Interpreting religious statistics

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.



  1. Ye Olde Statistician said,

    June 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    All excellent points. Ye Olde does not know why laymen put such inordinate faith in statistics without the slightest concern over how the statistics were defined or collected.

  2. Joseph Bolin said,

    June 15, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    I particularly like your second point, and have often pointed it out when people express worries about statistics of declining church membership.

  3. peeping thomist said,

    June 17, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    These are very good points. Not that I have have a strong opinion about it, but when people bring up the increase in the recognition of Saints these days I like to suggest that maybe there are more Saints these days. Heh. Is there a strong argument to be made against this point of view? I think there is simply no way one can know. Either way. That’s the point.

    Our idea of golden glory days or bad old days (in the “medieval” era, especially, which was extremely complex and differed widely in these respects both across the globe and within nations and went through a number of wild changes over time) is laughable. And without an understanding of history, which is very hard to obtain and obviously at best riddled with gaps, it is very hard to make these sorts of judgments.

    I like the second point as well. Many Catholics trying earnestly to practice their faith don’t even imagine that their diocesan K-12 ought to be as serious as they are. Instead, we home school and engage in a variety of end around type measures. Which is fine, but it reveals the problem of our parish communities and suggests that without people who aren’t serious about the truth maybe one could establish actual communities based around a shared love of God.

    As to the stats, here’s a provocative 3 part series arguing that the next century is going to be “God’s Century” as religion takes its (usual) prominent role in global politics…whereas the 20th century was more God-less than is the norm.

    “How many of us are remotely ready for God’s Century? After all, the very fact that the 21st century is as religious as it is is a shock. The century most of us thought was coming was supposed to look very different. It was supposed to look like the last century, only more so—a 20th century, as Lerner and so many others suggested, in which religion was put on the defensive by modern forces, movements, and ideologies. In many ways, it really was the case that in the 20th century, the world’s most cutting-edge and consequential political forces were anything but self-proclaimed “partisans of God.” On the contrary, the cutting-edge agents and actors sweeping global politics in the 20th century were, more often than not, the opposite of self-proclaimed partisans of God and were far more frequently the self-proclaimed enemies of God. This may sound like an exaggeration. It’s not.

    Consider Mexican politician Tomás Garrido Canabal. In many ways, Tomás Canabal was an apt symbol of 20th-century politics. In the mid-1920s, about ten years after the radically anti-clerical Mexican Revolution, Canabal became the governor of the state of Tabasco, in the south of the country. He made it such an important plank of his political platform to rid Tabasco of what he called “clerical opium” that he made it illegal to wear a crucifix or to say “adios”—because it had “Dios” in it. He even proudly handed out little calling cards that described himself as “the personal enemy of God”—a habit that would have limited his networking opportunities, one would think, but he was a man of strong conviction.

    Though this sounds outlandish, it’s a pretty good exemplar of political ideologies and trends that became increasingly common and influential in global politics, from the time of the anti-clerical French Revolution of 1789 until they became a largely spent force by the time of the pro-clerical Iranian revolution of 1979.

    Beginning in the 19th century, secularist movements and ideologies were more the norm than the exception in world politics, and they swept over every part of the world in the 20th century, peaking in influence and reach between 1917 and 1967. Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution, Ataturk’s Turkish Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Nasser’s Pan-Arab Revolution, the Shah of Iran’s White Revolution, the viciously anti-religious Cambodian Revolution—the list goes on and on, of ideologies and movements that were successful, at least for a time, in attacking or at least containing the power of religion.

    Even in the United States, various cultural, legal, and political forces worked together to promote a kind of secular separationism that exerted a powerful influence from the 1920s into the 1970s. Court cases, the ideas of influential thinkers such as John Dewey and Carl Becker, Protestant opposition to the alleged rise of Catholic power in American society and politics—these often encouraged a view that politics and public life were not supposed to be interfered with by “sectarianism.” If religion did not disappear, it should be closeted. As Carl Becker said at Harvard in 1931, “We may still believe in Zeus; many people do. Even scientists, historians, philosophers still accord him the customary worship. But this is no more than a personal privilege, to be exercised in private.”

    Indeed, the success of these political enemies of God helped to make it seem that secularization was the wave of the future. They made it seem that religion was a dying supernova, enjoying its penultimate glow before disappearing from history. They made it easily forgivable to think of the 20th century as the “Godless Century,” at least as far as politics was concerned, making it increasingly common to ask whether God was dead, as Time magazine famously did on its cover in April 1966. They made it possible to view religion as absolutely defenseless in the face of modernity.

    Today, however, most of these political ideologies and movements are a spent force. Today, the politics of secularization has less of the world in its grip than, perhaps, in any time since the early 19th century.”

  4. Gagdad Bob said,

    June 18, 2011 at 6:26 am

    Comparing the numbers of Catholics and Muslims can yield no meaningful statistic so long as Islam is compulsory and not freely chosen. Otherwise it’s like comparing, say, the crime rate between America and North Korea, or the unemployment rate between Cuba and a free market economy.

  5. Don said,

    June 22, 2011 at 10:58 am

    I think the more traditional way to refer to these periods is as an “apoatasy.” Certain periods in history are permitted by God to prefigure the great apotasy of which Paul speaks.
    It is actually worse than you claim. Mass attendance is only half the story. A majority of Catholics that go Mass don’t even believe in the Real Presence. (not to mention that 97% dissent on contraception, a law which is written on their hearts).
    Honestly, Church attendance probably went down because Father started wearing a clown suit (insert pertinent liturgical abuse, heresy, our scandal) to Mass and IMPLICITLY told them that the Faith isn’t something to be taken seriously.
    Claiming that a large percentage of Catholics were compulsive religious zombies before hand and started to desire truth elsewhere because of a sociological cycle is a red hering.
    The gospel today was “by their fruits you shall know them.” Some make the mistake of claiming that bad fruit comes from a good tree. Real mistakes were made in the sixties and onward and we are only reaping what we have sown.
    If muslims are growing in population, it is because we are not doing our jobs of saving their souls. The sociological norm for the Church is not a cycle at all, it is rapid expansion.

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