Bigger Church = Less Engaged Parishioners

The larger the church, the less likely its members will attend weekly services, a new Duke University study finds.

Joel Osteen's stadium-sized Lakewood Church. That's him on the jumbotron.

Joel Osteen’s stadium-sized Lakewood Church. If you skipped a service like this, would anybody notice?

“People have an increasing detachment from religious organizations, and, somewhat counter intuitively, mega-churches are a reflection of that,” said David Eagle, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke’s Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research.

“These churches are really large – with more than 2,000 people in attendance. By nature they are more anonymous places – your comings and goings aren’t noticed from week to week and you may not face the same encouragement — or pressure — to attend as in a smaller church,” Eagle said.

The study has just appeared in Socius – a journal of the American Sociological Association.

Across the religious spectrum, Eagle’s study found a reverse correlation between church size and attendance of its members. For example: about 40 percent of members of white, mainline Protestant churches with a membership of 50 people attended services each week. But at a far larger white, mainline Protestant church of 10,000 members, just about 25 percent attend weekly services.

Probability that a person will attend church and church size, controlling for age, gender, and class (shaded regions indicate the range of statistically possible values)

From the study: probability that a person will attend church and church size, controlling for age, gender, and class (shaded regions indicate the range of statistically possible values)

Small, black Protestant churches of 50 members reported a 50 percent rate of weekly attendance, the study found. But at a far larger church of 10,000 members, just 40 percent of members attended weekly.

There are other factors at work as well, Eagle said. Families with little free time are more apt to attend large churches where they can pick and choose their involvements without feeling obligated to take a leadership role, he said.

Eagle’s study, which examines mainline Protestant, black Protestant, evangelical and Roman Catholic churches with as few as 20 members and as many as 25,000, analyzes data from the U.S. General Social Survey and the National Congregations Study, the latter led by Mark Chaves, a Duke professor of sociology, religion and divinity.

During political election cycles, many wonder about the political influence that megachurch pastors might exercise from the pulpit.  But those pastors may struggle to reach their members, given the tendency for attendees of those larger churches to attend only sporadically. And in larger churches clergy often shy away from expressing extreme political stands from the pulpit, Eagle said.

“If you have 10,000 people in your pews, it’s less likely that everyone is of one political persuasion.”

Ferreri_100Guest post by Eric Ferreri, News and Communications

What Came Before the Big Bang?

The Big Bang Theory: Origins of the universe.

Students and faculty gathered in the Physics building over coffee last Friday to understand the theory and mathematics behind a fundamental question: how did our universe start and what came before it?

Cosmologist and theoretical physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton, associate professor at UNC, is a proponent of the idea that our universe is one of many.

Cosmologist and theoretical physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton, associate professor at UNC, is a proponent of the idea that our universe is one of many.

Laura Mersini-Houghton, associate professor of theoretical physics and cosmology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has appeared on various TV and radio stations to discuss her theories on black holes and the origins of the universe.

With the rise of technology in the twentieth century, we now know more about the Big Bang and the dark energy that makes up approximately 70 percent of the universe. With the expansion of universe, all other matter — everything we have observed on Earth and through instruments — will dilute, while dark energy, which has constant density, will expand, thereby “pushing the universe apart.”

Expansion of the universe due to dark energy.

What has bothered scientists since the early 1970’s are the questions: what exactly selected the initial conditions of the universe? What determined the arrow of time? Why did we have to start with these very special conditions?

What brings these issues to the forefront of research today is that fact that dark energy will be the only thing remaining in the present timeline of our universe. In other words, we are going towards another big bang explosion. In order to predict how the future of the universe will evolve, we must first understand the mystery behind dark energy.

Dr. Mersini-Houghton says that the chances of a Big Bang happening by chance are 1 / 10^{10^123}, which is infinitely impossible. What selected this initial condition?

Illustration of the string theory landscape of multiple universes.

She proposes wave functions. When the energy of each wave function is at a tipping point, a new big bang occurs and with it another universe is created. With the support of the string theory, using one-dimensional strings in place of the particles of quantum physics, we calculate a landscape of 10^500 possible universes. The hypothesis that there exist other universes then raises the question: why did we start with this universe? Our universe is no longer at the center of the Cosmos as we previously believed; rather it is a humble member in a vastness.

Even if there are multiple universes, their entanglement with us is so tiny that they are nearly impossible to detect. However, the Planck satellite has found concrete scientific evidence of changes in energy due to other universes. According to Dr. Mersini-Houghton, atypical observations made about galaxies moving in the wrong direction and the unexplained “Cold Spot” in the cosmic microwave background are effects are due to the presence of neighboring universes.

