Friday, September 5, 2008

Comparative Theology

I came across an interesting article.

They make an interesting statement:
"The study found that white and African-American adolescents generally had fewer symptoms of depressive at high levels of religious participation. But for some Latino and Asian-American adolescents, attending church more often was actually affecting their mood in a negative way."
The article uses "religious participation" and "church [attendance]" interchangeably, and the religion (Christian by denomination, Jewish, Muslim, Wicca, etc.) is not specified.

Based on the quotes from Richard Petts, I assume the authors are atheists; so I don't expect them to understand the notion of true and false religion, doctrine, etc.

As an extreme example, if "religious participation" included human sacrifice, it's understandable that the participants might be prone to depression... Of course, the notion that participation in true religion (rather than hopeless, false religion) would divide into ethnic groups is just silly.

But I am not trying to analyze this study point-by-point. I am looking for a more general trend among atheist scholars. And that trend is, "religion is a boolean - you have religion or not, and they are all interchangeable" and "we must examine religions based on the results provided to their adherents". The first is supported by my first part. For the second:
"The study shows that we need to consider the broader social aspects of institutions such as religion on an individual’s well being, both good and bad."
For the atheist, religion is a social structure to be considered and chosen based on the effects (or rejected outright). The notion of true or false is ignored (or often, assumed false).


lynch-patrick said...

I think you've misunderstood their aim by conflating a scientific viewpoint with an atheistic mission.

What this study does reveal is that the culture which surrounds religious participations has a differential effect on said religion's adherents.

From the article:

' “Most research has shown that religious participation, for the most part, is good and can be very helpful for battling depression. But our research has shown that this relationship does not hold true in all instances,” he said. '

There's no "atheist agenda" behind this interpretation - the data this study's conclusions were based on comes from surveys of young people from various churches, and in order for the study to have any use, the data has to be gathered with good sampling techniques.

This study makes absolutely no references to theology, but instead is focused on the correlations between religious participation and mood. By not focusing on any one denomination or guessing at young people's relationships with their church's doctrines and theologies, they AVOID contaminating their data with misleading context leading to unproductive guessing, e.g. "this young person accepts the Heidlberg Catechism but can't articulate it and is unhappy, but this one can and is still unhappy - which one's unhappiness is based on theology?"

THAT is why "religious participation" is the operational definition for church attendance, not "presiding over a human sacrifice" or "spending the entire day in the sachristy".

And if you really think that ethnic group membership has no effect on depression and no relationship with religion in culture, you need to travel more.

nedbrek said...

You're correct that there is no active atheistic agenda. However, one's presuppositions will affect one's conclusions. You may be interested in my post on prepositionalism.

Re theology vs. mood: that's my point exactly. Emotions (and activities designed to stimulate them) are fickle and unreliable. It is theology which matters (see any post tagged "theology"). False theology is hopeless, true theology (Biblical Christianity) is our only hope. Hope correlates strongly with depression.

Hope (no pun intended) that helps!

lynch-patrick said...

Life situations, economic security, psychology, and an individual's social support network have overwhelmingly more to do with their happiness than theology, wouldn't you think?

In these terms, 'happiness' is a lot less fickle-sounding; these are all things that nurture general good feelings in people, give our actions context, and help us weather life's storms.

This study is dealing with people's happiness as it correlates with their religion, with respects to their racial culture. People raise families differently in different cultures, and norms for nurturing are different, and these are just a few among a host of other sociological facts that define us.

Even people with right theology suffer traumas, discouragements and setbacks that can damage their spirit: women who believe in good theology can be raped, men with strong faith can lose limbs in accidents, and anyone can lose loved ones or have their psyches destroyed by insanity - God didn't protect Job, whom he bet the Devil would be faithful to Him, but blasted him with misfortune until he despaired. Life's hard.

The purpose of the study is precisely to get people to report their happiness or unhappiness and correlate that with their religious participation - this is extremely useful research because it provides us with a basis to figure out what it is about the particulars of their situation cause them to be unhappy: dissonance between their faith and culture, local drama, the church as a social organization (no churches are perfect), or a number of other things.

