

by Chris Mooney

Until further notice, feel free to preach in public schools in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming (the territory of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals). Just don't come out and say that your intentions are religious.

That's the upshot of the Supreme Court's refusal last June to reconsider, much less overturn, the Tenth Circuit's ruling in Rachel Bauchman v. West High School. The decision to turn away the case ignored an amici curiae brief endorsed by the Council for Secular Humanism, Americans for Religious Liberty, and others.

During the 1994-1995 school year, Rachel Bauchman, a Jewish sophomore at West High in Salt Lake City, Utah, joined the school choir. She was immediately forced to endure choir leader Richard Torgerson's Mormon proselytizing, which included in-class prayer and exhortation.

According to Rachel's statement, when she voiced objection to Torgerson's conduct, he began to berate her in his lectures and showed a complaint letter from Rachel's father to another choir member's parents. Following this incident, Rachel's classmates took to calling her "Dirty Jew," "Jew Bitch," told her to "go back to Israel," and even drew a Nazi swastika on a poster she made for class.

The Tenth Circuit ruled that, because plausible secular purposes for his conduct existed, Torgerson's intention to inculcate religion had not been convincingly demonstrated.

The Tenth Circuit decision thus sets a precedent for shifting an excessive burden of proof onto the plaintiff in Establishment Clause suits. The silence of the Supreme Court, meanwhile, signals its tacit approval of a ruling that contradicts crucial First Amendment decisions.

Religious Grip Slips in Newfoundland

by Andrea Szalanski

Newfoundland public schools are finally free of their religious administrators.

Last year a nonbinding referendum was held to gauge public opinion on the issue. Seventy-three percent voted to oust the former set-up in favor of a nondenominational system that accommodates religious instruction and observances. The switch was supported by the Anglican church and four other denominations who had been administering the schools, but was opposed by the Catholic and Pentecostal churches.

A 1995 referendum produced the same result but was prevented from being implemented by court challenges from parents. More than $7 million in government funds had to be used to open denominational schools that had been slated for closing.

The Canadian parliament is still deciding whether to end church-run schooling in the province of Quebec. There religious-based school boards would be replaced with linguistic boards.

Unbelief Among Top Scientists Growing

by Tom Flynn

The same authors who reported no decline in religious belief among American scientists since 1916 now announce that, during the same period, faith declined sharply among natural scientists of top rank.

In a letter to Nature (July 23, 1998, p. 313), University of Georgia historian of science Edward J. Larson and Washington Times reporter Larry Witham described a survey of religious beliefs they administered to 517 American scientists who belong to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Larson and Witham's survey closely replicated a survey of 400 "greater" scientists performed in 1914 by psychologist James H. Leuba and repeated by Leuba in 1933. Leuba, an atheist, expected religious belief to decline with increasing education and accomplishment, and it did. Leuba found distinguished scientists significantly less likely to believe in God and immortality than their less-accomplished contemporaries. Further, religious belief among top scientists sagged further during the 19 years between Leuba's two studies.

Larson and Witham polled NAS members in a mix of disciplines mirroring that originally polled by Leuba. The results seem stark: belief in God and immortality were precipitously lower than what Leuba reported. "Among the top natural scientists," Larson and Witham observe, "disbelief is greater than ever - almost total." The accompanying table compares belief, disbelief, or doubt regarding God and human immortality as measured in 1914, 1933, and 1998.

Biological scientists rejected beliefs in God and immortality by 65.2% and 69.0%, respectively; among physical scientists, those beliefs were rejected by 79.0% and 76.3% of respondents. "Most of the rest were agnostic on both issues," Larson and Witham report, "with few believers." Of all disciplines polled, mathematicians reported the highest level of positive belief in God and immortality, biologists the lowest.

These findings are doubly startling because just two years ago, the same researchers announced their replication of another classic Leuba study. In that survey, 40% of a more general sample of scientists reported belief in God and immortality - almost exactly the result Leuba obtained polling a like population of scientists in 1914. (Leuba's finding that "only" 40% of scientists held religious beliefs shocked America when he published it in 1916.) In April 1997, Larson and Witham announced in Nature that they had administered a similar survey to 1,000 scientists in the same mix of disciplines, and found belief still holding at 40%.

Conservatives hailed the study as proof that secularization was losing momentum. Critics pointed out methodological problems and unexplained declines in belief on particular indices ("Faith Steady Among Scientists - Or Is It?" FI, Summer 1997).

Despite its ambiguities, many saw the Larson and Witham study as a bellwether of warmer relations between science and religion. Since then, institutions such as the Templeton Fund have stepped up their pace in bestowing awards, making grants, and holding conferences to further promote the rapprochement of science and religion. At the same time, organizations from the National Center for Science Education to the NAS itself have sought to blunt creation/evolution conflicts by minimizing suggestions of direct opposition between science and religion per se.

Not surprisingly, part of that debate surrounds Larson and Witham's methodology. Some observers voice concern about selection bias: the 517 NAS members polled by Larson and Witham represent a smaller, hence more elite, slice of the scientific community than did the 400 "greater scientists"; Leube surveyed in 1914. That may make it difficult to draw valid conclusions about trends in religious belief over time. But it does nothing to blunt another provocative finding: within the scientific community, highly advanced accomplishments seem to correlate negatively with religious belief. That alone is grist for secularists who suspect that the opposition between science and religion is historic and genuine.

Belief in personal God (percent)

  1914 1933 1998
Personal belief 27.7 15 7.0
Personal disbelief 52.7 68 72.2
Doubt or agnosticism 20.9 17 20.8

Belief in human immortality (percent)

  1914 1933 1998
Personal belief 35.2 18 7.9
Personal disbelief 25.4 53 76.7
Doubt or agnosticism 43.7 29 23.3


Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, "Leading Scientists Still Reject God." Nature, July 23, 1998, p. 313.

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