Field of Science

Can going to church change your views of god?

Christians don't agree on the nature of their god. Their different ideas are many and varied, but one broad way of looking at it is that they tend to believe either in a personal god (one who takes an active, day-to-day interest in people's lives and also intervenes), or an impersonal, distant god (the sort of god who lights the blue touch paper at the moment of creation and then retires to a safe distance).

So who believes in what kind of god? Well, that's the topic of a recent paper by Scott Schieman at the University of Toronto (I was going to post on an anxiety study today, but Schieman's paper has recently hit the newswires, and the reports miss what's really the central point of his study).

We already know that poor people, the poorly educated, African-Americans, and women - i.e. people with low social status - tend to prefer an active, personal god. That's not too surprising.

What Schieman wanted to know was whether belief in a personal god was linked to religious activities. He found that it was, and in an intriguing way.

He took data from the Baylor religion survey, and compared individual's socio-economic status (a combination of income and education) and compared it with beliefs in divine involvement and divine control. He did that by creating a statistical model derived from the data, and you can see one of the outputs from that model in this figure.

The figure shows how belief in divine involvement varies with socioeconomic status for three different groups: people who go to church weekly, those who go several times a year, and those who never go to church.

Look first at the right-hand side of the graph (where the rich people are). It shows what you might expect: people who go Church every week tend to believe in divine involvement, but people who never go to church are less likely to (but they still score fairly high).

Now look at people with low status, on the left. All of them have high levels of beliefs in divine involvement - even if they don't go to Church!

The effect of that is that, among people who go to church weekly, levels of belief in divine involvement stay high as you move up the socio-economic scale. For people who never go to Church, these beliefs drop away as you progress upwards.

Schieman interprets this as evidence that going to church regularly can reinforce belief in divine involvement:
My observations ... [contest] the view that SES is uniformly associated with lower levels of belief in divine involvement and control. The finding that high SES individuals tend to report similar levels of divine involvement and control as their low SES peers—when they share high levels of religious involvement—challenges the assertion that higher SES contributes to “demythologized beliefs” processes. In contrast, the results are more consistent with the view that exposure to messages and lessons in religious activities reinforces systems of “religious explanations”— especially doctrine about God’s involvement and causal relevance in everyday life.
What he's saying is that the reason high status people don't believe in a personal god is not because their education and wealth persuade them that such beliefs are wrong, but rather because they stop going to church. And when they stop going to church, their beliefs in a personal god are no longer reinforced.

He does also acknowledge that causality can work in the other direction (high status people who don't believe in a personal god don't go to church). However, after pondering this one quite a bit, I suspect he's on to something.

After all, there are lots of reasons for a low status person to believe in a personal god, even if they don't go to church. That's fairly uncontroversial.

But you can well imagine that a high status person might have reasons to go to church, even if they don't believe in a personal god. And yet, those that do go to church regularly do actually believe in a personal god.

Could it be that repeated exposure to an environment that promotes a particular ideology actually influences your beliefs, despite all the external factors that work to undermine them? It wouldn't be the first time that had happened!

ResearchBlogging.orgSchieman, S. (2010). Socioeconomic Status and Beliefs about God's Influence in Everyday Life Sociology of Religion, 71 (1), 25-51 DOI: 10.1093/socrel/srq004

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Can doing things affect stuff? Next!

  2. Heh. Well yes, on reflection the title was a bit too vague. The title should've been "Can going to church make you believe in a personal god?"

    The point is, you might expect beliefs about god to drive church going behaviour. But it looks like the church going behaviour may well drive the beliefs about god.

  3. It's a bogus causation. One goes to church because one believes... not the other way around. The title should have been, "Does belief affect the regularity of church attendance habits?"

    By this circuitous logic, one could argue that people who eat at Italian restaurants come to like Italian cuisine - which would be equally bogus, as those who eat at Italian restaurants do so because they already do like Italian food.

  4. But if people with low socioeconomic status were more likely to report a fondness for Italian food regardless of how often they ate it, while rich people displayed more of the expected causation, wouldn't that be a significant result?

    Tom has a point in regards to there being an incentive for those with high SES to go to church regardless of belief. Look at Obama. Regardless of how ingenuous his belief is (and I suspect he is sincere, but one can never truly know the mind of another), if hypothetically he were an atheist, it would be very much in his best interests to STFU about that and go to church anyway.

    That line of argumentation doesn't prove anything, but it at least does suggest a means by which the correlation could be strengthened by the causation posited in this article.

    And anyway, even if the causation on the right hand side of the graph is purely in the those-who-believe-already-choose-to-go-to-church-anyway direction, it's still a significant result to show that this correlation is far weaker on the left side of the graph. Heh, in fact, if the causation is purely in that direction, then the conclusion we'd have to draw from this data is that the poor people who do not go to church and yet believe in a personal God (i.e. the far left of the bottom line) are not necessarily clinging to that belief despite the lack of church-o-genic reinforcement, but rather, they believe and want to go to church but are unable for some reason. Okay, that logic works for Scientology and, depending on the temple, Judaism maybe. But for evangelical Christianity? I'm pretty sure they don't, uh, exactly kick out the poor, y'know?

  5. James, you've put your finger on the most fascinating result. Why do the poor not go to Church even when they believe in a personal god, whereas the rich don't go to Church even when they believe in one.

    Why are the levels of belief in a personal god the same among churchgoers, rich or poor, but different among non-churchgoers. Given that you might expect rich and poor to go to church for different reasons, the fact that they end up with similar beliefs about the nature of god seems significant.

  6. You think Obama's an atheist? "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them". Yeah, maybe so. I don't think he's a gun nut either. I bet he's a smoker though, darn hypocrite. I'm not talking tobacco either. Anyway, I returned to Church over a year ago. Still not feeling the "personal" bit. David Mc

  7. David Mc -- No, I think Obama is sincere in his Christianity. Well, I suspect he is somewhat "agnostic" about many of the specific truth claims, but it seemed fairly clear to me from Dreams from My Father that he at least believes in the spirituality and community aspects, so strongly that he's willing to swallow the dogma uncritically. At least, that's the impression I got from the book.

    Now, my wife thinks he's a secret atheist, but she is still experiencing some of the optimistic afterglow of the inspiring campaign and historic election, and as a result tends to see Obama through rose-colored glasses (and to our family, a president being an atheist would be a positive thing).

  8. Oh, my wife worked her tush off for him. I was/ am a bit reserved. I agree with your wife, and suppose it wouldn't be a bad thing either. Too bad he can't come out of the closet till next term. David Mc


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