New facts and hot stats from the social sciences

Many Americans, particularly those who preach on television, argue that the United States has forsaken the religious commitment of its forefathers for the easy pleasures of sin, sloth and televised professional sports.

Actually, many social scientists and historians argue that America has never been more church-going than it is right now. Our history books may be cluttered with images of pious Puritans gathering for the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first pot-luck social and the like. But most colonial Americans probably were more likely to be found in the local tavern on Saturday night than in church on Sunday, said Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington.

In 1776, only about 17 percent of the country were church members, compared to about 65 percent today, said Stark, who has tallied church membership as a percentage of the population over the past 250 years using church records and census figures.

Even in the populated cities and towns, colonial Americans were not particularly religious. "It's safe to say that most people walking around had some nebulous notion of God even though they had never been in a church and were just vaguely Christian -- nobody had ever instructed them."

Why didn't early Americans go to church? Part of the reason is that most of America even in the 18th century was still untamed frontier filled with untamed frontiersmen who preferred drinking and wenching to tithing and praying.

Women, churches and schools came later. Even by the first U.S. Census in 1790, men still significantly outnumbered women in the United States and its colonies, Stark reported in his book, "The Churching of America," which he wrote with Purdue sociologist Roger Finke.

Besides, congregations need clergy to lead them, and men of the cloth were in short supply in colonial America. What few there were left much to be desired: Many had fled from Europe or Scandinavia to escape debts, scandal or unhappy marriages. "Why else would you want to leave Norway or Germany?" Stark said. And once here, these scoundrels continued their dissolute ways. "The clergy was pretty notorious."

Actually, America today is one of the most church-going countries in the Western world. Only about 20 percent of the British are members of the Church of England, Stark reports. In Scandinavia, church membership is measured in the single digits.

In those countries, state and religion have merged -- much to the detriment of religion. In many European countries, the clergy are bureaucrats paid by the federal government, Stark said, and many citizens have precisely the same low regard for the state church that Newt Gingrich has, say, for the Department of Commerce.

The result, according to Stark: A dominant but stagnant state church that stifles the growth of other denominations. "It's like South America: Everybody's Catholic but nobody goes to church."

In contrast, Stark said, America is a veritable smorgasbord of religious denominations, and competition among these faiths for adherents keeps church membership here high and rising.

Church Membership In America Percentage of population that belongs to a church: 1776 17% 1850 34 1860 37 1870 35 1890 45 1906 51 1916 53 1926 56 1952 59 1980 62 1995 65* *Estimated. Source: "The Churching of America: 1776-1990" by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark and Gallup Organization data. Don't Call Me Raoul

What's in a first name? Quite a bit, particularly if the name is unusual or uncommon, say psychologists Nancy Karlin of the University of Northern Colorado and Paul Bell of Colorado State University.

"A person's first name has more than a chance influence on one's life course," they wrote in a recent issue of Psychological Reports. "Self-esteem, achievement in grade school and college and even emotional disturbance have been associated with a person's name."

To test the value of the right name, Bell and Karlin analyzed the first names of 1,476 psychology students and identified the four most common male names (James, Michael, Jeffrey and Scott) and the four least common names (Carl, Rodney, Harold and Darrell). Among women, Christine, Jennifer, Laura and Michelle led the list while Rose, Joanne, Grace and Alice finished at the bottom.

Then the researchers asked 79 men and women which of 20 personal traits (responsible, tolerant, etc.) they associated with these men's and women's names.

"Compared with less common names, more common ones were associated with more than twice as many {favorable} attributes," they reported.

"People like the familiar," Bell said. "The unfamiliar is seen as unusual and viewed with suspicion. Anecdotally, I know that some people who have unusual names say they wouldn't do to their children what their parents did to them." The Nose Knows

You can pretty much tell the sex of an individual simply by looking at his or her nose, though it's not the first place that we'd look.

In a recent study conducted at Lancaster University in Great Britain, 40 psychology students were asked to identify the sex of eight men and eight women by simply looking at photos of their nose -- the rest of their face and head was covered.

When viewed in profile, the test subjects were able to guess correctly the gender of men 85 percent of the time and women 60 percent of the time.

Were there any other nose clues to tip off test subjects? Absolutely not, reported researchers in the latest issue of the British journal Perception -- "none wore nose studs, or had prominent nasal hair."

The Unconventional Wiz is relieved to nose that.