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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Religion in America

I just read the most fascinating article about shifting religious beliefs in America. I have to share! It's called The Myth of Unreligious America, by Rodney Stark at the WSJ. He's a sociologist, so he knows the science behind studies and polling and how far you can trust them. Here's part of the intro, so you know the premise:
In March at the Faith Angle Forum in South Beach, Fla., a paper by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life was presented bearing the title "The Decline of Institutional Religion." The presentation followed up on Pew research that gained wide publicity last fall indicating that the fastest-growing "religious" group in America is made up of those who say they have no religion.
According to Pew, 8% of Americans in 1990 gave their religious preference as "none." By 2007, that response had nearly doubled to 15%, and in 2012 the "no religion" response had climbed to 20%. Earlier this year, an analysis of the General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago tracked a similar trend, also citing the 20% no-religion response.
You may have heard those numbers when they were published last year. But you probably didn't hear this:
Consider: The proportion of Americans who claim to be atheists has not increased even slightly since Gallup first asked about belief in God in 1944. Back then, 4% said they did not believe in God, and 3% or 4% give that answer today.
Most of those Americans who are reported as having no religion are not unreligious but only unaffiliated, and some of them even attend church. They do not belong to any specific denomination, but probably most of them would agree that they are Christians, had they been directly asked that question.
And here's his sociologist conclusion reconciling reported studies with other indicators:
When I was a young sociologist at Berkeley's Survey Research Center, it was assumed that any survey that failed to interview at least 85% of those originally drawn into the sample was not to be trusted. Those who refused to take part in the survey or could not be reached were known to be different from those who did take part. Consequently, studies were expected to report their completion rates.
Today, even the most reputable studies seldom reach more than a third of those initially selected to be surveyed and, probably for that reason, completion rates are now rarely reported. The Pew Forum researchers are to be commended for reporting their actual completion rates, which by 2012 had fallen to 9%.
Given all of this, only one thing is really certain: Those who take part in any survey are not a random selection of the population. They also tend to be less educated and less affluent. Contrary to the common wisdom, research has long demonstrated that this demographic group is the one least likely to belong to a church.
As the less-affluent and less-educated have made up a bigger share of those surveyed, so has the number of those who report having no religion. That would help explain why, during this whole era of supposed decline, Baylor surveys find that the overall rate of membership in local religious congregations has remained stable at about 70%. Hard to write a headline about the lack of change. Sometimes, though, no news really is good news. 

Ahhhh. Something stable in America. These are my favorite kind of write-ups because they blend all my favorite topics: science, politics, and religion. Note that he picks on the media a little bit there, too. Broadly speaking, you can't trust media-reported scientific findings further than you can throw them: there's always more to it that they don't report or don't understand themselves. You can trust the experts further, but as always, I recommend cross-checking! Reading both sides helps you eliminate a lot of the hype and misunderstanding and even misinformation about any given topic.

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