Monday, November 27, 2006

Statistics about Christianity

(Post one of a series on Christian divorce rates)

There is disconnection between the social statistics produced by academics studying religion and those of interest to pastors and everyday Christian practitioners.

Academics like to publish books and, especially, peer-reviewed journal articles. Three main journals devoted to the study of religion are Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Religious Studies Review, and Sociology of Religion (edited by my friend David Yamane), though occasional articles on religion appear in many social science journals. Most articles presenting statistics report multivariate analyses--equations of containing multiple predictor variables. Academics usually report their results in tables containing dozens of numbers measuring the effects of variables and estimated certainty of their effects (e.g., regression coefficients and standard errors).

The problem with this approach, though, is that most people outside of academia neither read these journals nor would they understand the statistics even if they did. (Sometimes I think the same holds true for those of us in academics, but that's another story...). To the extent that the everyday Christian cares about statistics, which understandably may not be much, they are interested in univariate or bivariate statistics. For example, what percentage of Christians believe “x” (sociologists frequently refer to a mysterious “x” when using a generic example—I’m not sure why not other letters). Or do more of this type of person, say Christian, experience “x” (there it is again) more than that type of person, say non-Christian.

It’s not that academics aren’t interested in simpler statistics, rather by training and rewards we gravitate toward more complex statistical analysis, and if we present uni- or bivariate statistics, we usually hide them in the recesses of our articles such that few will ever find them. Also, we probably couldn’t get our quantitative articles accepted for publication in good journals without multivariate analyses, so we make sure to emphasize them.

This gets at a potential value of blogs—as a place to share research information that either would never make it to peer-reviewed publication or, if on its way, is presented in a more consumer-friendly presentation.

As such, I would like to try using this blog to present on occasion statistical data that might be of interest to Christians. I’m starting with a series of posts about divorce rates among Christians, for I suspect that there is a lot of misunderstanding (and perhaps misinformation) about this topic.



André said...

I think that the use of "x" for unknowns is a leftover part of pirate culture. Hear me out... A pirate would bury some treasure and of course, he made a map so that he could find his treasure again. Being of the boasting sort, pirates would, inevitably, talk about how great their treasures were without ever saying exactly what they were. There would always be some person in a room where the pirate was boasting that would find some way to get the map in order to look for the "x" (which always marked the spot where the treasure was). Because people were always searching for unknown treasures marked by a "x"s, the "x" came to be associated with the unknown.

(This is true. I read it in the National Enquirer, The Star, and the Sun.)

brewright said...

I love it. I figured it was left-over statistics language, but I like this a lot better.

Now we have figure out how to work in a pirate's "R"


Knumb said...

Andre wins the thread

Dan Myers said...

That's a fun idea, but I think algebra pre-dates the pirate culture by just a smidge!

If I recall, the x is short for a greek word that means unknown (I think it might be xeno, the same root as xenophobia). But I have no citation, so I can't even Wikipedia this!

brewright said...

Ah, temporary ordering bites me in the butt again...

DW said...

I am a Christian psychologist working with anorexic and bulimic patients at a large Christian based inpatient treatment center. I have found that it is often hard for people to understand causal factors in terms of issues like divorce, the development of anorexia and other problems --because the causal factors are not cut and dried and many of these factors are not stable over time. There are tons of variables including biological, psychological, sociological and spiritual. Any of these can change from moment to moment - Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever -- but unfortunately -- I am not --because, as yet, I am still "but dust."

Christianity in and of itself is not a shield against divorce or eating disorders. There are some wonderful Christians who practive their faith in amazing ways who develop eating disorders and get divorced. At the same time, practicing one's Christian faith (worship, fellowship, service, the values we prioritize, etc.) can be a very strong protective factor against divorce, etc. I believe (with you) that Christians who practice their faith will and do have lower divorce rates. Going to church isn't the issue, but the heart that wants to go to church for healthy reasons - is a major issue. Church attendance is a statistically significant variable, because (in most cases) it is a sign of the values, love, etc. motivating the more measurable church attendance.

Statistics and research become difficult because the primary factors in practicing the Christian faith are love, humility, mercy and justice. If I go to church but do not practice these -- the protective value of my faith will be limited. I recall reading somewhere -- If I have all faith, but don't have love -- I am nothing. But how do you measure love, mercy, humility, seeking justice (for others, not just ourselves) for a journal article.

Working with couple in marital crisis -- love is the key. A husband quoting "Obey your husband..." isn't understanding or practicing love the way Jesus intended. That type of faith/love will not significantly impact the data.

I very much appreciate that there are Christian academics, such as you, who can go beyond the "polls" and help us understand. Thanks

Brad Wright said...

Very good points DW... Sitting in my office it's easy to simplify how the world works, and, indeed, it's necessary to make general statements about it.

Still... reading accounts such as yours reminds me of how complex life really is, especially if we want to incorporate spiritual matters.

Also, good point on marriage and obedience!

Andi said...

I heard about your book from another blogger and I have to say I think your stats on Christian divorce and Hate among Christians is just way off. I am divorced was married to a Christian man who chose to cheat on me and numerous other things. Divorce is happening more and more in our churches and if you think it's not then you're not paying attention. As for HATE, guess you didn't see all the so called "Christians" waving signs in opposition for Prop 8 over the weekend. If you don't call that hate then I don't know what you'd call it. I sure don't call it Christlike. It has nothing to do with what the National Enquirer, Star, or Sun say, go walk the halls of the church see who is in a singles group it is mainly made up of divorced people who were once married to Christian men or women who chose to no longer follow Christ. As for the hate issue, I don't want to be associated with "Christians" who behave in that manner.