Maybe there’s some reason for hope: Christianity on the decline in the U.S.

This has been an ongoing trend for a few years now and it does my heart good after listening to Theocratic minded politicians all day. The folks at USATODAY.com have a cool chart on the decline and the corresponding up tick in the numbers of non-believers:

The percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation. The faithful have scattered out of their traditional bases: The Bible Belt is less Baptist. The Rust Belt is less Catholic. And everywhere, more people are exploring spiritual frontiers — or falling off the faith map completely.

These dramatic shifts in just 18 years are detailed in the new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), to be released today. It finds that, despite growth and immigration that has added nearly 50 million adults to the U.S. population, almost all religious denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS survey in 1990.

“More than ever before, people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, ‘I’m everything. I’m nothing. I believe in myself,’ ” says Barry Kosmin, survey co-author.

You can bet that we’ll be seeing a lot of articles from the Religious Right over the next few days totally freaking out over this study. You can also expect to see the RR get even more shrill and defensive of their beliefs as a result. Best of all, the category of “no religion” has grown significantly. Not all of them are atheists or agnostics, but they’re not far from it I’d bet:

• So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%, up from 8% in 1990), that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, “the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion,” the report concludes.

If that doesn’t warm the cockles of your heathen heart then nothing will. Expect attacks from the Christians about how evil we atheists are to increase as a result of the above statistic.

• Catholic strongholds in New England and the Midwest have faded as immigrants, retirees and young job-seekers have moved to the Sun Belt. While bishops from the Midwest to Massachusetts close down or consolidate historic parishes, those in the South are scrambling to serve increasing numbers of worshipers.

• Baptists, 15.8% of those surveyed, are down from 19.3% in 1990. Mainline Protestant denominations, once socially dominant, have seen sharp declines: The percentage of Methodists, for example, dropped from 8% to 5%.

• The percentage of those who choose a generic label, calling themselves simply Christian, Protestant, non-denominational, evangelical or “born again,” was 14.2%, about the same as in 1990.

• Jewish numbers showed a steady decline, from 1.8% in 1990 to 1.2% today. The percentage of Muslims, while still slim, has doubled, from 0.3% to 0.6%. Analysts within both groups suggest those numbers understate the groups’ populations.

The report also shows how important it is for atheists to stand up and self-identify to help counteract the negative stereotypes about us. Those of use who are “out of the closet” are having a positive impact on those who have yet to emerge, but who are considering it:

The ARIS research also led in quantifying and planting a label on the “Nones” — people who said “None” when asked the survey’s basic question: “What is your religious identity?”

The survey itself may have contributed to a higher rate of reporting as sociologists began analyzing the newly identified Nones. “The Nones may have felt more free to step forward, less looked upon as outcasts” after the ARIS results were published, Keysar says.

Oregon once led the nation in Nones (18% in 1990), but in 2008 the leader, with 34%, was Vermont, where Nones significantly outnumber every other group.

Meabh Fitzpatrick, 49, of Rutland, Vt., says she is upfront about becoming an atheist 10 years ago because “it’s important for us to be counted. I’m a taxpayer and a law-abiding citizen and an ethical person, and I don’t think people assume this about atheists.”

It’s worth reading the whole article if for no other reason than to see the chart ranking “nones” as third behind Catholics and Baptists. Then pop up some popcorn and get ready for the Religious Right to freak out.

This was sent in by a whole bunch of SEB readers, often with links to various news sources.

The more conservative and religious you are the more likely you love porn.

At least that appears to be the findings of a recent study of porn consumption:

A new nationwide study (pdf) of anonymised credit-card receipts from a major online adult entertainment provider finds little variation in consumption between states.

“When it comes to adult entertainment, it seems people are more the same than different,” says Benjamin Edelman at Harvard Business School.

However, there are some trends to be seen in the data. Those states that do consume the most porn tend to be more conservative and religious than states with lower levels of consumption, the study finds.

