Stark cold truth

In his book *What Americans Really Believe*, Rodney Stark also made a critical, crucial mistake in his reading of the data on church attendance and membership. Or, just as important, the Baylor study itself made the mistake, and he followed it to prove his point.

The extremely critical mistake? They asked the respondents about it.

Why is that a mistake? Because even people who don’t go to church want to be seen as if they’re part of a church. Or, they want to see themselves as someone who goes. On image questions of this kind, there’s just too much lying. And they’ll do it even when the information is to be kept confidential; many people don’t trust that, either. So it is not something that is accurately studied by way of self-reporting.

The truth? According to those who look at actual counts, actual church attendance and membership are down overall. Attendance has been dropping noticeably for the last 10 years or so, with a brief interruption for 9/11. (Before that there was about two decades of ‘shuffling’, largely of folks leaving mainline churches for Pentecostal ones.) Many people, even those with strong Christian beliefs, don’t bother with church at all anymore. Being an actual member of an actual congregation or church body isn’t as important to their identity as in past generations. The drop isn’t as large or as deep as the doomsday folks are saying, but it is real, and the churches must take action about it now. They must give a clear answer to the question, “what good does it do for Christians to gather together?

The best way to measure such subjects by surveys? Indirectly. By creating a scale of indirect questions and doing a cluster analysis of them in relation to the other questions on the survey. By running a cross-check on it by looking at an area’s actual attendance counts. By having enough respondents on these specific questions that you can have a high enough number of respondents (Ns) to be in effect a statistically-significant survey for each issue breakdown.

Stark et al.’s sunny analysis about current church attendance has no ground in fact except for the distorted ‘self-reported’ attendance and membership. This is one of the two instances in the book where the Baylor data was, from the start, not what it seemed to be.
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Surveys on Religion : More of the Expected

I finally got a chance to read Rodney Stark & his crew’s take on the Baylor Religion Surveys, most of which is found in Stark’s book “What Americans Really Believe“.

Before I go on, I should be honest about my own split feelings about Stark. On the one hand, his work with Glock in the late ’60s-early ’70s, notably American Piety and Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism, are seminal works in applying survey techniques to religious belief and practice. Those studies dispelled many fables. And Stark himself has been a part of the birth and growth of multivariate methods of sociological data analysis. On the other hand, in his own books the conclusions he writes are often very opinionated, and he doesn’t think through the possible different slants on the data and account for them, as a good statistical analyst should do. His method is to set up straw men of popular beliefs about belief, then knock them down with the stats. (The only thing that makes the approach somewhat acceptable is that, unfortunately, most Americans’ beliefs about other Americans’ beliefs are based on the same straw men. But one could hope for more insight than that.)

One of the key things supported by the studies is something I’ve written and spoken about many times over the years : Christians on the whole are not credulous people. We don’t believe in most stuff that seems mysterious or supernatural, and a lot of non-believers do believe in such things. Yes, I know where the general public image comes from : the fuss over weeping statues of Mary or gold glitter on the skin or the latest strong-talking preacher. But on the whole, most of us aren’t into that. Stark’s data shows that most Americans believe in dreams that foretell the future or reveal hidden truths, and large proportions believe in the existence of lost ancient civilizations, in ghost hauntings, and UFOs. This is especially true of those who are “spiritual but not religious”. Next to all that, attending to a crying statue seems downright level-headed. The studies also show that Christians, across the board, even of a less-intense variety, are significantly less likely to believe such things.

Then, there is the existence of angels and demons. According to this study, and every other statistical or subjective-case study I’ve ever read on the matter (including a very recent Pew Center study), not only do most Americans and most Christians believe in angels, most “spiritual but not religious” folks do, too, by 2 to 1. Who’s credulous?

Interpretation, of course, should account for the different ways people perceive angels. Also, belief in angels as a measure of credulousness goes one way if there really aren’t any, but an entirely different way if there really are some. It’s as wrong to believe something doesn’t exist that does as it is to believe something does exist that doesn’t. The key to which way it goes depends on what the truth is.

To me at least, there were very few surprises in the data. And, predictably, Stark and his coworkers ripped apart the straw men. Hopefully, in future studies they’ll take down some more vigorous misperceptions.

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Finding Spirithome’s Demographics

Earlier this year, I was at a conference and two on-line market researchers overheard me saying I only have vague ideas about who uses the Spirithome site. I knew more about what it was five years ago, but not now. Each offered to send some free data that comes ‘off the sides’ when they measured general market conditions. (Not stealing someone else’s data, but rather digging into the unused stuff.)

The first report came in last month. It said that Spirithome’s US audience had some clear characteristics :

The US was 82% of the site’s users.
The gender/age group which used it most (proportionate to the Net population) was females between 35 and 55.
African-Americans used the site at triple their Net rate — with a sharp gender difference, in that males only used it at a proportionate rate.
The users were mostly working-class, with household incomes $50,000 – $80,000.
The average degree was a BA.
About 75% of the site’s users are visitors, not regular users.
About 25% were not members of any local congregation.
About 10% said they were something other than Christian, most of those being agnostic. (The Ns were a bit too low for me to be comfortable with that as a stat.)
Of those who were college students (any level), that rate rises to about 20%. (The Ns were a bit too low for me to be comfortable with that as a stat.)
Of those who claimed a particular Christian belief, 40% were Catholic, 35% Pentecostal. (That doesn’t leave much for mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and Orthodox.)

Then a week or so ago, I received a report sheet on Australia and New Zealand. All these Ns are low, so it’s best to use them only for general impressions. ( I say that. The researcher said otherwise. They always overestimate a data set’s accuracy. Remember that when you see a poll on TV or on line.)

The main picture resembles that of the US usership : 30-45 year old working-class women with some kind of college degree. Pentecostalists were the largest group, followed closely by Catholics and Protestants (in this case, I suspect the latter were mostly Anglicans). Non-Christians were almost one in five, mostly of “Asian religions”. There was also a side note, from a survey from India, and based on Google Analytics, it’s no surprise : the site showed up in a survey on belief in the paranormal, for use of the hypnosis page.

I’m thankful for the information. It tells me I’m not quite getting the audience I seek. And I will have to do some thinking as to why, and how to change it. But I don’t live on the data — in the end, it is just data. The more important thing is to tell the honest truth as clearly as I can.