Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lies and Statistics (part 2)

I thought it might be helpful to illustrate the information I gave in my last post in chart form to help bring some clarity to the situation. The first chart is the religious trends in the U.S. based on the ARIS. Keep in mind that Kevin Slater cherry-picked that data by comparing only the numbers from 1990 and 2008 for everybody except atheists (for which there was no number in 1990), leaving out the important figures from 2001.

As you can see from this first chart, the trend for Catholics and generic Christian churches has reversed since 2001 against the total population. While neither group has reached the same percentage of the population as in 1990, they are both trending that direction. By simply taking the percentage from 1990 and 2008, however, this important trend is entirely overlooked. Mainline churches, by contrast, have plummeted and are trending sharply downwards. As we’ll see in the second chart, this is true not only as a percentage of the adult population, but also in terms of raw numbers. Baptists continue to decline as a percentage of the population, though their numbers are still growing and the rate of decline as percentage of the population has slowed significantly. Those reporting no religion increased slightly as a percentage of the population from 2001 to 2008, but not at nearly as sharp a rate as in the 90s. The number of atheists rose slightly, though it’s worth noting that the rate of growth of atheists as a percentage of the population is actually about the same as the poll’s margin of error.

Looking at the second chart is perhaps more revealing, since it gives actual number of adherents rather than just percentage of the population. Slater claimed at one point that “attendance is down almost across the board.” This is just factually incorrect. Actually the only group which has lost in terms of number of adherents since 1990 is mainline Protestants. Every other group has grown with the most notable growth coming among Catholics and generic Christians. Generic Christians actually recovered from a decline in the 90s and exploded with growth in the seven year period between 2001 and 2008. If you’re wondering what a generic Christian is, it seems to be basically non-denominational Christian or Bible churches.

Why is all of this important? Well, first I think it’s important for believers to understand the times that we live in. It can be discouraging to think that the country is going to hell in a hand basket, and reading articles like the one by Kevin Slater might give the impression that we’re fighting a losing battle. But a closer examination actually gives the impression that what has been happening since 2001 looks more like a religious revival than any kind of a decline. Why isn’t anyone talking about this?

Another reason I think it’s important is to call attention to the kind of gerrymandering of information that often goes on in the media. As we’ve often seen in recent years, narratives are very important in the media in terms of how things are presented. A big part of the liberal, secular narrative is that religion is going to become less and less important to people and will experience a steady decline. A lot of people are waiting expectantly for this to happen in the U.S. the way it has supposedly happened in Europe. As a result, anything that gives the appearance of it happening here is reason for celebration among the liberal elites. But as the ARIS shows, whatever happened in the 90s is no longer happening.

Now it’s entirely possible that Christianity will decline significantly in the U.S. at some point in the future. What’s interesting to me is that the Christian worldview doesn’t depend on the number of Christians increasing – it only depends on the message of the Gospel being spread around the world. I believe that as that happens the number of Christians will increase, but the Bible also predicts that many will fall away. Secularism, on the other hand, really depends on the number of secular people (ie. atheists and agnostics) increasing. In fact, most secular thinkers expected this to happen a long time ago. The fact that it hasn’t happened and isn’t showing any signs of happening in most of the world (where religion is actually growing) is what has caused most sociologists to decide that secularization theory has been disproven. I believe this in itself demonstrates the inadequacy of the secular worldview. However, in the popular thinking of most secular liberals, secularization theory is just a fact that will eventually be empirically demonstrated. While it’s difficult to overcome the blind faith of secular liberals, it will be interesting to see at what point they decide that their worldview is in tatters.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lies and Statistics

I was interested to find an article recently about the state of religious belief and denominations in the U.S. based on the recently released American Religious Identification Survey, done in 2008. I was even more interested when I compared what the aforementioned article said and what the report actually revealed. It’s amazing how someone can selectively report facts which bolster their preconceived ideas and ignore the ones that don’t. The thrust of the article (and the title as well) by Kevin Slater of the SW Iowa news is that religion is taking a “backseat” in the minds of Americans and that many Americans are “losing their religion.” Mr. Slater uses the ARIS report to bolster this contention. But let’s do some “fact-checking” here, shall we?

