Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Is the Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty (and does it really matter)?

This blog post was written by CARA summer intern Nicole Cornell, a rising sophomore at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University in St. Joseph, Minnesota. She is double-majoring in Sociology and Theology. As part of her internship she has been studying theories of what attracts women to religious life.

Community Clarity
The age old question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty has often been used to determine a person’s level of optimism. However, does it really matter if it is half-full or half-empty, as long as the content is drinkable?

This same notion can be applied to the declining trend of female religious in the United States today. What if it’s not the trend in numbers of religious vocations that really matters here? Perhaps it’s a matter of finding clarity? Just as what really matters is the content of the glass being drinkable, what really matters is how religious orders can exist in a future time, regardless of the many hypothesized reasons for the downward trend in their membership.

Throughout several of the sociological hypotheses surrounding the topic, a common thread emerges, calling religious orders to define a strong and clear sense of community. Clarity of description regarding the unique aspects of community life offered in religious orders is generally agreed upon as a necessary component in order to illustrate religious orders’ usefulness and purpose in modern-day America. A strong sense of community promotes important living aspects of religious life for women religious, contributes to preferred atmosphere for religious life, and is attractive to new, younger members.

Community Support
In the study entitled, "Recent Vocations to Religious Life: A Report for the National Religious Vocation Conference" (2009), conducted by CARA, new members of religious orders in the United States were surveyed on a variety of aspects relating to their discernment process and religious life preferences. This data was then narrowed to only female religious respondents for the purpose of this article.

As religious orders seek to attract new vocations by appealing to a younger generation of Catholics – defined as the Millennial Generation (born in 1982 or later) – the importance of defining a strong and clear sense of community must be considered in its relation to the appeal of religious life.

In examining correlations within the data it was evident that several factors relating to generational differences in opinions on the importance of community life were evident among female religious (correlations significant at the .05 level, 95% confidence interval).

The graph below demonstrates that, overall, Millennial women religious were more likely to place higher importance on various aspects relating to the "sense of community" within a religious order both in their discernment process and as professed members of their order. 

Millennial religious women are more likely than women religious of all other generations to respond that "community life in the institute" was "very much" important to them when discerning a vocation to religious life (79% compared to 69%).

Support for the higher importance placed on a "sense of community" by younger women in religious life compared to those of older generations is shown through preferences for living in larger communities, as well as greater importance placed on aspects that make up community living. Almost three in four Millennial women religious (74%) prefer to live in "large" size communities, that is, living in a community of 8 or more members together. This is in contrast to only half (49%) of women religious from all earlier generations.

Also, 8 in 10 younger women religious place "very much" importance on all aspects that make up community living in religious life such as: 
  • Living with other members
  • Praying with other members
  • Working with other members
  • Sharing meals together
  • Socializing or sharing leisure time together

These respondents are considered to value "high community." This is in contrast to only a little over half (53%) of respondents from other generations listing all aspects of community life to have "very much" importance to them.

Community Spirit
Quite evidently, the question of the contents of the glass being drinkable or not, trumps the question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. In the same way, regardless of what may be said on the decline of membership in women religious orders in the United States today, the importance lies in how religious orders will continue to function in the future, regardless of the trend.

Throughout several of the theories, there is a suggestion that a strong and clear sense of community needs to be evident by religious orders for them to continue to exist within modern, American society. A strong sense of community life is an important aspect of religious life valued by both incoming and current members, to varying degrees.

It is evident that young people today are more attracted to groups with a strong sense of community. Therefore, it is the orders that are able to exude their sense of community to the external world that young people will be more attracted to join. Young people are looking for orders that offer this strong and clear sense of community. Such orders visibly stand for something unique and have a specific mission and identity that is deemed worthy of receiving a young person’s gift of self.
Above photo courtesy of micmol at Flickr Creative Commons.


Are We What Our Ancestors Ate?

I love being a social scientist but if I had to choose my career over again there is a slim chance I’d become a chef instead. In these times of multiple food television networks and best-selling celebrity chef cookbooks it is easy to think of food as something frivolous. But it is far from this.

We spend more than two hours a day consuming food and drinking (on average 2.5 hours). People in Japan and France have longer life expectancies than many living elsewhere and this may have something to do with their higher consumption of particular products (fish and red wine, respectively). On the other hand, the United States is suffering from unprecedented levels of diabetes and obesity in part because of our consumption of sugary drinks. In 2011, 44.7 million Americans (14% of the population) utilized food benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (i.e., food stamps; with an average benefit of $133.85 per month or a total of $4.46 per day). Many more people worldwide will go to bed hungry tonight (…as Americans spend more than $30 billion annually to feed their pets and almost twice as much on weight loss programs for ourselves). Spikes in the price of bread and rice have historically been the sparks of revolution around the world (...notoriously in France but more recently in the “Arab Spring” in North Africa and Middle East). In sum, the food we consume has very real and important consequences. There are good reasons we should be studying this topic.

