Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Faith Works 7-12-08
Jeff Gill

Statistically, It Just Doesn’t Add Up

The Pew Forum survey on the “US Religious Landscape” is jam-packed with stats and numbers, but in many ways it ends up being a commentary on Psalm 14 and James 2:19.

Go ahead, look ‘em up. We’ll be here when you get back.

Find the passages? Great. Anyhow, the point is that for all the detail in the study, the conclusions don’t always add up.

Two people can look at a set of survey numbers and come up with three interpretations, but there are some very interesting trends in the data, or rather, in how writers and reporters are reacting to the data. Let me sort and cherry pick and offer my own misreading and tendentious interpretation (and if you want the link to the big hunk o’ data, navigate over to the home page, and I’ll have the link with the story as posted at the “Notes From My Knapsack” blog).

A couple juxtapositions – 76% of Americans say there are “many ways” to heaven, and 34% say “every word is true” in the Bible. I think that tells me 10% of us would be really interesting to interview about how we reconcile those two statements.

8% of atheists are “absolutely certain” that God exists, and 10% of self-described atheists (“atheists”?) pray “at least weekly.” Oh, and 12% of atheists believe in Heaven, and 10% in, um, the other place. OK, fine – Hell. 10% of atheists. Is that the 10% I wanted to interview up above? (In this column, not up above in . . . oh, stop it.)

And I know it will sound like I’m piling on here, but these numbers just jump out at you – 9% of atheists say they are “skeptical of evolution.” Can there be an atheistic creationist?

Swinging across the spectrum, 13% of self-defined evangelicals don’t believe in a personal God. Really? 48% of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, a working majority (!) versus 45% who disagree (7% were waiting for the next Supreme Court opinion, apparently).

Which gets us closer to the problem with this 270+ page report on a survey of over 30,000 Americans. When the Catholics in this study were asked where they get their views of morality, 22% said primarily from religion, with 57% say it comes from “practical experience and common sense.” Only 9% of Catholics say religion is where they ground their political views – that may be bad news for both Obama and McCain.

There is clearly a sense that American ideals about individual freedom and autonomy trump all, even in matters of faith and doctrine. Except . . . in the survey questions, if you take the time to drill down in the data to where the data comes from, which are the questions people are reacting to, you find that the questions themselves leave no room for doctrine or structured belief to come up.

The first twenty-plus questions don’t mention religion at all; the word “Jesus” is never seen at any point in the survey. The question about Heaven is phrased “Do you think there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded?” Many Christians would say that description bears no resemblance to their beliefs about the world to come, and so do we answer “No?”

And how would you interpret that response?

Which is how you end up with a survey where 21% of atheists believe in God. They aren’t actually measuring anything about faith or beliefs, but about culturally conditioned attitudes toward religion. Their landscape is political and cultural, and I suspect respondents, getting the drift of what they were being asked about, did what Americans do so well – they politely shifted gears to give the answers that they use in public general contexts.

You can argue that there shouldn’t be “two sets” of beliefs (google Goerge Barna for one), but I’ve found there are very few Americans who keep their beliefs right out, oh, on their desk through the week. Most of us have a go-along get-along approach at work and in social life, and a slightly or even strongly structured faith stance at home and in church.

The Pew Forum didn’t get at this distinction at all, and actually built the survey to get the public attitudes only. Does it tell us much about what we do in a voting booth, let alone in Sunday worship? There’s a major survey coming up on Tuesday, Nov. 4.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he relaxes by reading survey data. Tell him something a bit more interesting at

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