In short, nature is a lot more complicated than we think it is, and simply looking at it and simplifying the problem to solely our world will not help us understand what is truly happening. To address the problem of our origins, perhaps we need to extend our paradigm of space-time and look for observational tests of a multiverse framework.

Stephen Hawking’s take on parallel universes in an interview.


Learn more about Mersini-Houghton’s multiverse theory and her latest research on Hawking radiation and black holes. To view a list of her talks, visit her webpage or send her an email at

By Anika Radiya-Dixit.






Making Sense of Noise: Stephen Lisberger

Imagine catching a ball thrown at you out of mid-air. Your response seems almost instinctive, like a reflex. However, this seemingly simple movement contains complex components: one must judge the ball’s arc to decide where it will intersect a particular height, and how fast one must move his hand to catch the accelerating ball.

This calculation requires an entire concert of neural signals, firing in a manner so precise that it produces an accurate estimate of the speed and direction of the ball’s trajectory. Add to this complicated model the fact that each individual neuron produces a certain amount of noise — that is, across various trials, the same neurons produce different firing responses to the same stimuli. These multiple layers of convolution would frustrate most, but Dr. Stephen Lisberger thrives upon it.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.47.43 PMLisberger, the Chair of Neurobiology at Duke School of Medicine, emphasizes that while a single noisy neuron cannot produce an accurate estimate of speed and direction, the key lies in populations of neurons. On January 25, Lisberger presented his research to a diverse crowd of Duke scientists.

Lisberger and his team have performed multiple trials in which a monkey tracked a visual stimulus with his eye, thus activating certain neurons. They found that the noise persisted even in neural populations.

Lisberger, rather than being discouraged, turns this noise into an asset. He reasons that variation is something which the brain must handle; therefore, he can use variation to learn about the brain.

When a monkey follows a visual stimulus with his eye, he integrates the sensory system with a motor region of the brain called MT. Lisberger isolated the source of the noise to the sensory system, rather than MT. He found that other movements originating from MT did not display the same noise; thus, the noise in eye tracking must have come from the sensory system.

The noise from the sensory system propagates down to MT, and Lisberger follows in his analysis.

One of his colleagues proposed that the random noise over a large population of neurons should cancel itself out. Lisberger contradicts this idea, noting that the variation is correlated among neurons in MT. Variations in pairs of neurons fluctuate up and down together. Thus, some of the “noise” is actually signal. This shared noise is transmitted through the circuit, while independent noise averages itself away.

Ultimately, Lisberger models neural responses over multiple trials to statistically estimate the direction and speed indicated by a particular response. The brain though, has not the luxury of simultaneously integrating and analyzing such large pools of data in its fraction-of-a-second estimate. Instead, the brain makes do with what it has, which, as Lisberger points out, is enough.

By Olivia Zhu  professionalpicture

A New Partnership with IIT in India

On January 5, just a year after President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to deepen engagement between the United States and India, a group of Duke colleagues and I found ourselves on the brand new campus of IIT Gandhinagar, in Gujarat, India.

Carin Jain IIT

Duke Vice Provost for Research Larry Carin, left, tours the IIT Gandhinagar campus with Director Sudhir Jain.

We were part of an agreement between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to provide technical support for the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT).

Our van was met by Sudhir Jain, the exuberant director of this young institution, who was thrilled to welcome us to the university and show us labs, offices and classrooms that will soon be bustling with activity.

Although the campus is partially occupied and remains under construction – with many students and offices still housed at a temporary campus a few miles away – all of us who work at Duke are lately accustomed to the sights and sounds of campus construction, and barely noticed the work taking place all around us.

We quickly heard from Jain that Gandhinagar is a new type of IIT, “a technical institute with a twist,” seeking to deliver outstanding technical education within a larger educational framework that emphasizes civic engagement and personal growth and development.

Our week began with a formal opening session, during which representatives of India’s MHRD; Kathryn Stevens, Duke ’92, acting mission chief for USAID India; Larry Carin, Duke’s vice provost for research, and Jain all shared their visions and expectations for Duke’s collaboration with IIT Gandhinagar.

The full group of IIT Gandhinagar leadership and the visiting Duke, RTI delegation.

The full group of IIT Gandhinagar leadership and the visiting Duke, RTI, and USAID delegation.

And then we were off and running for four full days of presentations and workshops.

Duke faculty members Mike Bergin (civil & environmental engineering), Krishnendu Chakrabarty and Kishor Trivedi (electrical & computer engineering) and Debmalya Panigrahi and Sudeepa Roy (computer science) discussed their own research initiatives and explored opportunities for collaboration with IIT researchers, and provided peer coaching and review sessions for IIT Gandhinagar faculty.

