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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Sunday, October 29, 2006

On the Road . . . .

Since you last heard from Ways of the World, we spent five days on the West Coast, three in Portland at a conference and two visiting family in California. The conference was the Annual Meetings of a group of social scientists who specialize in religious studies, formally known as the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), in joint sessions with two other academic associations. Most of these folks are sociologists, but there are psychologists, political scientists and – yes – economists. They are mainly college professors, but some are independent researchers, like me, and also research directors for various denominations and religious organizations.

The denominational research is heavily demographic: who are the people who sit in the pews? What race, family size, income bracket, profession? What kinds of worship speak to them? How often do they read the Bible? How do they relate to their clergy? What kinds of programs make for a successful church?

Jewish Scholars and "Change"
One of the most interesting sessions for me consisted of presentations by several Jewish researchers who have been implementing a pilot project to engage congregants more in their worship and in synagogue activities. They have introduced new programming and new liturgical practices in selected synagogues. The speakers talked especially about resistance to change they encountered among members and skepticism among some rabbis. Another Episcopalian and I in the audience saw right away that our own experiences with "change", including new roles for laity and the stiffening among some of our members at new liturgical forms were duplicated in this current Jewish work and that our comments could be helpful to each other.

Religion and the Economy
There were sessions on "religion and capitalism" and on "spiritual capital". One presentation examined articles in well-known church-related periodicals. Over several decades the magazines' respective themes indicated that one indeed leans toward capitalism while the other is more attuned to social justice. Another presentation studied historical approaches to church-state relations in colonies; that researcher found that stronger economic institutions emerged in colonies where there was more religious freedom, that is, where individuals could build more "spiritual capital". Obviously these brief descriptions don't do justice to these projects, but they illustrate the kinds of linkages scholars are finding between religion and economic issues.

The Baylor Survey
I became acquainted with a group of professors at Baylor University in Texas. They have begun the Baylor Religion Survey, a new national sampling of ordinary people about their religious connections and beliefs. There are numerous Gallup Poll-type surveys that include questions about religion, but this one is by far the most detailed and will be repeated every two years, so a consistent set of information can be compiled and monitored over time. The Gallup organization actually conducts the survey polling and the Templeton Foundation is funding it. The first round, collected at this time last year, included general sections on basic characteristics: gender, age, region of residence, church membership, church attendance, frequency of prayer and so on. It also had specific "modules" on images of God, civic involvement and purchases of religious goods, among others. We hope to become involved ourselves in a succeeding survey round with some questions about attitudes toward business and the economy.

"Images of God" – that's intriguing. What did the Baylor survey find about "images of God"? Just one aspect will give you some flavor: from a list of 16 adjectives that could describe God, the Baylor analysts find that people differ in whether they perceive God as "engaged" in the world and in personal affairs or "distant" from them. Those who see God as "engaged" tend to more frequent church attendance, more literal interpretations of Scripture, stronger belief in the divinity of Jesus. It also turns out that the believers in an "engaged" God are more concentrated in the South and Midwest, with disproportionately small numbers in the East and West. Thus, for us on the two coasts there is a different religious atmosphere in which fewer people believe that God cares about what's going on the world and about us.

I keep concluding my articles here with "stay tuned for more" and this one is no exception. Two more thoughts for now: One, does the Episcopal Church have a Research Director? Indeed we do. His name is Kirk Hadaway and he works in the Congregational Development office at 815. He spoke on "Religious Growth and Decline", unfortunately at the same time as the Baylor session, so I didn't hear him. He is senior in this profession and is the incoming President of the Religious Research Association.

A Ride up the Columbia River, Too
Secondly, about Portland, Oregon. If you've never been – and I hadn't – it's beautiful country and even on a rainy day, a ride on one of the country's oldest highways right alongside the Columbia River was a real treat, along with seeing the salmon work at swimming upstream through the "fish ladders". They wind up less than 6 feet from where they were born! Nature is incredible sometimes. You just can't experience these miracles and then somehow believe that God is "distant" from the world and us.


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