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What Americans Really Believe Paperback – September 19, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Sociologist Stark has been surveying and observing American religious beliefs and practices for 40 years. This broad experience is reflected in the breadth of questions used to characterize contemporary American religious attitudes; from the Bible to Bigfoot, denomination to Da Vinci Code, beliefs are measured and correlated with oodles of demographics. Stark provides evidence for his overarching theme that some fundamental American religious practices and ideas have remained both stable and diverse as a result of religious competition. The book's numbers will spark lively discussion and questions about inferences drawn from statistics and the ways in which questions were posed. Why, for example, are Catholics not considered a strict church that makes demands of members? Why is belief in miraculous physical healing considered mystical and not paranormal? Some will say that snarky snipes (calling other researchers careless and disparaging National Public Radio) have no place in data-driven sociology; others will relish a statistics-slinging fight among academics. Regardless, all who find in statistics precise food for thought, as well as articles, more surveys and books, owe Stark and his colleagues at Baylor gratitude. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

"An indispensable resource for understanding the American public. - George H. Gallup Jr., American Public Opinion Statistician"

"All who find in statistics precise food for thought owe Stark and his colleagues at Baylor gratitude."―Publisher's Weekly

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 250 pages
  • Publisher: Baylor University Press; illustrated edition edition (August 22, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1602581789
  • ISBN-13: 978-1602581784
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #736,286 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Keith Ferguson on January 13, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've reviewed one Rodney Stark book before on my blog - his amazing work on early Christianity called The Rise of Christianity. In this book, Stark continues his pattern of using great research to challenge the common misconceptions that people inside and outside the church have about the Christian faith. I really appreciated his insights in What Americans Really Believe because I hear all the wrong conclusions in the circles I run with all the time. Pastors tend to continue to spread summary statements like "We're losing this generation of young people" or "The church is shrinking in America" or "Mega-churches have low standards for their people" without any supporting data. This book is definitely not for everyone (hence the 4/5 rating) because it contains lots of data and lots of charts about American religious life. But for a pastor in the trenches, it was very helpful.

Here are my pick of the top ten points that Stark makes in this book...

(1) Weekly church attendance as percentage of American population has been consistent over the last 50 years. Now people may report that they attend weekly when they actually don't (called the Halo effect), but the data shows that the same percentage of Americans have reported they attend weekly over the last 50 years.

(2) Conservative, evangelical denominations have been growing rapidly over the last 50 years while more liberal denominations have been shrinking. While attendance has been consistent overall, it has not been consistent across denominations. Those who believe the Bible and teach the historical doctrines of the faith have been growing, while those who don't have been getting smaller.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on November 21, 2008
Format: Paperback
Are Americans changing their basic beliefs about religion? Doubters and theists will find plenty of food for thought in this book.

"For several centuries, Western intellectuals have been predicting the death of religion" (p 115). Science, it was thought, would displace religion. Or politics. In the Soviet Union and other communist countries the clergy and devout worshipers were sent to the gulag or murdered. The entire educational system under communism taught against the belief in God. And today atheists like Dawkins sell books by the millions railing against belief.

Well...surprise. Even in the old Soviet Union belief is growing, not declining. And vast new numbers of converts in Asia and Africa are joining religions. (For further information on this topic read 'The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity' by Philip Jenkins.)

America remains stubbornly religious, although mainline Protestant churches are in decline. Women continue (even as they did in ancient Rome) to be more religious than men. Odd findings about atheists in America include the fact that they are "disproportionately from Jewish homes...and...are overwhelmingly on the political left" (p 122).

Believers may find it troubling that a growing number of younger Americans are more drawn to "spirituality" than to religion. In Europe especially, where belief in God has declined, huge numbers have returned to New Age, magic, and ancient pagan practices.

One small caveat about the book: Stark mistakenly states that Catholics no longer are required to go to Mass every Sunday.

Rodney Stark is one of the most enjoyable writers on the subject of religion today. If you haven't read "The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force" and "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success" do yourself a favor and run out and get them.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Patch on February 11, 2009
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it is a very good review of some opinion polls about religion in America. I hoped it might be more text than polls, but it is not. But, it is interesting.
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22 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Phil Zuckerman on October 14, 2009
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The good: the book is clearly written and clearly presented. Very accessible. Very engaging. And it is a very quick, smooth read (took me about one hour to go through it all). The findings are also quite interesting. For example, it is quite fascinating that people with "no religion" are the most likely to oppose the death penalty and support protecting the environment, and the least likely to support George "Where are the WMD?" Bush. I also appreciated Stark's snarling, snarky comments throughout -- he loves to put people down, take jabs at liberals, etc. All his contempt and condescension may not be very "Christian-like," but it sure makes the reading more provocative.

The bad: anytime one engages in survey research, there is something called a "response rate." It refers to the percentage of people that -- when asked -- actually agreed to take the survey. In other words, how many people responded to the sociologist's request? If most people -- after being asked -- agree to take the survey, you have a high response rate. If most people refuse to take the survey, you have a low response rate. Stark knows this. George Gallup (who endorses the book) knows this. Paul Froese (one of the co-authors) knows this. Harold Bloom (who also endorses the book) may not know this. But anyway, EVERY survey study should always reveal what its response rate was. That way we know if the results are valid and generalizable or not. After all, if only 17% of people asked actually agreed to do the survey -- that means that 83% declined! Can one really place much confidence in a survey with such a low response rate? Hardly. And here is where Stark fails us: he purposely fails to tell us the response rate for this survey. My hunch is that it was embarasingly low -- like probably around 17%.
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