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Discussion of Data on Religious Practice

Recently there has been discussion of Barna Research Group findings about the declining prevalence of religious faith and practice. Meanwhile, the popular discussion ignored the results of a Baylor study that showed no change whatsoever. Why the difference? In the opinion of Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson, there is good reason to prefer the Baylor study:

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.

It is interesting to me to see the significant difference in the results of the studies. It seems to me that there must be something going on here. What exactly? I’m not sure. I’d be very curious to read about the data collection methods of the various studies (Barna, Baylor, and NORC) and compare them to see if there is some reason that the Barna study comes up with data so drastically different from the other two. Perplexing to me.

As a side note, I’d also advise that you should beware good news bearers as well, or any news bearer, for that matter. Always ask questions about how they know, where they got their facts, and what methods they use to draw their conclusions.

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