Saturday, August 16, 2014

Pentecostal Beliefs


The Assemblies of God USA (AG) completed their 100th anniversary celebration last week. Formed in 1914 from a gathering of 300 people, the group has become the largest Pentecostal group in the USA (about 3.1 million). The celebration was attended by many guests from the AG groups in other countries. The worldwide number of adherents is about 67.5 million.

Psychology of Religion approaches groups initially by understanding beliefs and behaviors. Of course, official beliefs of any faith do not always match what the rank and file believe or practice. Nevertheless, learning about the official beliefs is a good starting point.

The AG identify 16 fundamental truths, which their clergy are expected to profess. If you examine their beliefs, you will see they are similar to common core beliefs of conservative Christian groups with the exception of what has been known as "Plus 2" referring to the Pentecostal beliefs in 1) divine healing and 2) Spirit Baptism with speaking in tongues.

The AG is affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Older AG leaders felt this joining with non-Pentecostal Christians was a mistake. In the early decades, AG clergy took pride in their Full Gospel message, which set them apart from other Christians who did not believe in present day miracles and spiritual gifts (e.g., speaking in tongues, prophecy) described in the New Testament book of Acts and 1 Corinthians. The spiritual experiences of the early 1900s gave birth to American Pentecostalism. During the 1960s and 1970s, a charismatic wave swept across the U.S. and enlivened Christians in Catholic and many Protestant congregations. Since those years, Pentecostals have blended with Evangelicals. Beliefs in an active supernatural realm became commonplace. Many Christians sang enthusiastic worship songs. And they prayed to God to act in their personal lives as if God were a personal friend.

Behavioral expectations are rather strict even for American Christians. Just looking at their list of "Position Papers" offers a sense of what social and moral issues are important to the fellowship (e.g., abstinence from alcohol, divorce, gambling, homosexuality, remarriage).

Women, AG, and Pentecostals
Interestingly, the AG draws upon the Bible and AG history to show how God has blessed the "public ministry of women." One Pentecostal preacher widely known outside of the Pentecostal movement is Aimee Semple McPherson. In 2013, the lead university (Evangel University) hired their first female president, Dr. Carol Taylor. For a recent essay on men and women in the AG, see the 2014 article by Dr. Joy Qualls and notice her references.

Sociological Study of AG USA
Sociologist Margaret Poloma has studied the AG using survey and interview methods. You can find a summary of her findings in a 2010 book on the AG published with colleague John C. Green. They surveyed pastors and members of select congregations. Most pastors (86%) reported speaking in tongues on a weekly basis. They commonly prayed for healing (90%) and gave an altar call for salvation (92%). They endorsed official beliefs at a high rate of agreement-- 85% believe spirit baptism requires speaking in tongues. The AG has long been strict about social behavior. Percentages agreeing or strongly agreeing with traditional prohibitions are (See tables in the Appendix):

     No dancing 80%
     No gambling 99%
     No movies 51%

Data about congregational beliefs and practices are also part of the survey and summarized throughout the book. The view that the Bible is the Word of God and true "word for word" is highly endorsed (96%). A core belief in Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation was also highly rated at 96%. The requirement of speaking in tongues as key to being baptized with the spirit was not endorsed by 65% of the sample (p. 152).

[A few years ago, a medical study on speaking in tongues garnered much press.]

An interesting question tapped beliefs about the role of faith in solving life problems. About 50% disagreed and 18% had no opinion in response to: "if enough people were brought to Christ, social ills will take care of themselves." (p. 152)

Ethnic Diversity and Pentecostals
Pentecostals look back to the early 1900s and find Blacks and Whites worshiping together. However, the early integration did not last long. See the chapters in Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration by Renea Brathwaite and Lois Olena about the color barrier in the USA and the chapter by Johan Mostert and Mervin van der Spuy on the problem in South Africa. Relations among people of diverse ethnic heritage has improved considerably in recent decades. Adding to ethnic diversity has been the considerable growth of renewalist groups among people of Hispanic and Asian cultures.

Global research
Pew reported results from a survey of 10 countries in 2006. Their data indicated pentecostalism and charismatic movements represented about 25% of the world's Christians. Pew uses renewalist as a term for pentecostal and charismatic groups. And they found four countries where these groups were near or greater than half the population (%): Brazil (49), Guatemala (60), Kenya (56), Philippines (44).

Research sources
Articles about the beliefs and behavior of renewalist groups can be found in various behavioral science journals.

The Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS) includes behavioral science research presentations at their annual meetings. And they publish a journal, Pneuma.

An online journal not affiliated with SPS is also easily available.

An Encyclopedia of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity can be found at Routledge

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014


How are children raised in religious homes different from those raised in secular homes?

A friend of mine once told me he warned his son about declaring himself to be an atheist on the internet. My friend was raised in a Christian home but gave it up along the way. Now he is an atheist
but kept it quiet. Being an atheist has career and personal costs in the U.S. But atheists and agnostics have become better known in recent years. Still, my friend kept his silence whilst his son braved whatever discrimination might come his way. Atheistic and theistic worldviews can be quite different and in conflict.

A substantial percentage of U.S. children are exposed to the Christianity at home, in church, and in schools. They learn Bible stories. And they read fictional stories –both secular and religious. The Bible contains many stories that delight children when illustrated in pictures and movies. But the stories contain fantastic events not seen in daily life.