True theology may provide hope, but to what degree that hope is 'true' in the heart of individuals isn't really ascertainable with social science.

And as I've pointed out, claiming to believe the true theology doesn't necessarily mean that you understand that theology, or that you've properly integrated what you believe is true about God into your thinking and behavior. Also important to note, this study deals with young people; young people are unlikely to grasp the theology taught in their churches in it's entirety. It's not a stretch to assume that their social lives in church have more to do with their deriving meaning and getting happiness than with the Councils their church aligns themselves with.

One thing we do know is that people the world over draw hope and comfort from their respective religions, and they always have - "true" or not, there are messages of hope and ultimacy present in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, as well as Christianity - accounting for about 4 billion adherents between them.

This idea, giving some context to studying religion, is important to keep in mind when trying to come up with general principals you can use to study religious communities.

Social science is a notoriously 'unscientific' science, precisely because it delves so deeply into the nature of the observer's understanding of self as he observes others. Social scientists use their tools rigorously (statistics, measurements, insights from harder sciences) and strive to give as much useful information about any presuppositions they have that might affect their conclusions - of course, since the idea is to contribute to the general knowledge of mankind, they have to be careful, because not all social scientists believe the same things or make the same theoretical assumptions, so clarity and disclosure is essential.

Here is an essay you can read on the subject, giving some perspective:

Why would anybody want to study religious communities, instead of just converting to the True Religion, you might ask?

Nobody understands belief! It's awesome!

Or at least, nobody understands belief in a way that everybody can agree on - how it works in the context of everyday human life, and why people believe what they believe. For a Christian, that's as important for Evangelism as learning the native language.

nedbrek said...

Re. happiness: that's what I am trying to get across. Happiness comes and goes according to our circumstances. False theology can survive during good times.

It is in the bad times that our theology is tested and, often, fails. That is why people turn to drugs, alcohol, etc.

True, Biblical theology provides "joy". Joy is the knowledge that God has forgiven us, and that we will spend eternity with Him. In light of this, any troubles in this life are bearable (although, not necessarily pleasant).

Re Job: I don't believe Job was converted until chapter 42, verse 6. It was at this point, that he died to himself, repented, and trusted God.

lynch-patrick said...

Since you brought up drugs, people in certain ethnic groups in our country (correlating strongly with poverty) are vastly more likely to abuse some drugs and alcohol to begin with. Churches of any kind can help people get off drugs; would you be surprised to learn that the relapse rate for drug addicted is about the same across most churches, and the efficacy of their ministries with the drug-addicted have more to do with adding to the of services and support an individual receiving treatment has access to than the theology that a particular church believes?

You can't determine a theology's truth or falsity based on it's effects. You can't watch competing theologies in the world and observe that one is true and others are false - all theologies claim to be valid, and some correlate with a few social effects. Unfortunately, there is no way for a dispassionate observer to see which one the Real one is. So science can't speak on it; scientists, however, can run their mouths all day long about what they think is beneficial for everyone based on what they DO observe: that's their job.

It's not weak theology that causes relapse, or causes people to turn to drugs. Every situation and every person is different; theology can't bring a person out of their, but a relationship with God can. Unfortunately, there's no way to determine the theological correctness of a person's Relationship with God based on the effects it has on their life.

Incidentally, like other relationships, one measure of their closeness is how often people see each other on purpose. Therefore, church attendance is a good starting point for studying belief.

Happiness isn't just a fleeting emotion; for some of us, it's rarely possible. The clinically depressed, for instance, which this study also discusses, have a hard time finding meaning in anything. Hope has little to do with their vocabulary: hope is for the hopeful. Theology isn't the hope for the hopeless that God promised; He Himself is.

The point I'm making is, that "understand[ing] of true and false religion, doctrine, etc." isn't important for or obvious to science, and, for the reasons cited above, can't be.

And yes, religion IS a social structure: understanding just what that means, though, requires a lot of study. There are lots of great books on the sociology of religion, many of which have originated from churches and church-affiliated universities that you could read in order to get the lay of the land. It really is a fascinating field.