Women and Religion in the African Diaspora: Knowledge, Power, and Performance (Lived Religions)

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Americans cannot build their future without drawing on the strengths that come to them from the practice of their religious beliefs. The widespread practice of religious beliefs can only benefit the nation, and the task of reintegrating religious practice into American life while protecting and respecting the rights of non-practice -- rights that, despite persistent demagoguery on the subject, remain totally unthreatened -- is one of the nation's most important tasks.

Academics of good will can do much in this area, and history will look kindly on those who help America achieve this wonderful balance. Ongoing studies by Professor Ranald Jarrell of the Department of Education at Arizona State University West show the power of religious belief and practice in encouraging a spirit of optimism among socially at-risk but advancing children.

The subjects are students at the De La Salle Academy, an independent school in the upper west side of Manhattan serving primarily poor inner-city black and Hispanic middle school children who show substantial academic promise. Within this group, the highest concentration of pessimists is found among students with the lowest attendance at church. Those who attend church weekly or more frequently, on the other hand, exhibit the following profiles:.

Data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth NLSY , the best national sample for tracking the development of America's youth from the late s, clearly indicate the difference regular religious practice makes for those who grew up in poverty in the s and s.

Further Reading

Other studies also show that growing up in an intact family correlates significantly and positively with future earnings. The other differences remain, but the positive impact of religion on both groups is evident. Alcohol and Drug Abuse The relationship between religious practice and the moderate use or avoidance of alcohol is well documented, [85] regardless of whether denominational beliefs prohibit the use of alcohol.

Persons who abuse alcohol rarely have a strong religious commitment. Wilson, professors of psychiatry at Northwestern University School of Medicine, found that nine out of ten alcoholics had lost interest in religion in their teenage years, in sharp contrast to teenagers generally, among whom interest in religion increased by almost 50 percent and declined by only 14 percent.

Drug and alcohol use is lowest in the most conservative religious denominations and highest in non-religious groups, while liberal church groups have use rates just slightly lower than those for non-religious groups. But for all groups, religious commitment correlates with absence of drug abuse. Significantly, involvement in any religious denomination or group generally decreases the level of drug use regardless of whether the denomination teaches against the use of alcohol, although denominations that teach against any use of drugs or alcohol exhibit the highest rates of drug avoidance.

Among traditional American religions, Mormons have the highest denominational association between religious doctrine and drug avoidance; they also have the most restrictive proscriptions against drug use. On the other hand, Roman Catholics have the highest alcohol use rate; their religion condemns the abuse of alcohol but does not proscribe its use.

Attendance at church and related religious activities has special significance for drug use among teenagers. In a study of young girls aged between 9 and 17, less than 10 percent of those who reported attending religious services weekl y or more often indicated any drug or alcohol use, compared with 38 percent of all those studied.

The parental attitude to religion also is important in dealing with alcohol use. A study indicated that if the mother and father have deep, competing differences toward religious belief and practice, their children are more likely to use or abuse alcohol than are children whose parents do not differ on matters of religion. Conversely, if their parents' religious beliefs and practices are similar, children are far more likely to abstain from alcohol or to drink with moderation.


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For over four decades it has been known, [96] and replicated, [97] that alcoholics with a religious background or strong religious beliefs are much more likely to seek help and treatment. Indeed, Alcoholics Anonymous, the major organization combating alcoholism in America, has known for over half a century that the most effective element in its program is its religious or spiritual component. Alcoholics Anonymous AA uses religion, invoking a Higher Power to help alcoholics recover from addiction. Paralleling the research on alcohol addiction, an early review of studies of drug addiction found a lack of religious commitment to be a predictor of who abuses drugs.

According to Jerald G. Bachman of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, "Factors we found to be most important in predicting use of marijuana and other drugs during the late 's remained most important during the early 's. Drug use is below average among those with strong religious commitments.