Says Mr. Slater, “One of the most telling findings was the number of Americans who now claim to have no religion. That number has doubled in the last 18 years to its current total of 15 percent of Americans.” This is almost true, but also very misleading. The ARIS includes numbers from 1990, 2001, and 2008. In 1990 8.2 percent of the U.S. adult population reported no religious affiliation (the other categories included Catholic, other Christian, other religions, and didn’t know/refused). In 2001 the number of “nones” (no religious affiliation, not to be confused with “nuns”!) jumped to 14.2 percent. In 2008, it was 15.0 percent. So Mr. Slater’s claim that the number of “nones” has doubled is technically wrong; 8.2 percent to 15 percent is not double. But the growth of this group dramatically slowed between 2001 and 2008, recording a 0.8 percent increase of total population, compared to the 6 percent increase of the population between 1990 and 2001. It would be interesting to ask why the growth of this group has slowed so dramatically if one were actually interested in asking questions rather than simply pushing an agenda.

In a similar vein, Mr. Slater continues, “The percentage of Americans who define themselves as Christian has dropped from 86 percent in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008.” Again this is misleading because he omits the numbers from 2001. In 1990 the number of reported Christians was 86.2 percent of the population. In 2001 this had dramatically dropped to 76.7 percent. In 2008, the figure was 76.0 percent. Again it appears that what had been a marked downward trend of Christians slowed dramatically between 2001 and 2008. The decline of 9.5 percent of the population between 1990 and 2001 slowed to a drop of only 0.7 percent between 2001 and 2008. Something interesting is definitely happening here, but Slater seems oblivious to it.

Slater also says, “Attendance is down almost across the board, with Baptists falling from 19.3 to 15.8, and those of the Jewish faith down from 1.8 to 1.2 percent.” There is multiple weirdness in this statement. First, Slater says “attendance is down” giving the impression that he’s talking about sheer numbers (which is what “attendance” usually means). But then he refers again to percentages of the population, using Baptists and Jews as examples. Again, he’s missed some telling information and also done some more misleading. First, the percentage of Baptists among U.S. adults did drop from 19.3 percent to 15.8 percent between 1990 and 2008 as Slater says. But again, the bulk of that occurred between 1990 and 2001 when the percentages were 19.3 percent and 16.3 percent. From 2001 to 2008 the drop was only 0.5 percent compared to the 3 percent drop from 1990 to 2001. But the raw numbers increased between 2001 and 2008 from 33.8 million to 36.1 million (which was also higher than the figure of 33.9 million in 1990), so to say “attendance is down” seems rather like a false statement altogether. Slater puts a slight caveat at the end of his article, saying “Baptists, who constitute the largest non-Catholic Christian tradition, have increased their numbers by two million since 2001, but continue to decline as a proportion of the population.” This contradicts his statement that their “attendance” is down, and also fails to note that as a percentage of the population, they have declined but not at nearly such a rate as was seen between 1990-2001. Interestingly, the number of professing Jews showed more of a steady decline: 1.8 percent in 1990, 1.4 percent in 2001, and 1.2 percent in 2008.

Then Slater says, “meanwhile, the number of atheists, while still small, has nearly doubled from 900,000 to 1.6 million.” It’s interesting that rather than give the percentage of the population, Slater just gives the raw number of atheists when he’s only used percentages up until now. The percentages are 0.4 percent in 2001 and 0.7 percent in 2008, which Slater simply notes is “still small.” Well, yes. Less than three-quarters of one percent is indeed small. Perhaps “miniscule” would be a better term. But 1.6 million sounds much more impressive, doesn’t it? It’s also pretty generous to say that 900,000 to 1.6 million is “nearly double.” The ARIS combined the number of atheists and agnostics in a single category in 1990, so the number of atheists alone wasn’t measured that year.

In another caveat at the end of the article, Slater says “Only 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God).” This was a new question on the existence of God that ARIS included in 2008 that wasn’t asked in 1990 or 2001, so we can’t compare with previous years. Slater appears to have come up with his figure that 12 percent are atheist or agnostic by adding together these three answers to the question of whether God exists: “there is no such thing”: 2.3%, “there is no way to know”: 4.3%, and “I’m not sure”: 5.7%. It seems he wants to boost the number of atheists, though it is interesting that only 0.7 percent of people identified themselves as atheist while 2.3 percent said there’s no such thing as God. Possibly some atheists are shy about identifying themselves as such. Of course, Buddhists don’t believe in God, either, and neither do some other religious people who might not consider themselves atheists per se. It’s also interesting that at the end of his article he repeated the increase in the number of atheists, again claiming it had “almost doubled” from 900,000 to 1.6 million.

