Over the past hundred years, social scientists have tended to take one of three approaches with respect to the topic of religion. Approach 1 typically pathologizes and intellectually scorns religious beliefs, practices, and faith communities, although there are now hundreds of empirical studies that link religious involvement with increased mental health, relational health, physical health, and longevity.1 Approach 2 politely ignores, minimizes, or marginalizes religion.2 Approach 3 engages in actively studying religion but typically with a cold, arms-length, agnostic-like feel. For nearly thirty years, sociologist Vern Bengtson, the author of Families and Faith,3 practiced this third approach.
As Bengtson autobiographically recounts in the book's preface, "I was to become the weak link in [the] chain that had connected generations through faith" (viii). This lived experience brought pain and tension to his family relationships and to his faithful parents. Decades passed, as did his parents. Then, Bengtson reveals to his readers, "On Easter Sunday three years ago, I wandered into a church service. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by the music and beauty, and bowled over by recollections and revelations—utterly 'surprised by joy,' as C. S. Lewis described his own later-life religious experience. I came back. So these days I'm in church every Sunday, singing away in the choir" (xi). Bengtson now identifies as a returned prodigal, thereby punching his membership card with a group of social scientists employing Approach 4, which involves researching the data while actively engaging in religious belief, practice, and community. The group taking this approach is very small, due in part to the academy's deeply rooted skepticism of the devout who research the merits of religion.