Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Scientists Examine the Power of Prayer

Well this is interesting.  A new paper in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology presents evidence that prayer can increase a person's ability to resists temptation--and offers a non-supernatural explanation for the phenomenon:

The authors made use of two experimental paradigms to test the efficacy of prayer in preventing cognitive depletion. The first, called an emotion-suppression task, simply asked participants to watch a funny video but stifle all emotional responses, verbal and non-verbal, to the content. This requires a good amount of cognitive energy to pull off successfully. The second, called a stroop task, asked participants to indicate the ink color of various words flashed to them on a computer screen. The trick is that the words spell the names of various colors that are either consistent or inconsistent with the ink they are to identify. Check it out here. You’ll find that the inconsistent word/ink items are harder to respond to than the consistent items. Researchers have found that after cognitive depletion, this task becomes even harder.  So, the authors had an elegant methodological question: will people who pray be able to avoid the depleting effects of emotion suppression and not show a deficit on the stroop task? In other words, will prayer give them the cognitive strength to perform well on both these challenging tasks?
Indeed it did. Participants who were asked to pray about a topic of their choosing for five minutes showed significantly better performance on the stroop task after emotion suppression, compared to participants who were simply asked to think about a topic of their choosing. And this effect held regardless of whether participants identified as religious (70 percent) or not.
Why? The authors tested several possible explanations, but found statistical support for only one: people interpret prayer as a social interaction with God, and social interactions are what give us the cognitive resources necessary to avoid temptation. Past research has found that even brief social interactions with others can promote cognitive functioning, and the same seems to hold true for brief social interactions with deities.
Read it all here.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Nathan Schneider on the Value of "Proofs of God"

Nathan Schneider, who has recently written a book about the history of efforts to prove God's existence has an interesting blog post about the real value of discussions about these proofs:

Using the long tradition of so-called proofs about God as an academic performance, or as blunt instruments for culture-warring, means missing out on the most worthwhile stuff they have to offer. The proofs are arguments for a particular claim, it’s true. But they’re also meant to invite us into fresh modes of thinking. They need not be so black-and-white—or, in the boxing ring, win-or-lose. The real question a proof about God was created to address may be not be simply whether or not God exists. More often, it’s something more interesting: What do we mean by God? And what can be achieved with proof?
.  .  . 
 The history of religious proofs is a many-sided story. I hope you’ll agree that this is a worthwhile inheritance, though too often we’ve adopted its worst tendencies while ignoring the best. Until we realize that arguments about something like the existence of God speak to more than just the intellect, and to more than just a yes-or-no question, we can expect that the same old debates will keep coming back without satisfying us—in Sontag’s words, “again and again.”
Read it all here.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ross Douthat on Our Divided Religious Culture

Ross Douthat has an interesting column in the New York Times today that discusses our divided faith world views:

Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.
But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details.       
This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.
Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.
Read it all here.   This typology is interesting--and roughly accurate--but it ignores some important nuances.  Some of the biggest debates today are not being fought between these different world views, but within them.  Perhaps the best example is the spirited debates that rocked my own Episcopal denomination about gays and lesbians.  This was largely a battle between those of us who have a biblical worldview as Douthat describes, and not a debate between biblical worlsview and competing world views.  And within the biblical worldview, there is a huge divide between the biblical literalist, and those of us who believe the creeds, but have a less literal view of the Bible.

What do you think?

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Decline in Evangelical Christianity in America--Why?

Jim Hinch has an article in the American Scholar that explores reasons for the fact that the percentage of Americans calling themselves "Evangelical" is declining.  Pew Research polling has shown a drop from 21 percent of Americans five years ago to 19 percent in 2012:

Secularization alone is not to blame for this change in American religiosity. Even half of those Americans who claim no religious affiliation profess belief in God or claim some sort of spiritual orientation. Other faiths, like Islam, perhaps the country’s fastest-growing religion, have had no problem attracting and maintaining worshippers. No, evangelicalism’s dilemma stems more from a change in American Christianity itself, a sense of creeping exhaustion with the popularizing, simplifying impulse evangelical luminaries such as Schuller once rode to success.

Prominent figures in the evangelical establishment have already begun sounding alarms. In particular, the Barna Group, an evangelical market research organization, has been issuing a steady stream of books and white papers documenting the erosion of support for evangelicalism, especially among young people. Contributions from worshippers 55 and older now account for almost two-thirds of evangelical churches’ income in the United States. A mere three percent of non-Christian Americans under 30 have a positive impression of evangelical Christianity, according to David Kinnaman, the Barna Group’s president. That’s down from 25 percent of baby boomers at a similar age. At present rates of attrition, two-thirds of evangelicals in their 20s will abandon church before they turn 30. “It’s the melting of the icebergs,” Kinnaman told me. Young people’s most common complaint, he said, is that churches are too focused on sexual issues and preoccupied with their own institutional development—in other words, he explained, “Christianity no longer looks like Jesus.”
Read it all here.   As the member of a church (the Episcopal Church) that has seem sharp drops in membership over the last decades, I need to be careful about drawing too many conclusions.  I do think, however, that the singular focus of many evangelical churches on issues like gays has hurt them a great deal.  Indeed, I think it has even hurt churches--like my own--that take a decidedly different take on these issues.  It hurts the entire Christian "brand." 

I have been fortunate, however, to belong to two congregations in the last decade--Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix and St. Alban's in Annandale, Virginia--that have shown huge increases in membership, participation, and vitality.  Why?  The focus is on the gospel of Jesus in an inclusive way--resulting in surprising interest by young adult members.

What do you think?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Trust in Clergy At All Time Low

Gallup has just published its annual survey on how Americans view various professions, and the results are not pretty for clergy: Americans rating of the honesty and ethical standards of clergy is at an all time low.

Kate Tracy  at Christianity Today offers some thoughts:

In fact, recorded public trust in clergy has now reached an all-time low, with only 47 percent of Americans rating clergy highly on honesty and ethics (compared to 82 percent saying the same about nurses). The previous low since Gallup began asking the question in 1977: 50 percent in 2009.

However, clergy still ranked No. 7 out of the 22 professions studied. And confidence in the overall church as an institution improved over the past year.
.  .  .
Americans are divided along party lines, as well as age. Gallup found more trust in clergy among Republicans (63%) than Democrats (40%). Similarly, clergy members appear more trustworthy to older Americans than millennials: half of Americans older than age 55 trust clergy members, while only 32 percent of millennials (18 to 34 years) report the same.

But the Gallup survey wasn't all bad news for religion in America. When asked how much confidence Americans have in U.S. institutions, 48 percent responded saying they had a "great deal/quite a bit" in "the church or organized religion," a four percent increase since 2012. Only 34 percent said the same about the U.S. Supreme Court, which decreased by three percent since 2012. 
Read it all here. Gallup attributes the drop in recent years to the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal in the early 2000's.  I wonder there is more going on.  As more people become "unchurched", wouldn't we expect their view of the clergy to go down?  What do you think?