In parallel sessions, Larry and Marnie Rhoads, Duke’s director of faculty research and mentoring, worked with IIT Gandhinagar colleagues to review the Institute’s research operations and faculty hiring and review practices.

Minnie Glymph, executive director of communications and marketing at the Pratt School of Engineering, and I shared best practices in global higher ed marketing and communications with our counterparts in Gandhinagar, and spent several days working with them to review their existing activities and publications and begin developing a new strategic communications plan.

And just like that, four days passed in a blink and it was time for us to return to the U.S.

Luckily, a late-evening departure allowed Larry, Minnie and me time to visit the site of “A Better Toilet,” where Duke and RTI International researchers are working to address common sanitation needs in Ahmedabad. (See related post about toilets.)

Guest Post from Laura Brinn, Duke Global CommunicationsLaura Brinn

Checking Out a Next-Generation Toilet

(Second in a series from a recent Duke visit to IIT Gandhinagar.)

“That just proves women really do always go to the restroom in pairs!” our tour guides chuckled as my colleague Minnie Glymph and I paused for this photo.

Laura Brinn, left, of Duke Global Communications, and Minnie Glymph of the Pratt School of Engineering lacking privacy.

Laura Brinn, left, of Duke Global Communications, and Minnie Glymph of the Pratt School of Engineering lacking privacy.

Jokes aside, their comment had some important truth to it. We were not where we can usually be found, on campus in Durham, where clean water and safe restrooms are abundant.

Instead we were in Ahmedabad, India, where our hosts told us that 25% of the estimated 7.3 million people living in the city’s slums do not have regular access to running water and restroom facilities, even at school or work. In areas where communal toilets are available, people may  have to wait in line for 15-20 minutes, as up to 2,000 residents share eight restroom stalls. And, some facilities simply aren’t safe spaces for women and girls. With no other options, many resort to relieving themselves in the open.

The lack of sanitary methods for waste disposal leads to public health problems, including diarrheal disease, which claims a child’s life every three to four minutes in India. These conditions are also linked to high workplace absenteeism rates due to illness and an estimated 15-25% middle school dropout rate (depending on the region) for girls who have reached menstruation and do not have access to private and clean restroom facilities.

The Duke-designed demonstration toilet in Ahmedabad, India.

The RTI- and Duke-designed demonstration toilet in Ahmedabad, India.

The restroom that served as our photo backdrop is an experimental toilet created by researchers at RTI International, Duke and Colorado State University, one of 16 teams funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Reinvent the Toilet Challenge to address sanitation needs on a global scale. (Duke has two funded projects, the Ahmedabad model led by electrical engineering professor Jeff Glass and another system created by civil & environmental engineering professor Marc Deshusses.)

Although Minnie and I visited this toilet where it was developed on a modern university campus in a lush and leafy section of Ahmedabad, restrooms like this one could soon become a common site in Ahmedabad’s slums, as its creators begin testing in real-world situations to help them understand user preferences and potential barriers to adoption.

The challenge of developing a low-cost, low-maintenance toilet that can be widely deployed is significant, requiring expertise in fields such as engineering, disinfection, human behavior, manufacturing and social marketing to make sure the community feels comfortable using the facility.

Brian Stoner of RTI and Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering hosted our visit with his RTI colleague Myles Elledge, and explained that the collaborative effort has brought together not only RTI researchers, but also Duke engineering faculty, Colorado State University combustion experts, local Indian engineering firms and a major Indian women’s union.

Students in Duke’s Master of Engineering Management program have also contributed design engineering work, developing business models for deploying the toilet in India. The current targeted cost for the self-contained system is $2,500 for a unit serving 30-50 users per day, and the project leaders hope to start testing it in additional field locations by fall 2016.

Although the health benefits of improved sanitation are clear, Stoner and Elledge emphasized that improving safety and dignity are also important outcomes for this work. With much of the engineering work now behind them, they are anxious to better understand the human factors that will determine the toilet’s ultimate success or failure.

For more information about this project and the team behind it, visit

Laura BrinnGuest Post from Laura Brinn, Duke Global Communications

2016 Going on 2030: The Madagascar Winter Forum

For two and a half cold days in January, 91 Duke students and I had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in Malagasy culture—without the warmth of its sub-tropical climate.

We were participants in Duke’s 2016 Winter Forum:  ‘Madagascar 2030: Sustainable Development Innovation Challenge’. The goal was to design solutions to help the country meet its Sustainable Development goals by the year 2030.

