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What Polls Can’t Tell Us About Faith In America

“Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life.” — Emma Green


Perhaps it’s no surprise that polling about America’s religious life is tricky. Religion is personal, nuanced and evolving — all things that make it resistant to easy quantification. But it’s that enigmatic nature of religious life that makes statistical analysis so appealing. It’s easy to be seduced by the promise of reducing faith to one tidy data point: For example, the share of adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly 8 percentage points in just seven years. But the polling process is never as tidy as it seems. What does it mean to describe yourself as Christian? How does that self-identification intersect with race, class and community? What does an 8 percentage point drop even mean? The questions that get asked in religion surveys — Do you pray every day? Is religion “old-fashioned”? — are packed with assumptions and terms that don’t mean the same thing to all people.

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, Emma Green of The Atlantic and FiveThirtyEight’s Leah Libresco discuss why polling about faith is so hard and what lessons it offers for collecting data about the other parts of our lives. Emma recently wrote an essay titled “The Futility of Representing Religion with a Bar Chart,” and Leah explored the subject at the First Things website.

To listen, stream or download the full episode above, and find excerpts from Emma Green and Leah Libresco’s pieces below.

Also this week, a Significant Digit about Dr. Seuss’s persistent popularity.

We only talk religion through polls

Excerpt from Emma Green’s post “The Futility of Representing Religion With a Bar Chart” in The Atlantic

In interviews, people rarely frame their own religious experiences in terms of statistics and how they compare to trends around the country, [Robert] Wuthnow [author of the new book “Inventing American Religion”] said. They speak “more about the demarcations in their own personal biographies. It was something they were raised with, or something that affected who they married, or something that’s affecting how they’re raising their children.”

This makes sense. Religion may affect people’s views on politics, but it’s often a guidebook for more immediate, tangible experiences — birth, death, love, relationships, the daily slog of life. Sociologists may have legitimate academic interests in how these experiences play out across demographic groups, but “it has been mostly through polling, and polling’s argument,” Wuthnow argued, that the broader public has “now become schooled to think that it is interesting and important to know that X percentage of the public goes to church and believes in God.”

Another way to put it: Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life.

What polling teaches us about religious literacy

Excerpt from Leah Libresco’s essay “Statting While Catholic” in First Things

In a way, these religion surveys remind me of the perennial studies of how few Americans believe that the earth goes round the sun, that evolution shaped human development, that vaccines don’t cause autism, etc. Each of those questions touches on something objective, just like questions about sin do—they’re a measure of how widely a fact is known, not a referendum to decide what we’re going to believe going forward.

And just as those studies make nerds like me all the more eager to increase scientific literacy, polls of Catholics or Christians at large are a guide for future catechesis. It’s harder for the scientists than it is for religious leaders; once people graduate from school, they only have the opportunities to learn that they create for themselves. But, when it comes to religious literacy, school is open every Sunday.

It’s for preachers, both ordained ministers and parents, friends, and anyone else engaged in the faith to try to cover the gaps.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.