Sunday, February 28, 2016

Good Things Come...

So it's Sunday morning, and for many people, that means church. Or perhaps, Church. In any event, Sunday is the traditional day to attend Christian worship services. I, on the other hand, am catching up on my reading. And so I've found an article on The Atlantic: "How the Church Helps Black Men Flourish in America." But it wasn't so much the title that caught my eye, but one of the authors, W. Bradford Wilcox, whom I've become familiar with from his other religion-based articles. Mr. Wilcox is the director of the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project, and something of a cheerleader for "traditional values," such as marriage over cohabitation, women working less and, unsurprisingly, being Christian. In fact, many of his articles are more interesting as a particularly erudite form of proselytization than they are as journalism, and so I was curious what tack he was going to take this time.

It was fairly straightforward stuff. There were a series of simple bar charts, with two groups: "Attends church frequently" and "Doesn't attend church frequently." Three of the charts talked about "Black Men, Aged 22-16" in the years 2001 and 2002, and considered whether they had reported committing a serious crime, being incarcerated and being unemployed yet not in school. In each case, the longer bar belonged to the "Doesn't attend church frequently" group. The fourth bar chart measured "Black Men Under 35 Who [Were] Married in 2012 or 2013." On this putatively positive measure, the "Attends church frequently" was the longer of the two.

In each case, the chart tells us: "*The effect of church attendance is statistically significant." Hmm... An asterisk. I wonder what that means? But I was unable to find out, as the links given with each chart, while calling out "Soul Mates and National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, Bureau of Labor Statistics," simply lead to what can only be described as an advertisement for the book that Wilcox collaborated on, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, and not to any numbers than can be crunched.

Studies showing that people who attend churches have better life outcomes by certain measures are common. They're a common tool for making the point that "You should really become a Christian," for people who don't use Pascal's Wager to that end. More neutral observers, however, often point out that while these studies show clear correlations, they don't do anything to establish causality. This, however, doesn't stop Mr. Wilcox and his co-author from implying just that.

A note that appears with each chart is as follows: "Analysis adjusts for religious affiliation, marital and cohabiting status, education, age, urban residence, region of residence, and whether respondents lived with their biological parents as teenagers." Missing from this is income, either of the individual themselves or of their family. Which struck me as a fairly major omission, since poverty is a major factor in crime, incarceration rates, being/remaining employed/in school and marriage. And, it wouldn't surprise me if it fed directly into church attendance - after all, middle-class and above jobs, the sort that pay relatively well, also tend to allow for weekends off - thus freeing up Sunday mornings to go to services.

All in all, the article was an interesting glimpse into how some religious people see the world and the effect of their religiosity on it. And how they see those effects as objective, causal relationships, even when some things may suggest otherwise. (For instance, while the article points out that "African American men attend church at rates notably above the national average," and then correlates church attendance with marriage rates, Blacks are much less likely to be married than Whites.) And it's valuable for that, because understanding how people see the world tells us a lot about how they understand their, and our, place in it.

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