“Some of the people who are most outraged turn out to be consumers of the very things they claimed to be outraged by,” Edelman says.

Hypocrisy on the part of the Values Voters? Say it ain’t so!

The biggest consumer, Utah, averaged 5.47 adult content subscriptions per 1000 home broadband users; Montana bought the least with 1.92 per 1000. “The differences here are not so stark,” Edelman says.

Number 10 on the list was West Virginia at 2.94 subscriptions per 1000, while number 41, Michigan, averaged 2.32.

Eight of the top 10 pornography consuming states gave their electoral votes to John McCain in last year’s presidential election – Florida and Hawaii were the exceptions. While six out of the lowest 10 favoured Barack Obama.

I suppose it could be argued that the conservative religious folks aren’t buying the porn for their own enjoyment, but so they can be aware of how horrible it is when telling other people why they shouldn’t consume porn. Or could be that all that screaming about forbidden fruit on the part of the overly religious leads folks into temptation.

The latter possibility is brought up in the news article:

To get a better handle on other associations between social attitudes and pornography consumption, Edelman melded his data with a previous study on public attitudes toward religion.

States where a majority of residents agreed with the statement “I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage,” bought 3.6 more subscriptions per thousand people than states where a majority disagreed. A similar difference emerged for the statement “AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behaviour.”

“One natural hypothesis is something like repression: if you’re told you can’t have this, then you want it more,” Edelman says.

Consider that this only covers porn people paid for. As an occasional viewer of online porn myself I can tell you that there are a plethora of sites offering plenty of free porn to satisfy the most active libido without ever spending a penny. Perhaps what this study is really showing is that the overly religious folks aren’t clever enough to find the free porn sites and so they end up buying more than the rest of us.

Still, I love the smell of hypocrisy in the morning.

Another study shows “virginity pledges” are ineffective.

We’ve already seen lots of studies showing that abstinence only sex education is a miserable failure, but what about the popular-among-the-True-Believers virginity pledges where a daughter pledges to her father that she’ll abstain from sex until marriage? As it turns out the best they do is delay how soon someone has sex for the first time from the national average of 17 years-old to 21 years-old. Beyond that they don’t stop people from having premarital sex though they do increase the likelihood that someone won’t use proper contraceptive methods increasing their chances of getting pregnant and catching a STD. Ultimately it seems the pledges themselves have no effect at all compared to a person’s religious viewpoint:

In the new study, Janet Rosenbaum, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, analyzed the large chunk of data used in all the studies that have looked at virginity pledges: the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. In this survey, middle and high school students were asked about their sexual behaviors and opinions starting in 1995-96.

In the analysis, Rosenbaum compared 289 young adults who took virginity pledges in their teens with 645 young people who did not take such a pledge. The researcher was careful to only compare teens who had similar views on religion, birth control and sex in general, regardless of whether or not they took a pledge.

Five years after the initial survey the study subjects were aged 20 to 23. Eighty-two percent of pledge takers denied (or forgot) they had ever taken such a vow. Overall pledge takers were no different from non-pledge takers in terms of their premarital sex, anal and oral sexual practices, and their probability of having a sexually transmitted disease.

Both groups lost their virginity at an average age of 21, had about three lifetime partners, and had similar rates of STDs. “And the majority were having premarital sex, over 50 percent,” says Rosenbaum. Overall, roughly 75 percent of pledgers and non-pledgers were sexually active, and about one in five was married.

So if you’re very religious you’re likely to start having sex several years after the national average, but beyond that you’re just as sinful as everyone else. Plus you’re more likely to not use protection:

Unmarried pledgers, however, were less likely than non-pledgers to use birth control (64 percent of pledge takers and 70 percent of non-pledge takers said they used it most of the time) or condoms (42 percent of pledge takers and 54 percent of non-pledge takers said they used them most of the time).

