Sorry cats: Dogs may be worshippers' best friends

Organized religion may be going to the dogs.

Worshippers who attend religious services frequently are the least likely to own a pet, according to a new study analyzing data on religion and pet ownership from the 2018 General Social Survey.

Overall, the estimated total number of pets owned for someone who never attends church services is 1.96, but that number declines to 1.38 for an individual who attends church multiple times per week, researchers from the University of Oklahoma and Eastern Illinois University found.

But not all animals are created equal when it comes to uncovering the truth about cats and dogs and religion.

Dog owners who love their pets show no less a devotion to regularly attending religious services.

Cats are a different story, however, researchers Samuel Perry and Ryan Burge reported in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

“We find a strong, negative association between worship attendance and cat ownership,” the researchers said.

There appears to be a hierarchy of social support for animals among the most devoted congregants, suggest Perry and Burge.

“To the extent that pet ownership is a partial substitute for human bonding and interaction, Americans more deeply embedded within a religious community may have less need (or time) for pets generally, and specifically more independent ‘roommate pets,’ like cats,” they write.

Pet ownership and religion

The questions on animals in the 2018 General Social Survey, along with questions measuring such factors as worship attendance and faith tradition, offered a rare opportunity to study how religious factors shape Americans’ likelihood of owning pets, and, “just as important,” which pets, Perry and Burge say.

The key findings include:

• Americans who attend religious services more often are less likely to own pets.
• There is no association between worship attendance and dog ownership.
• More frequent churchgoers are much less likely to own a cat.

There are several reasons why devout churchgoers may prefer dogs over cats, the researchers note.

Prior studies have indicated people who own dogs tend to be higher on extraversion and agreeableness. Dogs tend to promote more pro-social activities such as going out for walks and to parks.

Religious attenders who appreciate the social bonding and community they find in houses of worship also may be more predisposed to own dogs, animals that offer many of those same qualities.

Cat owners, in contrast, tend to be more socially isolated. They are more likely to score lower than dog owners on extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and higher on neuroticism, suggesting cat owners may be more introverted and comfortable alone, researchers suggest.

While dogs require regular attention and maintenance, many pets such as gerbils or birds provide little human interaction. Cats as pets may hit some owners’ sweet spot.

“Living with a cat,” Perry and Burge state, “may be the closest experience to living with a human roommate, who comes and goes as it pleases, and thus, may be a closer (albeit partial) substitute for those who would otherwise participate in social functions like church.”

Animal blessings

Perry and Burge said the study did not permit definitive conclusions about the relation among cats, dogs and religion.

They said future research can be helpful in measuring changes over time and have greater controls that may account for personality characteristics such as introversion/extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

As religious participation declines, the researchers state, it is possible that cat ownership in particular may rise “as Americans seek partial substitutes for the human interaction they might have otherwise had in church.”

But there are already signs that many religious groups are responding to and lifting up the value of pets, both for their role in what they believe as God’s creation and in response to science showing their ability to show genuine affection and provide social support that can reduce anxiety and depression and improve self-esteem.

In 2015, scores of prominent evangelical leaders launched a declarationa declarationa declaration resolving to confront “any and all cruelty against animals.” “Every Living Thing: An Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals” further declared all animals are deserving of compassion, and challenged the faithful to work for their protection and preservation.

Animal ministries were once largely limited to Catholic churches offering annual pet blessings around the Oct. 4 feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. These events have become a regular part of congregational life around the country, from liturgical services affirming pets as part of God’s creation to the development of pet food pantries and advocacy groups for animal rights.

There is even growing speculation, part of a theological discussion that has drawn in such luminaries as C.S. Lewis, on the afterlife of animals. One theory says, precisely because dogs are sinless, that they will be restored in a new creation.

And there are many of us who think dogs can teach us lessons about unconditional love.

Humorist Mark Twain puts it another way:

“Heaven is by favor; if it were by merit your dog would go in and you would stay out.”

Image by Adam Kuban, via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Image by Noël Zia Lee, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]
Image by Siena College, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

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