In response to a question about what he thought about the number of Muslims on pace to exceed the number of Christians, John Paul II responded that ultimately, the question was unanswerable since it dealt with values that could not be quantified. It is easy to understand this in a vague, “spiritual” way, as though the Bl. John Paul was saying something like “spiritual values are non-numerical or non empirical”, but I think he meant something far more concrete and empirical. There are a number of insurmountable problems with trying to interpret religious statistics, some which might be avoidable with more subtle tests, and others that seem simply insurmountable.
For example, consider the statistic that people are leaving Christianity in droves, and have done so since the 60’s. Some problems in interpreting this are:
1.) Not having much data older than a lifetime. If there are cycles to religious belief, they appear to move on a much slower table than, say, political beliefs or the economy. If this is right, looking at 50 years of data and trying to get a sense of how to interpret it is like being given 10 square feet of topography and being asked to figure out if you’re on a hill or in a valley. Why not see the post WWII church attendance as inordinately high, and the crash as a return to a norm? For that matter, is this crash a particularly bad one? IS it worse than the last three or four crashes in comparable circumstances? This question, however, at least remains on the level of the quantitative. Deeper problems come in from
2.) The relevant religious facts are not given quantitatively. So people have left churches in droves. This could easily represent a greater sense that church attendance should be tied to truth, which would be a deepening of the spiritual sense in the good sense of “spiritual” – the sense that Christ speaks of when he says that in the days to come God will be worshiped in spirit and in truth. This is why Fabro raises the possibility that contemporary atheism might represent a spiritual awakening in his God in Exile. If you attend church without ever considering whether the things you are doing are true (which is very easy to do), or continue to attend without even a desire to believe, then truth is not a deciding factor in your actions. It’s hard for me to see how it is not a step up – even a step closer to God – to choose not to go. I remember reading Rodger Ebert explain that he stopped going to church after he recognized that he wouldn’t stop looking at pornography. There is a greater awareness of truth – and something closer to the spirit – in what he did than in the actions of someone who is completely non-cognizant of, or indifferent to, the conflict between God and sin or the spirit and the flesh.
Sherry Weddell, for example, interprets the crash of church attendance among Catholics to “the death of cultural Catholicism”. What do we say to this? Cultural Catholicism is not a rite, it’s not a sacrament, it has no theological significance and – most importantly – it doesn’t save anyone. Having numbers on your side is a good defense against being thrown to the lions, but having a Church full of the lukewarm and the indifferent has its costs as well.
3.) The data collection problem. In church statistics, a “Catholic” means “someone who calls himself Catholic when you ask him what he is over the phone”. This is an irritating definition even if it is unavoidable, since it severs what a Catholic is from any set of criteria. The problems with the definition become more and more problematic the more one tries to speak of behavioral traits or beliefs among Catholics, which is clear if we consider that no one would take a survey of “scientific belief” seriously if we determined who was a scientist in the same way.