What Americans Really Believe: New Findings from the Baylor Surveys of Religion

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What Americans Really Believe: New Findings from the Baylor Surveys of Religion. By Rodney Stark et al. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008, 209 pages, $24.95.

In the comedy-drama Dan in Real Life (Touchstone Pictures, October 26, 2007), released slightly before the publication of Rodney Stark's What Americans Really Believe, newspaper columnist Dan Burns (played by Steve Carrell) muses, "Most of the time, our plans don't work out as we'd hoped. So instead of asking our young people what are your plans . . . maybe we should tell them this: plan to be surprised."

Burns's final phrase, "plan to be surprised," applies to readers picking up Rodney Stark's startling survey of American religious beliefs and behavior. Perhaps future generations will not be so astonished, but I was amazed at the number of findings that diverge from prevailing sentiments commonly and passionately purveyed by professionals, professors, and pastors who pontificate about church controversies and American religion, or the lack thereof.

Stark offers his report with an introduction, epilogue, and twenty-three short chapters framed around four themes: "Congregations," "Beliefs and Practices," "Atheism and Irreligion," and "The Public Square." Endorsed by George H. Gallup Jr., with the Gallup Organization also providing fieldwork, the 2005 and 2007 Baylor studies were funded with $716,000 from the John Templeton Foundation. Similar Baylor studies are slated on related topics biannually through 2018.

Part 1, "Congregations," includes chapters on church growth, "strict" churches, traditional congregations, and mega-churches. With regard to churchgoing, Stark records that in opposition to secular stereotypes of religious believers as indigent illiterates, the level of one's education has "no effect at all" on the frequency of churchgoing: "Those with post-graduate training are as likely to attend church as are those whose education ended at high school or sooner" (p. 18). Income, too, has almost no effect, "with the possible exception that those with incomes over $150,000 are a bit less likely to attend" (p. 18). Moreover, conservative, traditional, and "more demanding" churches currently attract more members, more volunteers, and more active attendees than do "liberal" or comparatively secular congregations.

Maybe the most scandalous portion of part 1 is the chapter on mega-churches. Stark leads with an oft-repeated criticism: "It is widely believed that to be close to God, one should worship in a small, intimate congregation, surrounded by fellow worshippers who have a proper awareness that faith must recognize sin, not just happy returns" (p. 45). But the data comparing small churches (usual attendance under 100) and mega-churches (usual attendance over 1,000) reflects that "members of megachurches are not sitting in comfortable pews, basking in a sunny religion that preaches only the bright side of faith" (p. 46). For example, mega-church attendees are more likely than small church counterparts to believe that heaven absolutely exists (92% vs. 79%) and that they are going to heaven (85% vs. 53%), but they also believe in hell (90% vs. 69%), the devil (83% vs. 66%), and the reality of sin and evil (46, cf. 79-85). Mega-church attendees are more likely to tithe (46% vs. 36%), have more friends in their congregations, share their faith or "witness" to their friends (83% vs. 52%), and volunteer more both within their church body and outside of their congregation.

Stark presents smaller churches as more "liberal" and with "significantly older" attendees, but it is not clear from the material provided whether the Baylor studies considered age a factor when accounting for church participation categories here. Even so, "In the sense of having friends in the congregation, the megachurch is the more intimate community. . . . Contrary to the widespread conviction among their critics that the megachurches grow mainly through their ability to gain publicity, their growth appears instead mainly to be the result of their members' outreach efforts" (p. …