“There’s been some speculation about whether teenagers were substituting oral or anal sex for vaginal sex and I found that wasn’t so,” says Rosenbaum. “But I did uphold a previous finding that they are less likely to use birth control and drastically less likely in fact to use condoms—it’s a ten percentage point difference.”

Rosenbaum is concerned that abstinence-only sex education programs that promote virginity pledges may also promote a negative view of condoms and birth control. The result may be teens and young adults who are less likely than their peers to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies.

[…] “Studies find that kids in abstinence-only programs have negative, biased views about whether condoms work,” she says. Since such programs promote abstinence only they tend to give only the disadvantages of birth control, she says. Teens learn condoms don’t protect you completely from human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes, which is true, but they may not realize that they protect against all the “fluid-based STDs,” she says. “People end up thinking you may as well not bother using birth control or condoms.”

I guess it’s arguable which is the better situation: People having safer sex at a younger age or unsafe sex at an older age. Personally I’d think the ideal would be to encourage kids to put off sex until they’re older, but to encourage them to use protection if they give in to the temptation. That’s the approach I took with my own daughter and it seems to have worked pretty well.

News item sent in by SEB reader Gary.

Palcebos work better in kids than adults.

So says this rather brief article at Wired.com:

It’s a strange finding nestled inside a weird phenomenon:  children are 50 percent more likely than adults to respond favorably to placebos.

So concludes a Public Library of Science Medicine review by French pediatricians of anti-epilepsy drug studies. If replicated in other drugs, researchers may need to adjust their analyses of clinical drug studies involving kids.

What could account for the tendency of kids to feel better after taking a drug designed to do nothing? The reasons, write the researchers, “remain largely unknown and mostly speculative.”

This seems pretty simple to me. The placebo effect is at least partly based in belief and children will believe almost anything someone they trust tells them in sincerity. Kinda makes sense that they’d work better in kids. That’s probably oversimplifying things a bit, but I’d be surprised if that wasn’t true.

Study finds AMBER Alerts are great drama, but have few successes.

I don’t know if you folks in other countries have a similar system, but here in America we have something called an AMBER Alert which is used to get the word out about abducted children in hopes of someone phoning in a tip quickly before the child is harmed.  The word AMBER is a backronym for “America’s Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response” as well as being the name of a little girl whose abduction and murder brought about the legislation that created the system. Most of the states, including Michigan, participate in the program in some fashion and when activated messages will go out on TV, radio, electronic highway signs, digital billboards, SMS text messages, and even in some places on lottery tickets. Details on the child’s physical appearance and (if the medium allows it) a picture will be included.

It seems like a good idea that should result in saved lives, but very few people have ever questioned if it actually works. Now at least one study says it often doesn’t make a difference:

The program’s champions say that its successes have been dramatic. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 400 children have been saved by Amber Alerts. Of the 17 children Massachusetts has issued alerts on since it created its system in 2003, all have been safely returned.

These are encouraging statistics – but also deeply misleading, according to some of the only outside scholars to examine the system in depth. In the first independent study of whether Amber Alerts work, a team led by University of Nevada criminologist Timothy Griffin looked at hundreds of abduction cases between 2003 and 2006 and found that Amber Alerts – for all their urgency and drama – actually accomplish little. In most cases where they were issued, Griffin found, Amber Alerts played no role in the eventual return of abducted children. Their successes were generally in child custody fights that didn’t pose a risk to the child. And in those rare instances where kidnappers did intend to rape or kill the child, Amber Alerts usually failed to save lives.

[…] “Amber Alert is a victim of its own fantastically good intentions,” says Griffin. “If someone gets ahold of a kid and has sufficiently nasty intentions, in the long run there’s not much we can do.”