But more importantly, Slater left out two sizeable groups that have seen an increase since 2001, both in terms of raw numbers and in percentage of the total population: Catholics and “generic” Christians. The percentage of Catholics was 26.2 percent in 1990, declined to 24.5 percent in 2001, but then climbed back to 25.1 percent in 2008. The percentage is not back to 1990 levels, but it is growing, and in terms of numbers Catholics have grown from 46 million to 57.1 million between 1990 and 2008. Generic Christians, on the other hand, saw an even bigger spike between 2001 and 2008. In 1990 this group was 14.8 percent of the population, then dropped to 10.8 percent in 2001, and now has grown to 14.2 percent in 2008. In terms of numbers this is an increase from 25.9 million in 1990 to 32.4 million in 2008.

In one of the few things that Slater actually gets right with no misleading, he does note that most of the decline in Christian churches has been in mainline denominations. Mainline Protestants show a markedly different trend from the previous ones. There was a slight decline in percentage between 1990 and 2001 (from 18.7 percent to 17.2 percent) which still represented an increase in raw numbers. But between 2001 and 2008 mainlines churches dropped dramatically to 12.9 percent, losing over 6 million in raw numbers during that time from 35.7 million to 29.3 million. Observers of the contemporary religious scene will surmise that many of these former mainline Christians now attend generic Christian churches. This is undoubtedly the result of the increasing liberalism of mainline churches in the last decade, a trend which has been underway for some time and will no doubt continue even as their numbers dwindle.

There are several things that are interesting to me in all of this. It’s interesting to see the trends in religious belief in the U.S. It seems that there was a downward trend between 1990 and 2001 which has either leveled off or reversed itself. The total number of professing Christians in the U.S. now stands at about 76 percent of the adult population. Whatever else may be said, the U.S. is still a highly religious country and still stands as a stark exception to the supposed rule of secularization theory. It’s interesting that, while the number of atheists has grown slightly since 2001, the number of generic Christians and Catholics has grown more. Mainline Protestants meanwhile are dropping like a rock.

But the most interesting thing to me was the slant on all of these stats given by Kevin Slater. It’s plain that he had an agenda to push, namely that religion is on the decline and atheism is on the rise. A closer look, however, shows that this thesis is not supported by the data, at least not from the ARIS. If anything, the trend of the 90s which showed a marked decline has slowed and in some cases reversed itself in Christian churches with the exception of mainline Protestants. Likewise, the growth of people reporting no religious affiliation leveled off to only a slight uptick of less than one percent between 2001 and 2008. Anyone can cherry-pick a mountain of stats to support their pet theory. It appears that the theory Mr. Slater wants us to believe, however, is simply wrong.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Christian celebrities

I was quite disturbed recently to learn that the youth pastor of a certain high profile megachurch regularly charges a fee of $4500/day for speaking engagements. That includes travel days as well. So, for a single speaking engagement this unnamed youth pastor would charge $4500/day for three days (one day of travel each way plus the day of the engagement), as well as first-class airfare and two nights in a five-star hotel for him and his assistant. To say that I find this outrageous is a bit of an understatement. I didn't realize that things like this went on in the Christian world. But apparently this is the going rate for second-tier Christian celebrities like youth pastors. Some top-tier Christian speakers will charge $10,000/day.

I'm not saying that all big-name Christian ministers are like this, so I don't want to be the one to start any rumors about anybody in particular. There may well still be some big-name Christian speakers who still serve the Lord for a heavenly reward rather than an earthly one. I know there are a great many non-celebrity status pastors, missionaries, evangelists, and professors who simply want to serve the Lord often for very little in return.