Winning team Mamboly

Winning team Mamboly

After being divided into teams of four or five, we were all given a task to solve through the creation of a social venture. The forum was steeped in the spirit of entrepreneurship, with lessons and guidance being given by Duke faculty members, notably Deb Johnson and Matthew Nash from the I&E Center, and social entrepreneurs in Madagascar.

The forum began with a trip to the Duke Lemur Center, followed by lectures about Madagascar at Fuqua School of Business from faculty and guest speakers.

After spending a day learning about the island nation’s wonderful history and biodiversity, as well as its challenges, we were ready to work on our pitch. Each team was given about 36 hours to help solve one of the country’s most pressing problems: poverty, food insecurity, environment, and health.

Team YOgLO presenting their pitch for locust harvesting as fare for food-insecure regions.

Team YOgLO presenting their pitch for locust harvesting as fare for food-insecure regions.

So my team and I had a day and a half to help solve hunger in Madagascar.

Some hours and many headaches later, we created a model of a scalable non-profit social venture using innovative aquaponic farming technology. And, after overcoming a disaster featuring spilled orange juice, a laptop, and unsaved changes, we were ready to pitch.

I was blown away by the wide range of creative solutions that were offered by my peers. From an agricultural research framework, to a locust-farming business, each team made an effective argument for how they could help mitigate food insecurity in Madagascar.

Team Mamboly, won with a pitch for a scholarship program in sustainable agricultur. Team Medex, was the people’s choice for their proposal to use drones to deliver much-needed medicines to isolated communities.

One of my favorite takeaways from the forum.

One of my favorite takeaways from the forum.

The forum taught me the importance of research in entrepreneurship, social and otherwise (and I’m not just saying that because I happen to write for the Duke Research Blog). Most of the time we spent on our pitch was gathering information about food insecurity in southwest Madagascar and how our idea can be designed with the local area in mind.

I also learned that well-meaning ventures often fail because the do-gooder didn’t use human-centered design in their product or service, or didn’t do enough research into the current competition, the culture of the area, or how they might scale their product.

My teammate Elena Lie “learned to never leave drinks close to my laptop, to always save presentations on the cloud, and to always keep calm when the unexpected things happen.” And William Ding “learned a lot about Madagascar and the issues it faces from experts on the field, both in-person and over Skype.”

Until next year.

2015-09-03 17.36.37 Post by Devin Nieusma, Duke 2019

Pace of Aging Story Makes Top Ten

A study led by Center for Child and Family faculty fellows Daniel Belsky and Terrie Moffitt  which found that some people grow old significantly faster than others, was named the No. 4 news story of 2015 by Science News.

The paper, published the week of July 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, compared a panel of 18 biological measures that may be combined to determine whether people are aging faster or slower than their peers.

Dan Belsky

Dan Belsky

The data comes from the Dunedin Study, a landmark longitudinal study that has tracked more than a thousand people born in the same town between 1972-73. Health measures like blood pressure and liver function have been taken regularly, along with interviews and other assessments.

“We set out to measure aging in these relatively young people,” said first author Belsky, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine. “Most studies of aging look at seniors, but if we want to be able to prevent age-related disease, we’re going to have to start studying aging in young people.”

Belsky said the progress of aging shows in human organs just as it does in eyes, joints and hair, but sooner. So, as part of their regular reassessment of the study population at age 38 in 2011, the team measured the functions of kidneys, liver, lungs, metabolic and immune systems. They also measured HDL cholesterol, cardiorespiratory fitness and the length of the telomeres—protective caps at the end of chromosomes that have been found to shorten with age.

Based on a subset of these biomarkers, the research team set a “biological age” for each participant, which ranged from under 30 to nearly 60 in the 38-year-olds.

According to Science News, “The finding tapped into a mystery that has long captivated scientists and the public alike…”

Read more about it on Duke Today.

CFP Logo headerGuest Post from the Center for Child and Family Policy

Middle Schoolers Ask: What’s it Like to be a Scientist?

PostdocsWhen a group of local middle schoolers asked four Duke postdocs what it’s like to be a scientist, the answers they got surprised them.

For toxicologist Laura Maurer, it means finding out if the tiny silver particles used to keep socks and running shirts from getting smelly might be harmful to your health.

For physics researcher Andres Aragoneses, it means using lasers to stop hackers and make telecommunications more secure.

And for evolutionary anthropologist Noah Snyder-Mackler, it means handling a lot of monkey poop.

The end result is a series of short video interviews filmed and edited by 5th-8th graders in Durham, North Carolina. Read more about the project and the people behind it at, or watch the videos below: