04/18/17

Porn is a Public Health Hazard

© stevanovicigor |stockfresh.com

In a strange but true way, there was a study published in the Journal of Sex Research that found a correlation between some measures of religiosity and Google searchers for the term “porn.” In states with higher percentages of Evangelical Protestants, theists and biblical literalists—as well as states with higher church attendance rates—predict higher frequencies of searching for “porn.” Higher percentages of religiously unaffiliated persons in a state are related to lower frequencies of searching for porn. “Our findings support theories that more salient, traditional religious influences in a state may influence residents-whether religious or not-toward more covert sexual experiences.”

The above discussed study, “Unbuckling the Bible Belt: A State-Level Analysis of Religious Factors and Google Searches for Porn,” raised some questions when I saw graphics from the study on Twitter. Here is the link to the Twitter post. The linked study abstract and graphic on Twitter may be somewhat deceiving, as they plot and discuss searches done for the actual word “porn,” which could be done for a variety of reasons besides just wanting to view pornography. Yet the concern over the adverse social and spiritual effects of viewing pornography is a very real concern among a wider audience than just Evangelicals, theists and biblical literalists.

The state of Utah passed a resolution in March of 2016 declaring that pornography was a “public health hazard.” The resolution recognizes pornography leads to a broad spectrum of individual and public health concerns. It pointed to how young children are increasingly exposed to pornography, with the average age of exposure now 11 to 12 years of age. This early exposure leads to a multitude of personal and social problems, including: adolescents engaging in risky sexual behavior; an increase of sexual behavior at a younger age; depicting women and children as sex objects and rape and abuse as if they were harmless.

Writing for the Evangelical website The Gospel Coalition in May of 2016, Joe Carter described how pornography is increasingly being seen as a public health problem. Studies from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s concluded pornography had “no marked social effect.” But that was before the Internet. Since the late 1980s, there has been a wealth of social science research demonstrating the negative effect of porn on individuals, families, children and communities. Carter linked two meta-analyses that found sexual aggression among males and females was associated with the consumption of porn; and an overall positive association between pornography and attitudes supporting violence against women.

In “The Science of Pornography Addiction,” Gary Wilson described the effects of watching porn on the brain. He said that 25% of all Internet searches are for porn. It is the fourth most common reason people give for going online. In many ways, it acts like a drug. With prolonged exposure, it will lead to tolerance, loss of control and the compulsive desire to seek it out despite negative consequences. And there is “withdrawal” when it goes away. “The issue is that continued exposure can cause long term or even life-long neuroplastic change in the brain.”

There is a release of dopamine in our brains as a reward whenever we accomplish something, including sexual activity. “It alters and forms the brain cells to motivate certain actions. It rewires your brain.” The more time you spend doing a certain action, like viewing porn, the more dopamine is released—which then reinforces the behavior. As you begin to imagine the images away from the computer or while having sex, they become reinforced as well. “It’s a feedback loop that becomes harder to escape.”

The good news is this can be reversed or extinguished. Wilson said the brain is often described as “the use it or lose it system.” Like with muscles, the neural connections you use become stronger and want to be activated, while the ones you ignore become weakened. So the same neuroplastic system used to acquire these habits can be used to acquire healthier ones.

In another article on pornography and the brain, Joe Carter recommended “The Science of Pornography Addiction” video. He also summarized the thoughts of William Struther, an associated professor of psychology at Wheaton College. Commenting on the dopamine process described above, Struther said: “Pornography thus enslaves the viewer to an image, hijacking the biological response intended to bond a man to his wife and therefore inevitably loosening that bond.” Overstimulation of the reward circuitry, as when repeatedly viewing pornography, creates desensitization. “When dopamine receptors drop after too much stimulation, the brain doesn’t respond as much, and we feel less reward from pleasure.”

The psychological, behavioral, and emotional habits that form our sexual character will be based on the decisions we make. . . Whenever the sequence of arousal and response is activated, it forms a neurological memory that will influence future processing and response to sexual cues. As this pathway becomes activated and traveled, it becomes a preferred route—a mental journey—that is regularly trod. The consequences of this are far-reaching.