In results almost identical to those for alcoholics, researchers at the National Institute of Drug Abuse, a section of the National Institutes of Health and the nation's premier drug abuse research facility, found in their interviews of narcotic addicts that "the addict had neither current religious preference nor a history of attending religious services In addition Religiously, the mother was far more involved than her husband, the difference in regular religious participation between the addict's parents being twice that for the control's parents Religiously, the addicts were significantly less involved in reading the Bible, and praying.

Panel Discussion with African Diaspora Religious Leaders

Louis A. Cancellaro of the Department of Psychiatry at the Veterans Administration in Johnson City, Tennessee, writes that, "Like their fathers, addicts are less religiously involved than their normal peers, and during adolescence, less frequently make decisions either to become more interested in religion or to commit themselves to a re ligious philosophy to live by. In reviewing the religious treatment of addicts, research psychiatrists at the Duke University Department of Psychiatry concluded in "[The] role of religious commitment and religiously oriented treatment programs can be significant factors which ought to be considered and included when planning a mix of appropriate treatment alternatives Perhaps the greatest advantage of religious programs is their recourse to churches as a support system Religious treatment programs are not suitable for everyone.

For those men and women who can accept the creeds, rituals, and commitments required of such programs there seem to be certain advantages. Suicide The practice of religion reduces the rate of suicide, both in the United States and abroad. Those who attend church frequently are four times less likely to commit suicide than those who never attend.

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Conversely, the national decline in church attendance is associated with a heightened suicide rate; fluctuations in church attendance rates in the s paralleled the suicide rates for different subgroups: whites, blacks, men, and women. Steven Stack, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, in a landmark study on the demography of suicide has found that "Families and religion change together over time As the importance of the domestic-religious institutional complex declines, the study finds a rise in the rate of suicide, both for the general population and for the age cohort at the center of the decline, the youth cohort.

In inter-state comparisons, higher levels of church attendance are associated with lower rates of suicide. Depression religion appears to reduce the incidence of depression among those with medical problems. For instance, University of Michigan Professor of Sociology David Williams conducted a randomized survey of adults suffering from leg and hip injuries in New Haven, Connecticut, in Those who attended religious services regularly were less depressed and less distressed by life events than those who did not.

This finding held across age, race, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, and religious affiliation. Religious affiliation alone did not have these effects, but religious behavior did. Younger people also tend to experience fewer of the anxieties of growing up if they are religious. For instance, both male and female Texas high-schoolers found that religious beliefs gave meaning to their lives and reduced the incidence of depression among them. Self-esteem The absence of self-esteem weakens the personality and puts the person at greater risk for crime, addictions, and other social maladies.

Significantly, self-esteem is linked to a person's image of God. Those with high self-esteem think of God primarily as loving, while those with low self-esteem think of God primarily as punitive. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given their followers and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook. Recent advances in the investigation of religious behavior have led social scientists to distinguish between two distinct categories or orientations: "intrinsic" and "extrinsic.

Research shows this form of religious practice to be beneficial. Extrinsic practice is self-oriented and characterized by outward observance, not internalized as a guide to behavior or attitudes. The evidence suggests this form of religious practice is actually more harmful than no religion: religion directed toward some end other than God, or the transcendent, typically degenerates into a rationalization for the pursuit of other ends such as status, personal security, self justification, or sociability.

The difference between these two forms of religious practice have implications for future research and for the interpretation of all research on religious practice. There is a radical difference between what religious people know to be conversion of the spirit or heart and simply conforming external behavior for its own sake, or for benefits derived from religious behavior.

William James, professor of psychology at Harvard University in the early s and a pioneer in the psychological study of religious behavior, was the first to make the social science distinction between the two forms of religious practice. Gordon Allport, his successor at Harvard in the late s, concluded: "I feel equally sure that mental health is facilitated by an intrinsic, but not an extrinsic, religious orientation.

The two orientations lead to two very different sets of psychological effects. For instance, "intrinsics" have a greater sense of responsibility and greater internal control, are more self-motivated, and do better in their studies. By contrast, "extrinsics" are more likely to be dogmatic, authoritarian, and less responsible, to have less internal control, to be less self-directed, and to do less well in their studies.