Defenders of the program reject Griffin’s argument. Some dismiss it as needless hair-splitting, while others question his data. And, considering the grim stakes, most see little point in criticizing a tool that saves any lives at all. “If an Amber Alert saves any child, don’t you think it was worth it?” says Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

What Amber Alerts do create, its critics say, is a climate of fear around a tragic but extremely rare event, pumping up public anxiety. Griffin calls it “crime control theater,” and his critique of Amber Alerts fits into a larger complaint on the part of some criminologists about crime-fighting measures – often passed in the wake of horrific, highly publicized crimes – that originate from strong emotions rather than research into what actually works. Whether it’s child sex-offender registries or “three strikes” criminal-sentencing rules, these policies, critics warn, can prove ineffective, sometimes costly, and even counterproductive, since they heighten public fears and distract from threats that are at once more common and more tractable.

“The problem with these politically expedient solutions is that they look good but do very little to solve the problem,” says Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern.

The researchers go on to point out that there are some successes, even a couple of very dramatic ones, and they admit their results are preliminary at the moment, but the results seem to indicate that the system doesn’t play a huge role in the vast majority of cases. Still the fact that it does play a role in at least some cases is more than enough justification on the part of supporters to keep the system:

To supporters of the system, these arguments are at once misguided and dangerous. To say that only children snatched by unrelated child rapists are truly in danger, they argue, is setting the bar too high. Any abduction is deeply traumatic for a child, they argue, and a parent with a gun has certainly put that child in harm’s way.

“There’s an extremely high level of danger in violent domestic disputes,” says Robert Hoever, who directs the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Amber Alert program.

But more generally, Amber Alert’s defenders take issue with the idea that a low success rate should be seen as a fault with the program. Just because the Amber Alert system doesn’t save more children than it does, they argue, hardly qualifies it as a failure.

“It doesn’t cost anybody anything,” argues Tyler Cox, operations manager for radio station WBAP, chairman of the Dallas/Fort Worth Amber Plan Task Force, and one of the people who helped create the original Amber Alert. “There’s no expense to operating an Amber Alert system if you’re doing it the right way.”

The authors of the study, however, say that there’s still a cost inherent in the program even if it’s more psychological than monetary:

“It creates a sense of paranoia, not only in parents, but in children themselves,” says James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University professor of criminal justice.

Historically, crimes against children have shown a particular tendency to inspire strong measures. The criminologist Kristen Zgoba, now a researcher with the New Jersey Department of Corrections, has looked at the genesis of Amber Alert and Megan’s Law (named after a raped and murdered 7-year-old, Megan’s Law established state registries for sex offenders). Zgoba argues that while the number of stranger abductions and murders of children has remained steady over the years, public fear around the issue has fluctuated wildly, cohering into national panics from time to time, as in the summer of 2002, when several high-profile disappearances led cable news channels to proclaim the “summer of abduction.”

In fact, according to Fox, stranger abductions remain exceedingly rare: In the United States, he calculates, the odds of a child being kidnapped by someone he or she doesn’t know are roughly one in a million. “We tell kids, ‘Don’t talk to strangers, they all want to abduct you,’ but if a child needs assistance, a stranger will generally help them, not hurt them,” Fox argues.

This is, of course, little consolation to parents who have lost children to kidnappers. But, according to Fox, if we want to save children’s lives, we’d do better to worry about loosely enforced bicycle helmet and seat-belt laws, or the safety standards of school buses – all of which are much more statistically dangerous but lack comparably high-profile systems for stoking public concern.

There are far too many laws on the books that were created because of strong emotions taking precedence over logic and reason and the results have been mixed at best. The idiocy of Zero Tolerance laws, for example, have made it impossible for someone who got onto a Sex Offender registry because they had consensual sex as a teenager with another teenager to find a place to live or a job or, even more ludicrous, resulting in some teenager being kicked out of school for carrying aspirin in her purse.

It’s fair to ask if the program actually makes a difference or if the time and effort involved could be better spent elsewhere. If it truly costs no money and it does help a fair amount of children then the AMBER system should be kept in place, but if it’s largely just making people paranoid for no good reason then maybe there are better ways to “think of the children.”