Current Research- May 2018

A recent multigenerational study that spans five decades finds that more than one in five boomers became more religious as they made their way from their 50s to their 60s. The study, conducted by Merril Silverstein and Vern Bengston, used data from 599 respondents in its 2016 wave. Overall, 56 percent of aging boomers said their religiosity was stable over the period, but 21 percent reported an increase of their faith, 11 percent a decrease, and 12 percent said they were never religious. In his blog Ahead of the Trend (April 26), David Briggs reports that the study found that older boomers cited several reasons for their increased religiosity, from seeking solace in life after the death of a spouse, to finding other sources of meaning after the loss of a job, to a desire to pass on religious beliefs to their grandchildren. The primary reason given by boomers was the sense that there is more to life than material prosperity, with two-thirds saying that “their interest in worldly things changed.”

(Ahead of the Trend,


Weekly church attendance by American Catholics continues its decades-long decline, according to a new Gallup report. The Huffington Post (April 11) reports that the poll found about 39 percent of Catholics reporting attending church in any given week, according to data collected between 2014 and 2017. This figure is down 45 percent from data taken between 2005 and 2008. The decline is far sharper when comparing it to the 1955 weekly Mass attendance of 75 percent. Even older Catholics, who are typically more religiously committed than younger ones, have stopped going to church as often. For the first time, Gallup found that no more than 49 percent of Catholics in any age group reported attending church in the past week.


A study of Catholic dioceses generating the highest rates of ordination to the priesthood finds that five American dioceses have consistently been effective in encouraging religious vocations—the  Archdioceses of Newark, St. Louis, and Atlanta, and the Dioceses of Patterson, NJ, and Arlington, VA. In a study of these and nine other priest-producing dioceses from 2006–2016, sociologist Ann Hendershott discounts the view that it is the large size of these dioceses that makes them rich in ordinations (47 percent of Newark’s population is Catholic), since many large dioceses produce few. The National Catholic Register (April 29) reports that the study controlled for the number of Catholics in a given diocese by looking at the total number of ordinations per 100,000 Catholics and found that the size of the diocese matters much less than the culture of the diocese and especially the role of the bishop and his staff in promoting religious vocations. She also found that the strongest predictor of an increase in ordinations in a diocese was the effectiveness of the bishop in this area of ministry in his previous diocese; for example, Newark’s Archbishop Emeritus John Meyer presided over the most successful diocese in terms of priestly ordinations, which replicated his previous success in Peoria, Illinois. Hendershott also found that the orthodoxy of the diocese was important in drawing a high rate of vocations.


(National Catholic Register,

The Islamic State may be defeated as a political and military force but it still exerts considerable influence among Sunni Muslim men in the former heartland of Islamic extremism, according to an article in the CTC Sentinel (April), a publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Military Academy. A team of researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 70 Sunni Arab men in five camps for displaced persons in the Mosul area of Iraq in late 2017. The researchers, led by anthropologist Scott Atran, used the “Devoted Actor” framework of analysis that focuses on “sacred values”—which could be secular or religious—that are immune to “material trade-offs,” and on a feeling of “oneness” that an individual may have with a particular group. A large segment of the interviewees still shared with the Islamic State its willingness to sacrifice to bring about a society governed by its strict interpretation of sharia. They viewed such strict sharia as eliminating injustice and bringing about freedom.

Nearly all the study participants were unwilling to sacrifice such principles for a unified Iraq or democracy and other forms of material gain. But they also criticized the Islamic State for dividing Muslims and engaging in corruption and unnecessary violence. Atran and his colleagues argue that “spiritual values can be leveraged as ‘wedge issues’ to divide groups such as the Islamic State from supporting populations.…Focusing on spiritual values that participants believe they initially shared with the Islamic State but which they feel the Islamic State subsequently distorted or corrupted represents the least costly means to fragment the Islamic State and to foster cohesion among those who oppose [it].”

(CTC Sentinel,

While religious nationalism is a significant factor in opposition to immigration and resistance to ethnic pluralism, in the long term national identities tend to adjust to incorporate, in religious terms at least, non-Christian immigrants into the European continent, according to a study in the Serbian open-access journal Politics and Religion (Vol. 12, No. 1). Phillip Barker analyzed the World Values Survey and European Values Survey to create an index of religious nationalism by combining scores for religiosity and national pride. Contradicting the idea that the Arab world is a “hotbed of religious nationalism,” the region showed a weaker link between religion and nationalism than in Europe, Africa and Latin America. In looking at the relationship between religious nationalism and immigration in Europe, Barker did confirm previous findings that when more non-Europeans enter a country, the native population strengthens the ties between religion and nationalism. But he also found that the link between religious nationalism and immigration is not straightforward: at a certain point (Barker does not say when), as religious diversity increases, religious nationalism decreases. “In fact, it appears that, in the long run, increasing immigration would undermine a religious-based nationalism in favor of a more civil or cultural based nationalism,” Barker concludes.

(Politics and Religion,

As with Pentecostalism, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) has long been viewed as being quietist in relation to political and social involvement, but a recent study of Sub-Saharan African Catholic charismatics presents a more mixed picture of this relationship. In a study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (online in April), political scientists Robert Dowd and Ani Sarkissian conducted a mass survey of charismatic Catholics in four parishes in Kenya and Nigeria, combining it with in-depth interviews of 300 parishioners in each parish (and six parishioners who were not members of the Renewal were also interviewed in each parish). They found that, in the case of Kenya, involvement in the CCR and the time devoted to its activities had the effect of decreasing civic engagement among its members. But among women, involvement in the movement was found to increase such civic engagement as attending rallies and voting.

In Nigeria, CCR members who were frequent prayer-group attendees were more likely to have voted (which may be related to Christian-Muslim conflict and rivalry in that country); involvement in other activities, such as rally attendance, was not found to be significant. In the in-depth interviews, Dowd and Sarkissian found that CCR members drew on their belief in miracles and experiences of the supernatural to explain why it was important to be engaged in civic affairs. They add that “it was rather common for members of the CCR to stress the importance of prayer and social action rather than prayer instead of social action.”

(Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,