Monday, March 3, 2008

Religion and surveys

Atheist Revolution recently reposted a press release from the Center for Inquiry on the findings of a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. One must always employ caution when reading interpretations of survey results.

Interpretations of survey results can vary widely, and pundits of all stripes have been jumping all over this survey. The Wall Street Journal opines that the survey shows

Half of Americans who grew up without any religious affiliation adopted one in adulthood. Clearly Americans are still convinced there is a such a thing as religious truth -- and it's worth their time to search for it. Sorry, Mr. Hitchens.
And atheists tend to report the results in a manner similar to that of the Center for Inquiry:
The most detailed estimates to date of Americans’ religious affiliations reports that a significant portion of U.S. citizens claim “none of the above,” placing the unaffiliated second only to Roman Catholics in number. Monday’s release of the 35,000-respondent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that 16.1 percent of Americans have no particular religion at all, while 23.9 percent identify themselves as Catholic. The next largest “belief group” is Evangelical Baptist at 10.8 percent. All other denominational groupings show in the single digits or less.

The study also shows the number of Americans who identify as atheist or agnostic has risen from 3.2 percent to 4 percent, while a “remarkably high” 44 percent have rejected the religion placed on them in childhood.

But who is right? First- the spin from the Center for Inquiry would have us believe that 16.1% of the American public are atheist. But that's not quite what the results really say.
Only 1.6% of respondents identified themselves as atheist- the rest don't care enough to put too much thought into it. Although religion isn't terribly important in their lives, that's not the same as claiming them for our side (much as I would like to).

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal is off-base when they infer that Americans are searching for religious truth, and eventually settle into a denomination that suits them like a comfortable pair of pajamas. Perhaps the fact that so many Americans have switched denominations or entire religions is due more to a latent dissatisfaction with religion as a whole? The paucity of intelligent discourse from the pulpit could be a factor? The inevitable conflicts between science and religion are encouraging more people to consider the evidence? Priests can no longer maintain their flocks with trite assurances that blind faith is virtuous, especially when the churches have taken up untenable positions against homosexuality, stem cell research, and progress in general.

The scariest part of the Op-Ed from the WSJ is this:
The Pew survey confirms what scholars have been saying for years about the winners and losers in this religious economy: Religions that demand the most of people are growing the fastest. The mainline Protestant churches -- with their less exclusionary views of salvation, looser rules for sexual conduct and sermons about social justice -- have lost membership, especially since the early 1990s. The more traditional evangelical churches keep growing.
In other words, it's not the more moderate, progressive churches that are growing in numbers, it is the more radical, fundamentalist churches. So perhaps my interpretation above is bollocks also and people are desperately searching for someone to tell them how to live their lives. Which is the saddest interpretation of all.

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