African pastors who may not endorse condom use are willing to hang outside of bars to police the sexual behavior of congregants. Well-educated women are choosing to convert to Islam. Contemporary Christian music is making inroads into the musical tastes of a broad range of teens.
Common sense says one size does not fit all in approaches to human relationships. This may be particularly true in the more subjective experiences of the transcendent.
Yet whether it is the emotionally charged subject of human sexuality or the culturally charged subject of women in Islam, there is a reluctance to give ground on our own social and political views to allow for different approaches and ways of understanding.
Three recent studies provide insights into diverse data on subjects from AIDS education in Africa to teens’ response to Christian music to the reasons U.S. women convert to Islam.
Some of the results may surprise you.
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Going beyond the pulpit
Religious groups in sub-Saharan Africa do not shy away from issues of HIV/AIDS in their communities.
A study of nearly 3,400 respondents and 187 leaders of religious congregations in Malawi found more than 70 percent of religious leaders address the issue of AIDS in regular services almost every week, sociologist Jenny Trinatapoli of Pennsylvania State University reports in the journal “Social Science & Medicine.“
Where they struggle, as do many clergy in the United States, is on the question of whether their religious teaching should go beyond advocating chastity in singleness and faithfulness in marriage to encourage condom use for those who cannot adhere to such standards.
The study found opposition to condom use was not monolithic, but less than three in 10 clergy reported ever advising members to use condoms. Many Malawi clergy described condoms as “promoters of sin,” but others are among officials who worry avoiding the subject increases the health risks of church members.
Overall, however, the variety of local responses that Trinatapoli describes as “creative pastoral care” does matter for the AIDS-related behavior of their members, she found.
Effective responses include personal challenges and even a willingness to hang out near trading centers or bars to keep watch to prevent members from being tempted into sex outside of marriage. In the study, 95 percent of religious leaders said they personally advised members to cease promiscuous behavior. More than half conducted “sexual surveillance” weekly.
Among the study’s findings, never-married young adults who regularly hear messages about AIDS from the pulpit are more likely to report being abstinent.
And married respondents who belonged to congregations where the religious leader “polices” members’ sexual behavior were more likely to report being faithful.
Since evidence shows most HIV transmission occurs within regular partnerships, Trinatapoli said, clergy interventions “may be a particularly critical method of curbing the spread of HIV … by promoting faithfulness to a single partner.”
Female converts to Islam cite moral, family values
The most frequently cited reason U.S. women convert to Islam is they consider the faith a good fit with their moral and family values.
The other top reasons for conversion in an online survey of 304 women converts were:
||Dissatisfaction with their former faith.
||An increased sense of identity.
||Belief that Islam fits well with their cultural views regarding gender.
In an article in the journal of Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Jeffrey Bjorck of Fuller Theological Seminary and Audrey Maslim of California Lutheran University said the results puncture popular stereotypes that would predict converts would be less-educated women motivated by outside factors such as marriage to a Muslim or the influences of friends.
Nearly 30 percent of the respondents reported having attended graduate school.
Another finding counter to the idea that Islam accords women second-class status: The percentage of respondents who said their conversion was motivated by Islam’s perspective on gender — 63 percent — was more than three times as high as the percentage of women who said marriage or best friends played a role in their conversion.
The findings suggest “that this choice to become Muslim is a mature decision, primarily involving active, intrinsically motivated reasons,” Bjorck and Maslim said.
Christian bands rising up religious teen’s charts
“I gotta make it to heaven, for goin’ through hell,” rapper 50 Cent sings throughout the song “Gotta Make it to Heaven.” “I gotta make it to heaven, I hope I make it to heaven.”
If his eternal future is uncertain, 50 Cent — and fellow rapper Eminem — have it made in the here and now with American teens. But they have increasing competition from an emerging group of Christian artists whose music is designed to lead others through the pearly gates.
Researchers Anne Kristen Hunter and Emily McKendry-Smith of the University of North Carolina found that contemporary Christian musicians have risen from modest beginnings to become a substantial influence for many religious teens.
The data mined from the National Study of Youth and Religion indicates that 11 percent of teens consider contemporary Christian artists among at least one of their three favorite musical groups. The majority female fans ranged across social class groups. While two-thirds come from conservative Protestant traditions, more than 11 percent were Catholics and 10 percent were from mainline Protestant groups.
Being a fan of contemporary Christian music also was related to the importance of faith, religious attendance and the likelihood of being and staying involved in church life.
Hunter said she was surprised by the popularity of Christian music and the diversity of its fans. “It really seems to have come from almost nothing in the late ‘80s and ‘90s,” she said.
They still have a long way to go.
Respondents listed 1,490 performers among their three favorite performers. 50 Cent was first with 271 nominations, followed by Eminem with 158. The two most popular Christian groups? Reliant K, with 38 big fans, and Switchfoot, with 28 nominations.
– David Briggs
David Briggs, a former national writer for The Associated Press who holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, is consistently honored among the Top 10 secular religion writers and reporters in North America.
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