Rich Mayfield: The headline says, ‘Small percentage believes in statistics’
February 29, 2008
” Aaron Levenstein
While heading home one afternoon this past week, I was struck by the breathless quality of the radio newscaster as he announced the next item: “Home mortgage defaults are 52 percent higher than last year!” Clearly this wasn’t good news but as I drove on waiting to hear what was sure to be a very grim story, I wondered aloud what the previous year’s rates of default actually were.
If the rates weren’t all that bad, I mused, a 52 percent increase might not be as terrible as the announcer seemed to indicate. After all, if there were only a few tanked mortgages in the past 12 months, 52 percent more was really no big deal. I was loudly congratulating myself at having cracked this statistical nut when I happened to notice the driver next to me staring in my direction, clearly distressed at seeing a grown man in animated conversation with himself.
Nevertheless (and only slightly embarrassed), I was pleased to have seen the potential for statistical abuse inherent in the headline. Such self-satisfaction may seem more than a little pompous to you, Mr. or Ms. Average Reader Who Doesn’t Carry On A Conversation With Yourself While Driving, but you probably hadn’t spent that entire afternoon perusing the just published Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.”
I know what you’re thinking. You’re filled with enormous pity knowing as you now do how mind-numbingly boring my life must be. Yet, however strange it may appear to more well-adjusted folk, I actually take a certain pleasure in the study of such statistical data even if it does, on occasion, have me carrying on public conversations with no one but myself. My study of the “Religious Landscape Survey” earlier that day had simply primed my pessimistic pump and left me seriously questioning the value of statistical data, religious or not.
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Although the survey was one of the largest of its kind ever conducted, I was particularly troubled by an apparent lack of understanding of the vast diversity within Christianity.
For instance, the Christian population was divided into three primary categories: Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic. Mainline Protestants, who have been in a kind of free-fall for the past 30 years, are not as easily lumped together as they may have once been.
Indeed, in my own circle of Christianity, there is a significant and growing number of folk who see themselves not as Mainline Protestants but rather describe themselves as Progressive Christians. Their religious tenets are centered less on the mythological trappings of Christianity and far more on the ethical teachings of Jesus.
Such an ideology puts these adherents on the periphery of traditional Christianity and may account for both the decline in religious affiliation and the growth in those who claim to be Christian but without allegiance to a particular denomination.
The survey was also statistically unable to note that there is a growing movement among Evangelicals to move away from the narrowly defined hallmarks of their faith to much broader concerns including the environment, human rights and issues of peace and justice. What the numbers fail to describe is a potentially very dramatic change in the make-up of Evangelicals in America.
New religious categories are not limited to Protestants either. There are Progressive Catholics, both clergy and lay, who have begun to openly form religious movements free of perceived hierarchical injustices or certain doctrinal demands.
Indeed, Progressives can be found within and without all manner of religious affiliations, people who defy the traditional descriptions of just who is religious and who is not.
The Pew Survey may be helpful in describing broad trends of religious practice that can have denominational leaders scratching their heads or stretching out their smiles but the statistics may not accurately depict what is really changing the face of religion in America today.
Then again, someone once said, “Statistics can be made to prove anything ” even the truth.”