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.

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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.