CARA has been approached more than once by food companies wondering what we know about Catholics’ food preferences. One fast food company was particularly interested if we had data on fish consumption during Lent. On this lighter note I wondered, if I was planning to open a restaurant would I need to know the religious affiliation of the people in the neighborhood? Strangely, it might help.

When Catholics are asked what their first choice of food would be if they were dining out they most often select Italian (38%). No surprise yet. Italian food is amazing. Strangely though, Protestants—whether Evangelical or Mainline—are significantly less likely to prefer this option (21% and 25%, respectively). Protestants are more likely to prefer American fare (which really isn’t American: e.g., hamburgers are from Hamburg steak in Germany, hot dogs from frankfurters also in Germany, meatloaf again from Germany, or fried chicken which is thought to be inspired from Scottish and West African recipes. Perhaps barbecue has the best claim for authentic American heritage). 

Those of other religions, who like Catholics are rooted in immigration from other parts of the world, are more likely to prefer “non-American” food fare. Nones (those with no religious affiliation), of which 40% were raised in a Protestant denomination, are very similar in their preferences to those who currently self-identify as Protestant—sometimes the religion fades but the food sticks.

It is clear that Americans with a more recent history of immigration in their ancestral tree are more likely than those who descended from earlier settlers to prefer food from other shores. Even as many no longer self-identify as Italian Americans the preference for food from this region remains in the Catholic population.

This same CBS/Vanity Fair Poll from which results above are derived asked some other interesting questions about food preferences. Respondents were also asked what their favorite ice cream is. Catholics are more likely than those of any other religious affiliation to prefer chocolate (I’m glad to be Catholic…). That means of course that there are actually people in this country that would be more likely to prefer vanilla (e.g., Protestants and those of other religious affiliations). At least Nones and Catholics share something in common—both prefer chocolate. Perhaps this is the secret ingredient for New Evangelization?

Finally in this same survey respondents were asked about several different “indulgences” they would prefer if there were no effects on their physical health (no mention of spiritual health in the question wording…). U.S. adult Catholics choose food over sex, inactivity, alcohol, smoking, and getting a good tan.

Catholics are more likely than those of other faiths to choose food over all other options listed. Evangelicals—similar to those of other religions and Nones—split their preferences between food and avoiding exercise completely (39% and 21%, respectively). Mainline Protestants prefer eating and smoking (43% and 14%, respectively).

It is good too see the Catholic love of food but on the other hand I believe in all things in moderation (gluttony really is a sin). I enjoy Italian food (Cacio e Pepe please) on a night out but also think it is important to strive to do everything I can possible to be sure others have enough food. I’m for pasta in every pot and ice cream in every freezer. Statistically, Americans tend to pay attention to food needs most during the holidays from Thanksgiving to Christmas. It’s summer but you might consider making it a Christmas in July and donate to an organization that provides food to those in need. In 2010 more than 3,000 local Catholic Charities offices provided food to nearly 7.2 million people through food banks, soup kitchens, home delivered meals, and other means. Outside of U.S. borders Catholic Relief Services provides invaluable assistance to help those in need develop and sustain agriculture and CRS provides food assistance through its social safety net programs as well. 

The average American household spends $2,736 per year dining out (42% of our annual food spending). Perhaps each of us could forgo a few nights eating at our favorite restaurant and give a try to being a chef at home. Take the difference in food costs and give it to a Catholic charity that provides food assistance. Fewer in the world would go to bed hungry and perhaps some of us will be inspired to start a second career as chefs.

Above photos courtesy of nicksherman, lucasartoni, and nc_hiker at Flickr Creative Commons.


The Schisms of the Religiously Unaffiliated

I recently unwittingly touched the third rail of religious research. In a post about Catholic reverts I noted in passing that Atheists have a comparatively low retention rate at 30% (percentage of children raised with an identity/affiliation maintaining this identity/affiliation as an adult).

As others blogged or wrote articles about what I had mentioned in passing I started to see people in related comments and tweets seeking to discredit the retention rate. Some responded with anecdotes (…“all my friends are Atheists and they’ve never left”), others tried to discredit the survey data (…but it is one of the largest surveys about religion ever conducted making it possible to say something about groups, like Atheists, that make up a small percentage of the population… the margin of error sampling error for Atheists in Pew’s Religious Landscape survey is ±4.3 percentage points), some said the research was obviously biased coming from CARA. Others noted that some Atheists grow up to become Agnostics or Nones (those without a religious affiliation) and that this should not be counted as a “loss.” Then it struck me. Some may not realize how different Atheists are from Agnostics and Nones. 