By contrast, extrinsics are more self-indulgent, indolent, and likely to lack dependability. For example, the most racially prejudiced people turn out to be those who go to church occasionally [] and those who are extrinsic in their practice of religion. The contrasting effects show up in college students.

Intrinsically religious students tend to have internal locus of control, intrinsic motives, and a higher grade point average. Intrinsically religious students were found to have a greater concern for moral standards and to be more conscientious, disciplined, responsible, and consistent, while the extrinsic were more self-indulgent, more indolent, and less dependable. In general, intrinsics are less anxious about life's ups and downs, while extrinsics are more anxious.

Further, the religious beliefs and practices of intrinsics are more integrated; for instance, they are more likely to worship publicly as well as pray privately. By contrast, those who pray privately but do not worship publicly tend to have a higher level of general anxiety -- a characteristic of extrinsics generally. Religious teachers, without being utilitarian, would agree. There is a tension between practitioners of social science and religious belief. Henry, professors of sociology at Brigham Young University, write: "From the work of Freud and others, much of the early history of the social sciences is characterized by the expectation that involvement in and reliance upon the religious institution will be associated with people who have a low sense of personal well-being.

There is repeated evidence that much the same hostility to religion -- a hostility at variance with the attitude of the vast majority of Americans -- persists among members of America's professional elites.

Native American religions

Stephen L. Carter, professor of law at Yale University, points out that "One sees a trend in our political and legal cultures toward treating religious beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant, a trend supported by rhetoric that implies that there is something wrong with religious devotion. More and more, our culture seems to take the position that believing deeply in the tenets of one's faith represents a kind of mystical irrationality, something that thoughtful, public-spirited American citizens would do better to avoid.

Professor David Larson of Duke University Medical School draws attention to similar biases in the mental health professions. Consider The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual , the standard reference manual for the classification of mental illnesses, which essentially defines the practice of psychiatrists, clinical psychology, and clinical social work and is central to the practice, research, and financing of these professions. In the third edition, religious examples were used only as illustrations in discussions of mental illness, such as delusions, incoherence, and illogical thinking.

The latest edition has corrected this bias. Consider also the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, one of the most widely used of all psychological tests. In the MMPI, all the positive religion-connected traits -- self-discipline, altruism, humility, obedience to authority, conventional morality -- are weighted negatively. Thus, to choose the self-description "I am orthodoxly religious" is to detract from one's mental health standing.

Conversely, several traits that religious people would regard as diminishing themselves, at least in some situations -- self-assertion, self-expression, and a high opinion of oneself -- are weighted positively. Despite this general hostility among social science and mental health professionals, the empirical evidence shows religion to be a very powerful and positive part of everyday life.

Patrick McNamara, professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, explains the difference between social scientists and religiously affiliated people generally: "Sociologists tend to see concern for personal challenge -- e. Despite the attitude of many professionals, Gallup surveys continue to indicate that one-third of the American people regard religious commitment as the most important dimension in their lives.

Another third regard religion as a very important, though not the single most dominant, factor in their lives. Totally secular approaches to many issues -- public policy, psychotherapy, and education -- use an alien framework for this two-thirds of the population. The plain fact is that religion plays a powerful role in the personal and social lives of most Americans.

Project MUSE - Women and Religion in the African Diaspora

It is a role that should be understood clearly by the professions, by policymakers, and by the media. From many other areas of social science research -- family dynamics, group dynamics, marital dynamics -- positive reciprocal relationships with others are known to be powerful across a host of areas similar to those reviewed in this paper: stress, ability to relate with others in general, productivity, and learning, to name just a few. The core of the religious commitment is an intention to have a positive relationship with another Being, a transcendent and therefore all-available Being.

Viewed in this fashion, the documented effects of religious commitment are not mysterious, but an extension of the effects which we know arise from positive relations between human beings.

Thus, the findings on religion fit with the general corpus of what is known about relationships from the existing body of social science research. The evidence indicates strongly that it is a good social policy to foster the widespread practice of religion. It is bad social policy to block it.


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