Reads, Misreads, and Religion Statistics

The last couple of weeks I’ve been developing a course called Scoping Out Religion: Theories and Methods. It’s a seminar/lab hybrid that equips students to investigate religion with greater nuance.

Built around Craig Martin’s excellent book, we’ll discuss religion as a social activity. This includes an examination of its functions, its politics, and the very concept’s analytical utility. I’ll also be training students in rudimentary  ethnography, discourse analysis, geographic information systems, and statistics.


Ideally, the course will fulfill my students’ social science curricular requirement. I’ve floated the idea around to colleagues across the disciplines and have been encouraged by the prospects for the designation. But inevitably someone is going to ask me, “What’s a religious studies scholar going to say that couldn’t be said by a sociologist?”

In an attempt to keep the academy from devolving into a case of who does what better (cf. Jem et al v. The Misfits), my stock reply is that there’s nothing intrinsically unique to either discipline.

It’s worth pointing out that students of religion are not always having the same conversation when it comes to religion.

Pew America
A Study from the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life

There’s been lots of buzz about the latest study from the folks at the Pew Research Center. And there should be. Their data collection can be incredibly useful–particularly if you presume religion to be a fixed object or a static symbol.

But that’s not a presumption many in my field are willing to make.

Michael J. Altman has driven to the heart of the matter on Twitter,  pointing out that “exactly when, to what extent, and how people identify as whatever isn’t captured in the survey.”

Over at Huffington Post, Steven Ramey underscores how the reads and misreads of the numbers are every bit as interesting as the study itself.

Despite the media articles that the Pew report generates, the data tells us very little beyond changes in how people are willing to present themselves to anonymous surveyors. That change is itself an interesting development, but its implications are much more difficult to define than a simple reference to growth or decline of differing groups.

For me, the Pew’s numbers are most helpful when understood as a window on to who and what counts in America.

From PBS: Newshour
From PBS: Newshour, photo by Nate Chute/Reuters, h/t Liz Mott for the find!

The above headline gets us asking why Americans are less interested in calling themselves Christian. That’s a more provocative treatment than the one taking place in the actual article or on NPR’s Weekend Edition, reporting that  “the U.S. is less Christian than it used to be, and fewer Americans choose to be a part of any religion.”

To be clear, I’m not against statistics.  We can qualify “religion.” We can quantify “religion.” But words and numbers represent human relationships (and thus, politics). Religious studies is about striving to see them more clearly. The discipline doesn’t have a monopoly on this. But it is our intellectual burden, and we take it seriously.

Richard-Newton Picture

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.

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