Reporting back from Phoenix and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

15 Nov

Here’s my report from my experience at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (Phoenix, AZ November 8-11, 2012):

On the conference itself:

Phoenix is simply gorgeous.  Larger than expected (over 500 participants).  Panels were better attended than any Political Science conference I’ve attended (standing room only in a few panels I attended; many were there for the last panel of the conference, which in PS usually features only the presenters and chair).  Enjoyed the multi-disciplinary nature of the conference (probably half were from sociology, then political science and religious studies, and then the rest).  A nice mix of quantitative and qualitative work… refreshing.

Interesting studies from a few of the panels I attended:

Religion and generosity

  • The 2010 Science of Generosity Survey (SGS) is a much better data source for studying charitable giving and volunteering behavior among Americans than the General Social Survey (GSS).  Authors showed that GSS questions and responses differ in important ways.  For instance, in the GSS, 77% say they gave more than 25$ a year, but the SGS, which actually gets more specific asking for specific amounts under several different charitable categories shows that actually, only 56% give (though both surveys show that the average annual giving, for givers anyways, is between $1700-$2000).  Also, while the GSS reports that 23% give 10% of their income a year, the SGS shows that actually only 9% do (47% give 1%).  If you use the SGS, you find that among those who say they give 23% (but actually don’t), the folks most likely to misrepresent their giving are highly religious (socially acceptable responses, I suppose).
  • Who really cares (in terms of volunteering time in their communities? Secular-private schoolers, evangelical private-schoolers, homeschoolers, or public schoolers give more (controlling for differences in the usual demographic suspects)?  Study showed that evangelical schools outperform every group here significantly.  Homeschoolers underperformed every group here significantly.
  • I asked a question to this panel, since we have some bona fide experts on charitable giving and volunteerism present (Sociologist Christian Smith was a presenter, for instance).  I asked them to reaffirm the consensus among philanthropy scholars that religiosity is a highly significant contributor to giving (religious folk out-give less religious and secular folk by wide margins).  They agree that this was something of an axiom in the literature.  I then asked them what they made of the argument that religious folk CAN give more because they tend to live in low-tax red states and rely upon the high-tax blue states (where seculars tend to live) to subsidize their poverty problems.  In essence, they give more because they face lower taxes, so it’s differences in tax burdens and not differences in religiosity that actually set up the axiom.  Dr. Smith took the question and replied (I paraphrase).  I suppose that’s an interesting argument, easily testable (just control for region).  However, it doesn’t explain differences in volunteering nor does it explain differences in attitudes towards giving (the notion that they should give).  Also, I would bet my last penny that it won’t make a serious dent in the power of religiosity to explain giving.  In experimental research, for instance, we just know that these givers never signal that taxes have much to do with their giving choices (it’s not rational choice, so to speak).  It’s something more fundamental, more metaphysical, more moral, more spiritual (?), than that.  Moreover, studies of giving within states show the same patterns.  On this note, another presenter, who showed that among “individualistic,” “communitarian,” and “theistic” folks, the theistic folks were significantly more likely to volunteer to help out with the BP Oil Spill debacle, especially if they attended church frequently.  The author of that study pointed out that these folks all came from the same part of the country (red state).

Religion and politics panels:

  • Study showed that Catholics were the most diverse faith tradition in terms of political behavior and public opinion in America.
  • Another study showed that the concept of “biblical literalism” has problems as it’s presented uncritically in other studies and in the media.  Rather, the study showed that people who believe in “biblical literalism” and people who believe that the bible is the Word of God but must be interpreted don’t differ all that much on political outcomes.  Only those who deny the reliability of the bible are qualitatively different in political behavior.  I liked this study, because I’ve complained for years that the term biblical literalism is ambiguous (there’s a sense in which an evangelical can and cannot accept that term) and that biblical authority or biblical reliability are better concepts for what most researchers are trying to get at.

Religion and Science:

  • Interesting studies here.  Most showed that the relationship between religion (Christianity in this case) and science is quite complex and shouldn’t be overly simplified.  Most seemed to agree with a study by Evans that, at least in terms of belief in the value, methodology, and most conclusions of science, highly religious and evangelicals are no different than anyone else.  Basically, except for a few specific issues (macro-evolution and global warming), religious factors played little role in predicting attitudes about science in general.  Even with these, many conservative Christians accepted one but not necessarily the other.  And yet, the myth goes on.

Religion and abortion:

  • An ethnographic study showed that Mississippi Pro-Life activists, those for instance who protest outside abortion clinics, are quite diverse and not easily stereotyped.  They may be united around the belief that abortion, except in the case of mother’s life, should be illegal.  But that’s about it.  They are diverse religiously (evangelicals, Catholics, and some Jews).  They are diverse in terms of methods (some stand silently and pray and even despise those who shout, block, or yell).  They are diverse in terms of motive.  Some are pro-life because it’s part of an entire sanctity of life agenda they have (against war, against capital punishment, against human stem-cell research, against any kind of eugenics, against euthanasia, etc.).  Others are narrowly focused on the unborn.  Others are motivated by the belief that abortion is unhealthy for women, and so they are passionately trying to protect women.  Some are protesting an alleged “black genocide” that is taking place, intentionally or otherwise (while 36% of Mississippians are black, 80% of abortions are to black mothers).

All in all, a great conference, I’ll be going back to this one.

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