Pew, ARIS, and the GSS have all shown the religiously unaffiliated population overall is growing rapidly in the United States. Many seem to think this means that Atheism, being a part of this broader religious unaffiliated category, is growing quickly in the United States as well (...they may also be confused by statistics showing Atheism is growing rapidly in other countries). Yet, recent estimates from the largest surveys available put the self-identified Atheist population percentage in the U.S. at somewhere between 0.7% and 1.6% (ARIS and Pew, respectively). Differences in other surveys (with smaller samples) from recent decades are within margin of sampling error making it difficult to know if any growth is occurring in this specific population at all. As shown in the figure above, Pew found that the unaffiliated were 16% of the U.S. adult population in 2007. According to the GSS, the unaffiliated were 5% of the population in 1973 and were 18% in 2010. Nones, the unaffiliated who do not self-identify as Atheists or Agnostics, are the most numerous of the unaffiliated (75%) and they tend to believe in something no Atheist is supposed to believe in—God (83%).  

You’ll notice something else odd in the figure above as well. One in five self-identified Atheists (21%) believe in God. This finding has already been acknowledged by Pew (...they may deserve credit for being the first to document “Cafeteria Atheists”). The researchers note that  “atheists and agnostics are defined here as all respondents who described themselves as being atheist or agnostic, even though some of them may believe in some notion of God” (pg. 6). This is the same standard used for other religious affiliations (as well as other social identities and labels) in social science research. If someone identifies as Catholic they are treated as such, even though they may not go to Mass or hold important core beliefs of the faith.  

Overall 74% of the unaffiliated—Nones, Agnostics, and Atheists—believe in God. If social scientists only counted Atheists as “real” if they say they do not believe in God, the Atheist population percentage would be even smaller. My hunch would be that some Atheists would want to count anyone of any religious affiliation or non-affiliation who does not believe in God as “one of them” even if that individual does not consider themselves to be an Atheist. In that case, nearly one in 20 Americans (4.7%) could be considered an Atheist. This just means there are Atheist-Catholics, Atheist-Buddhists, Atheist-Black Protestants, Atheist-Muslims, Atheist-Evangelical Christians, Atheist-Mormons. It will also be difficult to make the case that those who are members of a religion are also opposed to organized religion ( would also be strange to label these people as Atheists when they personally reject the label and identity of “Atheist”).

What many call “New Atheism” has sold a lot of books and is remarkably visible in the media. This is a movement that appears to be most successful in Europe and is primarily a combination of 1) denial of existence of God or a creator and 2) active opposition to organized religion. Nones are presumably not big fans of organized religion because they do not seek any membership, affiliation, or identity with one. But it is on the first point that Nones have so little in common with most Atheists. What is the core aim of New Atheism? Is it to oppose organized religion or deny the existence of God? If it’s the former some of the Nones may be a part of your movement. If it’s the latter many are not fit.

Nones do not appear to be as hostile toward religion as many assume. As the figure below shows, half of adult Nones say religion is “somewhat’ or “very much” important in their life. Even one in ten Atheists (11%) respond as such.

Need more evidence? Are one in five Atheists (19%) going to Heaven or headed for some other form of afterlife? Apparently six in ten Nones (61%) believe it’s a possibility. 

Perhaps the Atheists who attend religious services have the best chance of getting to Heaven? Fourteen percent attend at least once a year (other than for a wedding or funeral). Three in ten Nones would likely be at church to welcome them.

Why would an Atheist go to church? Family ties. The one thing that all the unaffiliated have in common is that about one in five are in households with a religious membership.

My biggest concern with New Atheism is in its attempt to take ownership of science. There are many people now (Michio Kaku, Francis Collins, Werner Abner, Francisco Ayala, John Polkinghorne...) and certainly in history (Athanasius Kircher, René Descartes, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur, Max Planck, Georges Lemaître...) who loved and practiced science who also expressed religious beliefs. I will defend the right of anyone to be a non-believer and not be discriminated against in any way because of that point of view or identity. I’m not alone. The Catholic Church includes Atheists among the faculty at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that advises popes and cardinals on the latest findings of science. 

One’s religious beliefs or lack thereof have nothing to do with the science they practice. When I review a paper for journal publication I don’t have a clue who the author(s) is (let alone their religious affiliation). It’s not part of the process. It would be foolish to question the science of someone based solely on their religion. The evidence is all that matters.

It’s interesting that so much of the rhetoric of New Atheism seems to really be directed at Evangelical Christians—those specifically who take the Bible literally word for word. Many New Atheists seem to think anyone who is religious holds similar beliefs. Yet, this cannot be equated with the mainstream Catholic point of view. After all St. Augustine wrote about allegorical interpretations of Genesis in the 4th Century CE. As Pope Benedict XVI has argued much more recently:

Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called "creationism" and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance.

I have to admit that in light of the quote above those Darwin fish on some Atheists’ cars make me laugh because I am a fan of both God’s and Darwin’s works (...I first learned of evolution in a Catholic school). In my opinion, the latter is simply revealing the work of the former. As a scientist (and a Catholic) I seek the truth. If I was a biologist I would probably be hunting for evidence of the origin of life just as Lemaître sought to understand the moment of the universe’s creation. But I’m a social scientist and I instead study how people practice their religions—mostly Catholics but apparently now also the self-identified Atheists who believe in God, go to church, and look forward to an afterlife. There are so many mysteries to study...

Above photo courtesy of Caro's Lines at Flickr Creative Commons.

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