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Exploring Religion

Session 4: Overview

Religious Beliefs and Behaviors

Learning objectives

  • Explore and understand the variation in religious beliefs, behavior, and experiences.
  • Understand how surveys can be used to study religious beliefs, behavior, and experiences.

Have you ever heard someone described as “religious?” If so, what do you think made them so? Was it their beliefs, behaviors and/or something else? How about you, personally — do you consider yourself “religious?” As you think about this question, you will have to use some kind of evaluation criteria for what it means to be “religious.” As you begin to think about those criteria, you will likely realize that this is a rather complicated question.

Even though we might have an intuitive idea on what it means to be “religious,” this concept is exceptionally complicated for survey researchers to capture. To illustrate this point: think of somebody that you would consider “religious.” Now, ask yourself: what makes them religious? Can you articulate it?

Some things might be easy to articulate about this “religious” person. Perhaps they have a strong belief in God, pray every day or volunteer with a church. Maybe they are always the first person to show up for religious services on Saturday or Sunday morning. But there are a lot of ways to be religious, and surely no single person can encompass them all. Even monks, for example, who dedicate their lives to religion, might not be “religious” in some ways that other people might be.

What if somebody believes in God and prays every day, but never attends religious services? Or, conversely, what if someone attends religious services but doesn’t really believe in God or pray? Are either of these people religious? Is one of them more religious than the other? When you start to think of all the high/medium/low combinations of religious beliefs, practices, affiliations and so on -– including their inherent diversity — you will quickly realize that there are an infinite number of ways people can be “religious” or not. As it turns out, it is far more complicated than a simple yes, no, in-between or spectrum of high to low.

Alas, not all hope is lost! Researchers have been studying this for decades, and have made a lot of progress. While there are no universally agreed upon ways to capture the religiosity of individuals, a lot of great options have been developed over time. Here are just a few:

1) Asking multiple questions.

  • Instead of trying to find the perfect question on religiosity, researchers simply ask about a lot of things. For example, they might ask about belief in God, religious service attendance or how important religious faith is to someone’s life. There are literally thousands of questions that have been developed to capture various components of religiosity and/or spirituality. Unfortunately, due to budgetary and space/time constraints, many of the biggest social science surveys only have a few measures to work with. However, when several quality items are available, they can be combined in creative ways. These are explained in #2 and #3 below.

2) Identifying “dimensions” of religiosity.

  • To help organize and simplify the concept of “religiosity,” researchers have tried to identify its main parts or components. These are often referred to as the “dimensions” of religiosity, and are assumed to be distinct yet related to one another. By way of analogy, you can compare it to something like “athleticism,” which might have related dimensions of strength, agility, speed, coordination and so on. For religiosity, the most common dimensions have been domains like beliefs, practices (sometimes divided into public and private), importance and belonging/affiliation. However, there are hundreds of dimensions that have been proposed over time. Less common ones might be religious knowledge, dogmatism and experiences.

Module 4 Image 1

The image above gives an illustration of some different dimensions of religiosity. For the same person, there can be many ways they are religious (or not). The ovals represent these different ways, and you can imagine that each of these categories could be measured in multiple ways (e.g., there are many ways to measure beliefs). The dashed lines between the ovals indicate that we expect them, generally, to be related or “correlated” to each other. That is, if someone is “high” on salience (importance), they are probably somewhat likelier, on average, to be high on knowledge or public practice.

3) Identifying “configurations” or profiles of religiosity.

  • Given a particular number of religious measures or even dimensions, there still exists the possibility that people are not going to be “high” or “low” across the board. That is, people may be high on some measures (e.g., prayer), but low on others (e.g., service attendance). The same is true for the broader dimensions. Importantly, though, we can still find patterns of combinations that are common. Researchers can then investigate these patterns and attempt to label them in ways that make sense. These combinations are sometimes called “classes” or “profiles.”

Module 4 Image 2

The image above is one example of grouping people into “types” of religious profiles. For example, someone could be high across most measures of religiosity, so perhaps we, as researchers, employ “The “Devout” label for those people. There might be people who are consistently low on religiosity, but maintain some beliefs (e.g., “The Distancer” in the image). Or maybe they are low across the board and do not believe in a God or Gods (“The Atheist”). Or, maybe they are not religious, per se, but are very into spirituality (“The Spiritual”). Finally, maybe they enjoy both religion and spirituality, and have a wide range of diverse beliefs spanning multiple religions (“The Eclectic”). Remember, these labels are imposed by the researcher, based on data patterns, but help us understand religion in a unique way. 

In sum, there are numerous ways to assess how religious someone is, and having multiple measures of religiosity allows for creative approaches to organize or combine measures. As we will see in the module, however, people often experience religion in ways that are hard to capture on surveys, and it is often the little ways that people incorporate religion into their lives that says the most about their spirituality. This idea is often called “lived religion,” which recognizes that people “live” their religion in complicated and subtle ways outside of institutional walls.

Finally, one final note is important, and it complicates everything we have discussed so far: individual religiosity is not always “congruent.” That is, despite what religions teach or command, religious adherents can and do hold contradictory beliefs and act in ways incompatible with their religion’s “official” teachings. In fact, this is likely far more common than the opposite – finding a person who perfectly has integrated religious values and teachings in a way that they almost never live incompatibly with them. Scholars of religion should be aware of this “religious congruence fallacy” when thinking about how individual religiosity impacts individuals.

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