Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Looking at data (with a personal anecdote at the end)

One thing that drives me crazy is when a poll comes out and people react without really analyzing the numbers. We look at the most superficial conclusions to be drawn, generally ones that reinforce our previously held assumptions, and post 'em on a headline and call it a day.

So I was really pleased when I saw that the Internet Monk invited a guest poster, Michael Bell, who actually took the trouble to parse the recent Pew poll on Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.

As opposed to the generalizations I had seen in a number of headlines (e.g. Modernize or Die (bad news!), Defecting to Faith (good news!), and Young Americans Losing Their Religion (bad news!)), he actually looks at the numbers without jumping to conclusions!

He did this fantastic chart showing the flow of people from their childhood religion to where they end up as adults, posted in a small form below, but you can see it up close and personal here. It's very cool. [Wow! I just found out you can just plain click on the image below and get the full-blown chart!]

Numbers that he highlights:

*The “None” group (in red), now makes up a total of 16.1% of American adults today, a huge increase from the 7.4% who were in this group in their childhood.

*Catholics (green) are experiencing huge outflows of 4.4% to the None group, 2.8% to the Evangelicals, and a smaller amount of 1.6% to the Mainline Protestants. This is without any real significant moves to Catholic from any other religious group.

*Evangelicals (yellow) and Mainline Protestants (orange) have been swapping members as 2.6% of Americans have moved from Evangelical to Mainline and 2.5% have moved back the other way.

*Historical Black Protestant (blue) are 6.9 % of the total; their largest influx, 1.1%, comes from the Evangelical group.

*Mainline Protestant have gained twice as many from the Catholics (1.6%) as they have lost (0.8%). On the other hand they have had 2.7% move to the None group, and only gained 1.0% from that same group. They have also lost 1.1% to the Other group, but only had 0.4% coming back the other way.

But What Does This Mean? He refuses to claim an answer before giving it some thought. "Clearly some serious introspection needs to occur within the Christian community," he says. Well, yes, thank you!

I'll be curious to see what his conclusions are.

There's one personal anecdote I'd like to point out. Last Sunday I skipped church in favor of having breakfast with my parents for Mother's Day. The thing that occurred to me as I sat in the sun eating an omelette was how lovely this was. It made me realize that a huge problem churches have is why on earth going to church should be worth people's precious time. I can see the temptation. What makes going to church worth it? I think a lot of us who are church professionals can't see it from that point of view.


La Tricoteuse said...

I have two questions -

Was this information gathered on a Sunday morning or a Friday afternoon?

Isn't 'being' church better than 'doing' church?

Laura Toepfer said...

Question 1: No idea, but my reaction, as you see, came on a Tuesday morning, which shaped my reaction.

Question 2: No doubt! I always have to be reminded when I am being a denominational creature.