Kathleen Corriveau, Eva Chen and Paul Harris recently published two studies in Cognitive Science which looked at how U.S. children (age 5-6) from religious and nonreligious backgrounds rendered judgments about fact and fiction in stories. Here’s some background.

Can children tell the difference between fact and fiction?

Previous research suggests that children use information in stories to discover if the lead character is real or make-believe. Young children recognize magical and implausible components in a story. They know real people don’t have superpowers, animals do not talk, and magic wands don’t change things. But how might children raised in religious homes respond to Bible stories containing miracles?

Miracle stories may be defined as those that violate known scientific laws. So if children can tell the difference between real stories with natural events and those with supernatural events we would expect young children to consider the miraculous Bible stories to be fictional.

But research suggests that children believe adults when adults tell them an ordinarily impossible event really had occurred. Research by Woolley and Cox (2007) and Vaden and Woolley (2011) offer support for the idea that children are more likely to view religious stories as real even when they contain events that would not ordinarily occur. Barrett (2012) opines that children have a “natural credulity” favoring belief in beings with special powers.

Two Studies
In the first study, religious and nonreligious stories were presented to children who had a religious background and to children who did not have a religious background. All of the children considered the protagonists in the realistic stories to be real. But when the children were asked to decide if the protagonists in religious stories were real or pretend, there was a significant difference. The religious children judged the protagonists to be real but those from secular backgrounds considered the protagonists to be pretend.

In the second study, religious children and secular children were asked to make judgments about the protagonists- were they real or pretend? Here’s what the scientists reported:
In Study 2, we asked how secular and religious children would respond to fantastical
stories in which the impossible event (a) was or was not taken from the Bible and (b) did
or did not include a reference to magic. Across all four story types, secular children were
more likely than religious children to categorize the protagonist as pretend.

There researchers had also studied the justifications children gave for their judgments about real or pretend characters. As expected, the secular children made little reference to God’s power or another religious-based justification for what happened.

The authors were careful to establish that the children could identify familiar characters as real (e.g., George Washington) or pretend (e.g., Snow White).
There are no perfect studies. The authors disclosed limitations and considered different explanations for their findings. In psychological science, as in other scientific investigations, replication is important. Additional studies by different scientists with different samples and variations in materials can make a difference.

It appears possible that some 5 and 6 year old children had developed a worldview that is either accepting of biblical narratives as true even when stories contain elements that do not normally occur. In contrast, some secular children have a secular worldview—a perspective that is skeptical of religious stories. And when it comes to justifying decisions, the religious and secular children offered different explanations—one religious the other secular.

In my previous post I referred to a Harris Poll and some of the supernatural beliefs of American adults. In addition to the Christian beliefs I commented on last week, the pollsters also found:
42% believe in ghosts

36% believe in UFOs
29% believe in astrology
26% believe in witches
24% believe they were once another person (reincarnation)

Although the above percentages are low compared to the entire sample, they still represent substantial numbers of people in the U.S. population. All of us who live in the U.S. likely know someone holding these unscientific beliefs even if we do not hold those beliefs ourselves. And these adults likely pass along their beliefs to their children who are developing a worldview.

Most scientists search for natural causes of events. Vaccinations, medications, and surgeries target causes of disease. And significant progress has been made in recent decades. Psychological scientists focus on identifying therapies that relieve the troubling symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD and other debilitating mental conditions. Scientific approaches do not invoke supernatural causes.

It is not surprising to find a gap between scientific and religious worldviews when it comes to causation. That same Harris Poll I mentioned reported that 36% of Americans believe in creationism despite some 150 years of evidence for evolution. Some Christians adopt theistic evolution in which God has a role in the evolutionary process. Obviously, many Christians do not accept evolutionary explanations. Perhaps it hits too close to home? How does one integrate a story of God making two humans and a story of a long evolutionary process?

The progress in medicine has been demonstrable enough that even among Christians who believe in healing miracles, few will ignore a physician’s recommendation. In my lifetime, prayers have changed to integrate faith in divine healing and medicine. Although many continue to pray that God will heal them or their loved ones, People often pray exclusively or simultaneously for God to guide physicians.

The progress in psychology has been slower. Christian mental health clinicians have been on the defensive for years. It’s hard to know how many people reject psychological explanations rather than religious explanations for mental illnesses. Many clinicians have spent many hours in writing and speaking about how Christian beliefs and psychological science can be integrated.

Change is slow. Over the centuries, religious leaders have gradually accepted more scientific explanations about natural events. And some events that happen in bodies like diseases. Even so, disputes rage over climate, mental processes, and relationships.

Scientists tell different stories about the world than do religious persons. Scientists disagree about which version of a scientific story is true but they agree on methodology and the importance of replication. According to Pew Research, about 33% of scientists believe in God (2009). And 41% reported they do not believe in God or a higher power-- only 4% of Americans shared that view.

Religious people disagree about different interpretations of stories in sacred texts like the Bible. And they disagree about the right way to interpret those texts. Some readily embrace metaphors and find inspiration in stories that offer a moral message. Others relish in the miracles of talking animals, plagues, walls of water, and many more.

Children view the world differently too.  Teachers and parents help children learn the difference between natural causes and supernatural causes. And adults likely help children learn what is real and what is pretend.

Do you think it makes a difference how you read and interpret stories for children?

And what about adults?

Does the interpretation of religious stories make a worldview of a difference in daily life?

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