What a contrast there is between our contemporary celebrity culture and the attitude of the apostle Paul. When Paul preached to the Corinthians he took pains to do it free of charge (1 Cor. 9:18). In his second letter to the Corinthians, he indicates that he received support from other churches so as not to be a burden to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 11:8). He also worked at his trade making tents during some of his time in Corinth (Acts 18:3). This is where the term “tentmaker”, referring to a bi-vocational Christian worker, comes from. To be sure, Paul said he had a right to receive financial compensation for his ministry, but that he deliberately gave up that right among the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:14 and following). But seriously. Is any Christian minister worth $10,000/day or even $4500? There just seems to be something profoundly wrong with an arrangement like this. What would Paul say to today’s celebrity pastors?

It’s encouraging in some ways that the Lord is raising up Christian workers from the two-thirds world in our day and age. We need it. American values are badly out of alignment. Gospel preachers from poverty-stricken areas of the world could do us a lot of good and teach us again about storing up treasures in heaven rather than on earth.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The unreasonableness of agnosticism

Albert Einstein famously said that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” This peculiar fact is taken for granted as a foundation for modern science, yet most people seem to be unaware of how peculiar a fact it is. Why is it that the universe we observe operates by rules which can be described, and often described very accurately, in the language of mathematics?

Physicist Eugene Wigner, not exactly a household name, wrote a highly influential paper in 1960 called, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the natural sciences.” How is it, asked Wigner, that mathematical truths are often so accurate in describing the physical universe? Mathematical truths, after all, can be derived entirely independently of scientific investigation. There’s no reason for there to be any correspondence between these two independent spheres.

Wigner went on to say that “It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here, quite comparable in its striking nature to the miracle that the human mind can string a thousand arguments together without getting itself into contradictions, or to the two miracles of laws of nature and of the human mind's capacity to divine them.” Einstein also recognized this when he wrote, “How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?” Wigner’s conclusion was that “the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.”

This mystery seems lost on modern-day skeptics who simply take it for granted that we can describe physical reality mathematically without ever asking “why?”. There’s certainly no reason to expect this correspondence between the abstract realm of mathematics and the concrete world of physics if our universe is the product of blind materialistic causes and nothing else. Some have suggested that the underlying reality of the universe just is mathematical. This would explain the correspondence between math and physics, but it raises a much deeper question. Mathematics consists of abstract truths that are ascertainable by minds independent of experience. If the underlying reality of the universe is mathematical, then how can the universe be anything but the product of a Mind?

This is just one more reason to think that the materialistic worldview is entirely inadequate as a description of reality. On the other hand, many of the earliest scientists believed that the universe operates according to laws that are rationally discernible because the universe is the product of a rational mind. That is a much more consistent explanation of what we actually observe than to think that it just happened to turn out this way for no reason at all, or by sheer coincidence. That is not an explanation at all, but rather a non-explanation to give comfort to materialists.

God is the elephant in the room for modern scientists who are the intellectual heirs of the mathematicians and philosophers of past centuries. It’s reminiscent of the words of astronomer and physicist Robert Jastrow when he was confronted with the origins of the universe and the realization that this was a mystery which science was unable to penetrate. He said, “for the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Antony Flew, the former atheistic philosopher, made religious headlines in recent years by abandoning atheism and becoming a theist (more specifically, he adopted a form of deism). Flew said it was a result of his commitment to “following the evidence wherever it leads.” He was compelled by the evidence of science to accept that the universe must have a mind behind it. Many atheists attacked Flew because of his age, even hinting that he was going senile. However, Flew continues to give public lectures on topics relating to science, philosophy, and religion as well as giving interviews. His mind appears to be as lucid as ever. As a Christian, I would of course hope that Flew would go one step further and consider the historical evidence for the truth of Christianity. But at least he’s moving in the right direction.

Robert Jastrow, on the other hand, remained agnostic. I have concluded that agnosticism is really a choice: the choice of eternal unbelief. Why do I say that? Consider the position of the agnostic. We have a perfectly good explanation for the features of the universe and for the very fact of the universe’s existence and its origins. That explanation is God. The agnostic, however, has determined to wait and see if another explanation will be forthcoming. But it’s not as though science is equipped to discover why the universe operates according to mathematical rules. All science can do is to say this is the way it is. But it can give no explanation for it. So what is the agnostic waiting for? There’s no hope in waiting for science on this one. The agnostic simply refuses to accept the one explanation that explains all else. Far from being a reasonable position, which is how it is often presented, agnosticism is inherently unreasonable.

About me

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.