Internet porn is unique in a number of ways. First is its extreme novelty. Second, unlike food or drugs, there is almost no physical limit to its consumption. Third, a user can easily escalate to more novel “partners” and unusual genres. Fourth, unlike food or drugs, the brain’s natural aversion system is not activated. Like with drugs, the age users start using porn is a crucial factor. “A teen’s brain is at its peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity, making it highly vulnerable to addiction and rewiring.”

A nonprofit organization called Fight the New Drug is trying to raise awareness on the harmful effects of porn and get this information to a wider audience. They use science, facts and personal accounts to bring the issue out in the open and get people talking about it. The organization’s website said not only are we the first generation to face the issue of pornography at this intensity and scale, “we’re also the first generation with a scientific fact-based understanding of the harm pornography can do.”

Then there is Elizabeth Smart. On June 5, 2002 when she was 14, Elizabeth was awakened by a strange male voice saying that he had a knife to her neck. She was told to get up without making a sound and come with him or he would kill her family. She remained a captive by this man and his wife for nine months, where she was repeatedly raped by the man. Sometimes he brought her hardcore porn, which he looked at and forced her to look at. Then he acted out with her what they had seen. Here is a short video of Elizabeth telling her story.

Looking at pornography wasn’t enough for him. Having sex with his wife after he looked at pornography, it wasn’t enough for him. Then it led to him finally going out and kidnapping me. He just always wanted more.  I can’t say that he would not have gone out and kidnapped me if he had not looked at pornography. All I know is that pornography made my living hell worse.

The morning following her rescue, her mother gave her a piece of advice that changed her life. She told Elizabeth the best punishment she could give to the people that did those things to her was to be happy. Elizabeth went on to become an advocate for abuse prevention and an advocate against pornography. She married in 2012 and gave birth to a daughter in February of 2015.

P.S. Elizabeth Smart lived in Utah when she was abducted.

07/10/15

American Christianity is Evolving

© ribah | stockfresh.com

© ribah | stockfresh.com

The Pew Research Center recently released its new Religious Landscape study and it seems to have stimulated differing opinions on the status of Christianity in America. CNN reported that Millennials are leaving the church in droves. Ryan Bell, the former Seventh Day Adventist minister who took a year off (and counting) from belief in God, titled his article: “American Christians Scramble for Silver Lining in Pew Religion Poll.” But evangelicals like Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition and Ed Stetzer, a contributing editor for Christianity Today had a different take on the Pew Religious Landscape study.

Daniel Burke, the CNN Religion Editor highlighted the finding that the percentage of the Americans saying they were Christian dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.4% in 2014. This was attributed by the Pew Research Center to the fact that more millennials are saying they are not affiliated with any faith. Thirty-six percent of younger millennials (18-24) identified as unaffiliated as 34% of older millennials (25-33). Twenty-three percent of Gen Xers (34-49), 17% of Baby Boomers (50-68) and 11% of the Silent Generation (69-86) were reportedly unaffiliated.

Burke pointed to how almost every major branch of Christianity lost a significant number of members. Greg Smith, from Pew Research, was quoted as saying: “We’ve known that the religiously unaffiliated has been growing for decades . . . But the pace at which they’ve continued to grow is really astounding.” The declines were deepest among Catholics and mainline Protestants. Burke’s conclusion was that the older generations were not as effective in passing along their faith as their forebears were.

Ryan Bell simply concluded: “Americans are losing their religion.” He noted the surprising increase among nones (religiously unaffiliated) to 22.8% of the population. He cautioned that atheists who celebrated these results as a victory were being too enthusiastic. Of the 22.8%, 4.0% said they were agnostic (a 1.6% increase since 2007), 3.1% said they were atheist  (a 1.5% increase since 2007) and 15.8% said they were “nothing in particulars” (a 3.7% increase since 2007).

Several analyses of the Pew study have focused on the dramatic increase in the “unaffiliated” or “religious nones.” But look at what Pew Research means by “nones.” They are generally less religiously observant, but all nones are not nonbelievers. “In fact, many people who are unaffiliated with a religion believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people.” A better statement would seem to be that “Americans are losing their religious affiliation.” But this doesn’t appear to be happening with evangelicals. The Pew Research Center said:

The new survey indicates that churches in the evangelical Protestant tradition—including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America, other evangelical denominations and many nondenominational congregations—now have a total of about 62 million adult adherents. That is an increase of roughly 2 million since 2007, though once the margins of error are taken into account, it is possible that the number of evangelicals may have risen by as many as 5 million or remained essentially unchanged.

