About Those Religion Surveys …

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Image from Patheos

The latest edition of First Things magazine, currently available only in print, contains an important piece by Princeton sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow, “In Polls We Trust.” Actually, it’s one of the most important pieces on American religion I’ve read in quite a while. Not for what it says about American religion, necessarily. Wuthnow’s piece is important because of what it says about the polls on which everyone, academics included, rely for insights on American religion.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of these surveys. Scholars pore over the results to ascertain trends, and, on the basis of those trends, to evaluate the state of American institutions: churches, government, courts. For example, the much touted rise of the “Nones,” the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation, has implications for our First Amendment jurisprudence. The fewer Americans who identify with institutional religion, the weaker we can expect First Amendment protections to get.  Or so some scholars, myself included, have argued.

Of course, everything turns on the accuracy of the surveys. Most of us, not being statisticians, more or less take them on faith. If Wuthnow is right, though, our faith is misguided. He points out that many surveys of American religion have serious methodological flaws. For example, religion does not always lend itself to straightforward yes/no questions of the sort surveyors ask. In addition, pollsters sometimes fail to account for regional and racial variations.

Most important, response rates are very low. The typical response rate nowadays is about nine or 10%, and rarely exceeds 15%. “In other words,” Wuthnow writes, “upwards of 90% of the people who should have been included in a poll for it to be nationally representative are missing. They were either unreachable or refused to participate.” With such poor response rates, it’s hard to know what the polls reveal about religion in America. This problem is compounded by the fact that the media present the results as accurate representations of what Americans believe – a misimpression that the polling industry, now worth a billion dollars a year, is understandably reluctant to correct – and by the fact that most of us “are unlikely to wade through obscure methodological appendices to learn if the response rate was respectable or not.”

Consider the rise of the Nones, for example. Maybe we really are seeing an explosion in the number of Americans without a religious affiliation, as these surveys suggest. But maybe we aren’t. Maybe the number of Nones is actually much lower. Maybe the number is much higher. Wuthnow’s point is, it’s hard to know on the basis of flawed polls. Now, to be sure, there are other indications that organized religion is declining. Some churches keep membership records; these are harder numbers, and they show that some churches are experiencing declining memberships. Still, one has to be a little careful about declaring trends on the basis of limited information.

The inaccuracy of the polls is more than just an academic matter, because polls may actually help drive social change. It’s human nature to want to follow the crowd. If you think that Nones are the wave of the future, you’re more likely to call yourself one; if you think that church is a dying institution, you’re more likely to leave. On the basis of these polls, pundits will write stories about the new religious movement; advertisers and other cultural influencers will take note of the polls and factor them into their work. Before you know it, the decline of religion and the rise of the Nones will be matters of conventional wisdom people take for granted. In other words, polls can have a disproportionate social impact, even if they are unreliable.

None of this is to say that organized religion isn’t in fact experiencing a decline; as I say, there are plenty of indications, other than these polls. But I wonder how major polling firms will respond to Wuthnow’s criticisms. At the very least, his essay suggests we should treat surveys on American religion with more caution than we do.

Marbury, “Pillars of Cloud and Fire”

In August, the New York University Press will release “Pillars of Cloud and Fire: The Politics of Exodus in African American Biblical Interpretation,” by Herbert Robinson Marbury (Vanderbilt University).

At the birth of the United States, African Americans were excluded from the newly-formed Republic and its churches, which saw them as
savage rather than citizen and as heathen rather than Christian. Denied civil access to the basic rights granted to others, African Americans have developed their own sacred traditions and their own civil discourses. As part of this effort, African American intellectuals offered interpretations of the Bible which were radically different and often fundamentally oppositional to those of many of their white counterparts. By imagining a freedom unconstrained, their work charted a broader and, perhaps, a more genuinely American identity. In Pillars of Cloud and Fire, Herbert Robinson Marbury offers a comprehensive survey of African American biblical interpretation.

Each chapter in this compelling volume moves chronologically, from the antebellum period and the Civil War through to the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights movement, the black power movement, and the Obama era, to offer a historical context for the interpretative activity of that time and to analyze its effect in transforming black social reality. For African American thinkers such as Absalom Jones, David Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Frances E. W. Harper, Adam Clayton Powell, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the exodus story became the language-world through which freedom both in its sacred resonance and its civil formation found expression. This tradition, Marbury argues, has much to teach us in a world where fundamentalisms have become synonymous with “authentic” religious expression and American identity. For African American biblical interpreters, to be American and to be Christian was always to be open and oriented toward freedom. 

Gholami, “Secularism and Identity”

In April, Ashgate released “Secularism and Identity: Non-Islamiosity in the Iranian Diaspora,” by Reza Gholami (Middlesex University). The publisher’s description follows:

Within western political, media and academic discourses, Muslimcommunities are predominantly seen through the prism of their
Islamic religiosities, yet there exist within diasporic communities unique and complex secularisms. Drawing on detailed interview and ethnographic material gathered in the UK, this book examines the ways in which a form of secularism – ‘non-Islamiosity’ – amongst members of the Iranian diaspora shapes ideas and practices of diasporic community and identity, as well as wider social relations.

In addition to developing a novel theoretical paradigm to make sense of the manner in which diasporic communities construct and live diasporic identity and consciousness in a way that marginalises, stigmatises or eradicates only ‘Islam’, Secularism and Identity shows how this approach is used to overcome religiously inculcated ideas and fashion a desirable self, thus creating a new space in which to live and thereby attaining ‘freedom.’

Calling into question notions of anti-Islamism and Islamophobia, whilst examining secularism as a means or mechanism rather than an end, this volume offers a new understanding of religion as a marker of migrant identity. As such it will appeal to scholars of sociology, anthropology and political science with interests in migration and ethnicity, diasporic communities, the sociology of religion and emerging forms of secularism.