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The Science of Religion: Researchers study how religious beliefs influence people's lives


How does religion influence the type of arguments you may have with your spouse? Can it affect life expectancy, or even students’ grades? World events have shown us that religion can have a profound impact on societies and that individuals’ religious beliefs can certainly influence their own actions. But to what extent does religion affect health, mental well-being and relationships with other people?

Christopher Ellison
Dr. Christopher Ellison directs the Center for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Dr. Christopher Ellison and Dr. Mark Regnerus are just two of the faculty members in the Center for the Scientific Study of Religion (CSSR) looking at these questions.

“We want to look at the role and influence of religion on individuals and communities, particularly in the United States,” said Ellison, director of CSSR and professor in the Department of Sociology. “A good deal of our work explores the link between religious involvement and individual outcomes like health, well-being and mortality risk. There is also work being done on aspects of marital quality, childrearing, adolescent risk-taking behavior and the parent-child relationship through adolescence and on into adulthood.”

“The CSSR is interested in how religion motivates and shapes behavior,” Regnerus said. “To the vast majority of the world’s citizens, this is taken for granted. Academics, however, are more skeptical. But the evidence remains. It is a context through which a great deal of human interaction takes place—interaction that in turn can affect lots of behavioral outcomes.”

Unlike other religion-focused academic centers across the country, the CSSR is not a humanities unit, but a social science entity. It is part of the university’s Population Research Center (PRC), making the PRC the only federally funded population center with religion, family life and health as a major thematic area.

“The CSSR is distinctive in that we have close ties to the Population Research Center,” Ellison said. “This close connection between the work the center is doing and the broader mission of the PRC is marvelous and unlike any other. The integration of the sociology of religion with research that is underway in public health and population studies gives us the potential to break new ground.”

Although the CSSR is only a little more than a year old, groundbreaking research on the influence of religion has been coming out of the university for several years. One study, published in 1999 in the journal Demography, shows that regular church attendance is associated with increased life expectancy in the U.S.

“We’ve explored the suggestion in the literature that there is a connection between religious involvement and mortality risk,” Ellison said. “We’ve been particularly interested in racial and ethnic minorities, as well as the general population. Our first study showed a fairly substantial protective effect of religious involvement—even after adjustments were made for the types of social networks people have, their social class, race and ethnicity, age and gender, and a range of behavioral predictors such as drinking, smoking and body mass. The average difference in life expectancy between those who said they attended services more than once a week and those who never attended—which are the two extreme categories—were on the order of seven to eight years for the overall sample. This difference was even larger for African Americans.”

Mark Regnerus
Dr. Mark Regnerus studies the influence of religion on American adolescents.

Other ongoing research projects include the examination of religious coping when dealing with adversity and the role of religion and spirituality in the promotion of forgiveness and the links between forgiveness and health.

Much of Regnerus’s work looks at the influence of religion on American adolescents, including sexual behavior, school performance and family relations. In looking at adolescent relationships with their parents, he has found noteworthy difference in relationships where parents are more religious than their teenage children, and those where the teenagers are more religious.

“When parents are more religious than their adolescent kids, family relations tend to suffer,” Regnerus said. “It is clearly a source that gives rise to tension. But when kids report being more religious than their parents, it tends to boost family relations in the eyes of the child—even more so than when the parent and child are at the same religious level, whether that is low or high.”

Not all of the research results show a positive influence by religion. Ellison pointed out that negative effects can include feelings of divine abandonment, anger at God in times of adversity and crises of faith.

“While a lot of our work is turning up what seems to be salutary or beneficial implications of religious involvement for individuals and communities, that’s not our only focus,” he said. “We are taking a balanced approach—the study of religion as a social institution has to take into account that—like any social institution—there are aspects we think of as positive and aspects we think of as negative. Not everything about this picture is rosy or beneficial – we are interested in exploring both sides of it.”

Robert Woodberry
Robert Woodberry, a researcher in the CSSR, examines religious influence on global democracy.

Though he has come across negative influences of religion on behavior, Regnerus says it is less typical in his research.

“Generally speaking, 80 to 85 percent of the time it’s a positive effect,” he said. “Sometimes we have a null effect, and about 5 to 10 percent of the time it can be detrimental—but that is less typical.”

Some of the studies have found that the negative behavior is not necessarily from religion itself, but from the differing views of religion, particularly in family relationships.

One area that has been examined is religious matching between couples—similarity or dissimilarity of their views on religion, including attendance at houses of worship, denomination and theological beliefs.

“There are links between the degree of religious dissimilarity and the frequency and topics of arguments among couples with strong differences,” Ellison said. “They argue more often than others, and their arguments are usually centered around finances and money, and the distribution of household labor.”

Although the faculty members in the center are chiefly from the Department of Sociology, there are also affiliations with faculty and students in Asian Studies and Mexican American Studies. While research on the sociology of religion is a primary mission of the center, teaching and mentoring are also vitally important.

“We want to be a center that promotes collaborative research involving faculty, but also with graduate students and individual work as well,” Ellison said. “We place a premium on training and mentorship.”

Robin Gerrow

Photos: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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