Sep 03 2011

“Studies show”… not much

Category: church,media,religion,societyharmonicminer @ 12:25 pm

I have attended too many workshops where hand-wringing fear mongers tell us, based on research by the Barna Group (their book is UnChristian) and some others, that young people aren’t staying in the faith they were taught as children, that young people don’t care much about the moral status of people living “the gay lifestyle,” that other social issues like abortion aren’t such a big deal to today’s youth, that what young people of today really care about is taking care of the poor and downtrodden, and that they are less concerned about future salvation than the coming of the earthly kingdom of heaven when the lion will lay down with the metaphorical lamb, we won’t teach war no more, and everyone will be equally rich (or poor).  Oh, they don’t always say it in quite that way….  but the clear message is this:  stop emphasizing the “social issues” (read, traditional morality) or you’ll lose the young people to the secular ethos of the day.  This line of thinking is especially popular with the “emerging church” or “emergent church” or “emerging conversation” people, those folks who don’t think words really mean all that much, but want us to be sure and use the right words to describe them.

Assuming the best of intentions on the part of these people, the net message seems to be that if we don’t follow their prescription (stop emphasizing traditional morality as a linchpin of Christian teaching) we’ll lose them to people who don’t believe in traditional morality anyway.

The data on which this is based is largely “social science survey” data….  which phrase should be enough to make anyone suspicious of too-sweeping conclusions.  We all know how this works:  the way you ask the questions, the people of whom you ask them, and the way you decide to draw lines in your demographic group in order to categorize people, are all pretty subjective.  I’m not saying that social science of this sort is impossible.  I’m saying that it’s really hard to do, and requires replication both by people using similar methods and ALSO by people using different methods aimed at digging out the same information, before it’s all that reliable.

Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson tell us in Religion and the Bad News Bearers that the reports of the demise of youthful interest in the faith of their fathers may be exaggerated.

The national news media yawned over the Baylor Survey’s findings that the number of American atheists has remained steady at 4% since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high. But when a study by the Barna Research Group claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation—even though it was a false alarm.

Surveys always find that younger people are less likely to attend church, yet this has never resulted in the decline of the churches. It merely reflects the fact that, having left home, many single young adults choose to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

Once they marry, though, and especially once they have children, their attendance rates recover. Unfortunately, because the press tends not to publicize this correction, many church leaders continue unnecessarily fretting about regaining the lost young people.

In similar fashion, major media hailed another Barna report that young evangelicals are increasingly embracing liberal politics. But only religious periodicals carried the news that national surveys offer no support for this claim, and that younger evangelicals actually remain as conservative as their parents.

Given this track record, it was no surprise this month to see the prominent headlines announcing another finding from Barna that American women are rapidly falling away from religion. The basis for this was a comparison between a poll they conducted in 1991 and one they conducted in January of this year.

The reporters who ran with this story ought to have wondered why this change wasn’t picked up sooner if it was going on for 20 years. Many national surveys have been conducted during this period—in fact the Barna Group has been doing them all along. Did the organization check to see if its new results were consistent with its own previous data or with the many other national surveys widely available? There is no sign that it did. If it had, it would have found that its findings about women are as unfounded as previous claims about young people deserting the church and young evangelicals becoming liberals.

Barna reported in 2010 that about 40% of both men and women read the Bible during a typical week, as female weekly Bible-reading had fallen from 50% in 1991. By contrast, the 2007 Baylor national religion survey found that 29% of men and 40% of women read the Bible about weekly. The statistic for women is consistent with Barna’s reported findings, but the findings for men differ greatly.

The Baylor findings were in full agreement with the results of a 2000 Gallup Poll finding that 29% of men and 43% of women were weekly Bible-readers. This, in turn, was consistent with a 1988 study by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC), which found that 25% of men and 39% of women were weekly readers. If the Barna claim about a major decline in women’s Bible-reading is true, it must have happened in the past three years. This is quite unlikely, given the remarkable stability of the statistics over the past several decades.

As for the supposed decline in female church attendance, the best data come from the NORC, which has conducted annual surveys since 1972. Across 38 years, there have been only small variations in church attendance, and Barna’s reported 11 percentage-point decline in women’s church attendance (to 44% from 55%) simply didn’t happen. Nor has the gender gap narrowed. In 1991, according to NORC data, 38% of women and 28% of men said they attended weekly. In 2002, 36% of women and 24% of men attended weekly. In 2008, 36% of women and 25% of men attended weekly, and in 2010 it was 34% of women and 25% of men.

Finally, the Baylor data show that in 2007, 38% of women, compared with 26% of men, described themselves as “very religious.” So the gender gap—which holds for every religion in every nation around the globe—remains alive and well in America, just as it has for decades. As for media-hyped studies about religion, one should always beware of bad news bearers.

In a follow up post, I’ll have some more comments about this.

2 Responses to ““Studies show”… not much”

  1. Anthony says:

    That is silly, like he said they come back after they have kids. The really retarded thing is that you cant quantify who is serving and loving the Lord by who is in church and who is not. I have known many people who struggle with church but love and serve the Lord very much, and people in church whom it seems have no love in them.

    The only way to find out the trend of society towards or further from a loving God is to read 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 aloud and see how descriptive it is of what your analyzing….

    Try reading it and replacing the words “love” and “it” with your first name and see how it fits on your lips.

  2. innermore says:

    I know my gramma would be rolling over in her grave if she heard what our pastor just said in worship service today. And my gramma’s gramma would too if she heard what gramma’s pastor said once, and the gramma before that, and that, and that…

    So let me get this straight. The latest social issue being debated in church is: Traditional moral social issue groups (churches) should NOT be emphasizing traditional moral social issues to their kids??? Which oxy-moron thought that one up?! I guess they won’t be teaching that to their kids, thank God.

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