Friday, May 25, 2007

Religion Is Great... If You Keep It Secular

That's the message David Brooks seems intent on conveying in his latest column, The Catholic Boom:
Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time. They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the people who define it are nuts.

* * *

In fact, if you really wanted to supercharge the nation, you’d fill it with college students who constantly attend church, but who are skeptical of everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about flourishing in a modern society.

First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.
That latter point probably weighs in on the much-ballyhooed survey which shows that college faculty are more inclined to have cool feelings toward Evangelical Christians and Mormons. Perhaps it's not so much about religion, but instead reflects classroom experiences where students were resistant to or intolerant of different viewpoints.
The increasing proportion of religious conservatives on college campuses has brought problems in the classroom and in residential life, particularly in secular universities. Sectarian and fundamentalist Christians often come to college with little or no preparation for understanding or tolerating ideas which confront their beliefs, or interacting with people who do not share their opinions. The focus on religious explanations for all manner of phenomena in fundamentalist communities does not conform to the standards of secular education (Hood et al. 2005). The focus on religious sacred texts as the only source limits the cognitive complexity of thought (Hunsberger et al., 1994, 1996; Sherkat 2006), which may well lead to poor performance and exacerbate conflict with professors.

* * *

In many disciplines, the scripturally based orientations prevalent among conservative Christians may give them a considerable disadvantage in coursework because it lowers the complexity of thought (Hunsberger et al., 1994,1996). Young fundamentalists are convinced that they know the “Truth” and that perspectives which deviate from the scripted narratives of their tradition are not only false, but potentially heretical. Critical argumentation about issues in politics, history, ethics, or sociology is difficult for fundamentalist Christians, since they believe that biblical pronouncements are not only necessary explanations, but also sufficient.
This interpretation is consistent with what Brooks argues in relation to Catholicism - that Catholics have fared better in American society as their views "began to converge with Protestant values" and as "They raised their children to value autonomy more and obedience less".

Brooks makes a novice's error of logic when asserting that because church attendance is correlated with better academic performance, other students' academic performance would improve if only they attended church. I doubt that I need to elaborate on this point, but just in case... while correlation is necessary to establish a causal relationship, it is not sufficient to establish causation. Also, my college experience is replete with examples of brilliant, high-performing students who never set foot in a church. Does Mr. Brooks believe that church attendance would have further improved their performance? That they are irrelevant to his "analysis". What of church-going underperformers? Brooks would have us assume them too dogmatic? Also, although Brooks doesn't mention this, there's more to the picture than church attendance:
Most studies of the effects of religion on college success focus on personal religiosity or on religious participation, and these indicators are likely to produce positive effects. In contrast, more sophisticated longitudinal research shows that sectarian religious affiliation and biblical fundamentalism—beliefs in the inerrant truth of religious sacred texts—have a substantial negative effect on educational attainment (Darnell & Sherkat 1997; Sherkat & Darnell 1999; Glass & Jacobs 2005). Sectarian affiliation and biblical fundamentalism have an especially negative impact on the educational attainment of women (Sherkat & Darnell 1999; Glass & Jacobs 2005). In sectarian and fundamentalist religious communities young women are expected to marry early, have many children, and be primarily responsible for childcare (Roof & McKinney 1987; Sherkat 2007). Even if young sectarian and fundamentalist people choose to attend college, sectarian and fundamentalist Christians are more likely to choose religious colleges, which have fewer options for majors, lower prestige, and are more costly. Finally, the narrowing of social networks and the restriction of information sources advocated in sectarian and fundamentalist religious groups is associated with smaller vocabularies (Sherkat 2006), which can undermine academic success.
I suspect Brooks is familiar with those studies, but chooses not to directly address their implications.

Brooks seems to be arguing for spirituality but against religiosity. He argues that there's a societal benefit in being religious, as long as you are quick to reject religious teachings and doctrine whenever they trigger feelings of skepticism. Given his recent history of platitudinous prosaisms to the "family values crowd", I suspect his suggestion that "We would be smarter (or at least do better in school) if we all went to church" is a fig leaf, offered to disguise what is otherwise a column favoring humanism over religion.


  1. Shorter David Brooks: Like me, everyone should go to church and be a mainline Protestant, but we shouldn't have to actually do the difficult parts of our religion.t4a

  2. Shorter David Brooks? It's not nice to make fun of the man's stature.