Friday, December 05, 2008

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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