Sunday, July 20, 2008

Understanding the influence of doubt on religion

Here is an interesting article that looks at the role and influence of uncertainty and doubt on religion in the US. The interesting thing is that it makes an effort to mine data from the recently conducted United States Religious Landscape Study to test competing hypotheses: Is doubt (and uncertainty) of modern age causing the retreat of faith or is it forming a strong modified faith with its roots in doubt:
But the idea that contemporary faith, at least in the economically developed West, is shadowed by uncertainty on a new and different scale begs for some empirical investigation. Is such a doubt-haunted belief merely the intermediate stage in that slow retreat of the “Sea of Faith” that Matthew Arnold lamented in “Dover Beach,” and that has left much of Western Europe with little more than a veneer of cultural or nostalgic religiosity? Call this the familiar transition hypothesis.

Or is there a newly emergent faith that is deep and constant, marked by familiar forms of prayer and practice, but nonetheless alert to, perhaps even enlivened by, the whisper saying, “I am convinced I’m right but I could be wrong”? That would be a faith lived, to use a favorite phrase of Professor Taylor, “in a different register.” Call this the new steady-state hypothesis.

Here is the set-up for the hypotheses:

At first glance, the latest findings from the United States Religious Landscape Study, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, promise a way of examining those alternatives. This survey of more than 35,000 Americans asked people not only whether they believed in “God or a universal spirit” (92 percent did), but also whether the believers were “absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain.” While 71 percent replied “absolutely certain,” a sizable portion (17 percent) fell into the “fairly certain” category.

What if one explored this latter group’s answers to other survey questions? How important, for example, was religion in their lives? How often did they pray or attend worship services? How convinced were they that there would be life after death?

From the start, one could suppose that the fairly certain would prove less devout or observant on such measures than the absolutely certain. At least some of the fairly certain, it can be assumed, are people in transit, shifting toward disbelief and already distancing themselves from traditional religious life.

Nonetheless, if it turned out that the answers of the fairly certain came even close to those of the absolutely certain, it would confirm the idea of a stable strata of deeply committed, actively practicing religious believers who have also integrated a significant degree of doubt and uncertainty into their faith.

And it seems that the transition hypothesis comes out stronger from the dats:

In most cases the fairly certain believers were closer in attitude and observance to those saying they were not certain.

For example, 71 percent of absolutely certain believers considered religion “very important” in their lives; only 22 percent of the fairly certain did.

Strike 1 against the new steady-state hypothesis.

But the Pew survey also asked those who believed in God whether their view of God was more like “a person with whom people can have a relationship” or “an impersonal force.”

Obviously, religious practices like worship and prayer usually assume a God who has relationships with people. So what if one limited the comparisons between absolutely certain and fairly certain believers to ones who, in both cases, also described their view of God as “personal”?

In this case, the gap between the two groups closes — but only modestly. Strike 2 against the steady-state hypothesis.

Way to go transition hypothesis! Read the full article here.

P.S. Also check out the video of Hampshire College Science & Religion Lecture on Doubt by Jennifer Michael Hecht.