Bell didn’t seem to think much of the fact that there was only a minor decrease (-.9%) in the percentage of individuals saying they were evangelical, from 26.3% in 2007 to 25.4% in 2014.  He pointed to how 35% of childhood evangelicals left their faith as adults. But Bell neglected to say that 41% of evangelicals were converts from other faith groups. This meant evangelicals were the only Christian faith group that gained, rather than lost members as their children grew to adulthood. However, he was correct to say that most of the Catholics or mainline Protestants leaving their faith group are becoming unaffiliated and not evangelicals. Among adults with no religious affiliation, 28% are former Catholics and 21% are former mainline Protestants.

The unaffiliated religious group was the most fluid over time, with only 21% of individuals currently identifying as such being raised within that tradition, while 90% of Catholics were raised as Catholics. Mainline Protestants and evangelicals were in-between with 42% and 39% respectively having been raised in religious groups other than their current identification.

Joe Carter concentrated his response on what he saw as the important “takeaways” related to evangelicalism. He said claims that conservative forms of evangelicalism are rapidly declining because of pernicious sexism, religious intolerance and conservative politics don’t seem to be true. He wondered whether this new information would be enough to lead critics of evangelicalism to alter their conclusions. Among the important takeaways he pointed to were a few we’ve already touched on, namely: evangelical Protestants have increased slightly or remained essentially unchanged while mainline Protestants declined significantly. He also noted that 65% of adults raised as evangelicals still identify as evangelicals. But there were a couple of additional interesting facts about evangelicals to look at as well.

One of these was how racial and ethnic minorities now make up 24% of evangelicals. This was an increase of 5% since 2007, with most of that increase (4%) coming from Hispanics. Another finding is that more Americans who self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual say they are evangelical (13%) than mainline (11%), atheist (8%), or agnostic (9%). Only Catholics had more individuals (17%) who self-indentified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Among non-Christians, the four primary faith groups had very few individuals who self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual: Jewish (2%), Muslim (1%), Buddhist (2%), Hindu (1%).

As a quick aside, among individuals who self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, 41% said they were religiously unaffiliated—8% said they were atheist; 9% were agnostic; and 24% were nothing in particular.

Ed Stezer has written several articles about the Pew Research Center data, for Christianity Today and other media outlets, including USA Today, CNN and The Washington Post.  The link here for “Nominals to Nones” gives you access his other articles. Stezer made a distinction between three categories of Christians: cultural, congregational and convictional. He said the first two were nominal Christians who said they were Christian, but did not attend church services regularly or shape their lives around their faith convictions, as convictional Christians did. Cultural Christians were the least connected, calling themselves “Christian” because of heritage or culture. Congregational Christians had a connection to a local church, but rarely attended.

He said we see cultural and some congregational Christians now identifying themselves as “unaffiliated” or “nones.” Stezer supported this conclusion with a quote by Conrad Hackett, from Pew Research, “People with low levels of religious commitment are now more likely to indentify as religiously unaffiliated, whereas in earlier decades such people would have indentified as Christian, Jewish or as part of some other religious group.” In his CNN article, he looked at data from the General Social Survey (GSS) that suggested what we are seeing the death of is cultural and congregational Christians.

So, the big story is this: convictional Christians are remaining relatively steady with a slight decline. The nominals (cultural and congregational Christians) are often becoming the nones; and the sky is just not falling (unless you are a mainline Protestant).

His 3 key takeaways from the Pew Religious Landscape Survey were: convictional Christianity is rather steady; there have been significant shifts in American Christianity; and mainline Protestantism continues to hemorrhage. He said Christianity isn’t dying, but it is evolving. It’s becoming less nominal, more defined and more outside mainstream American culture. So we don’t need to run around saying, “The sky is falling!”

Christianity is losing, and will continue to lose, its home field advantage; no one can (or should) deny this. However, the numerical decline of self-identified American Christianity is more of a purifying bloodletting than it is an arrow to the heart of the church.