Monday, December 18, 2006

Statistics and the validity of Christianity

(Post 14 of a 14-part series on Christian divorce rates)

How much, if at all, can statistics tell us about the validity of Christianity? I have some ideas, but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

My own answer to this depends on what is meant by the question.

Christianity rests on a set of philosophical beliefs such as God sending his only Son into the world to give us eternal life. If, then, the question above refers to testing if these beliefs are “true,” then the answer would “no”--statistics can not test the central tenets of our faith; in fact, I can’t even think of how one would begin to do so? Maybe in our prayers ask God to fill out Likert scales?

If instead the question above refers to evaluating the behaviors and characteristics of the Church and its members, then the answer would be mostly yes because much of what we would expect from the church can be translated into empirical propositions. This is the logic of Ron Sider’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience,” and while in previous posts I suggest that he got his numbers wrong, I do not quibble with the use fo numbers to evaluate the Church. In fact, I applaud it (just want it done correctly).

I would offer one significant caveat: Evaluating Christian distinctness encompasses complex social processes such that simple statistics, while informative, are far from definitive. To illustrate, let’s take the case of divorce rates. In this series I have presented various data that make a strong case that Christians, especially those who frequently attend church have relatively low divorce rates. Does this mean that the Church is effective in promoting marital values into its members? Maybe, but maybe not. Here are some of the complexities involved in answering this question:

Reverse causation. It could be that other causal processes produce this correlation. Maybe Christians leave the church when they get divorced.

Spurious correlation. It could be a spurious finding, such that conventional people both become Christians and stay married.

Methodological artifact. It could be a methodological artifact, such that Christians answer surveys differently—wanting to present themselves in a positive light. (Thanks Ashley).

Moral selection. Perhaps Christianity naturally attracts more moral people, though who readily agree with its principles, so observed differences between Christians and others are not attributable to the effect of Christianity.

Immoral selection. Conversely, perhaps Christianity attracts less moral people, those most in need of the grace and forgiveness offered in Christianity. If so, then any observed difference would actually understate the effect of Christianity. (Thanks Corey & Michael).

Wrong question. It could be that this statistic asks the wrong questions. Maybe Christians stay in marriages, but they are bad marriages. So, maybe the question should be rates of “good” marriages rather than “any” marriages. (Thanks Corey again.)

Social mechanisms of faith. It could be that Christians have low rates but so do members of other religions, so this does not speak to the uniqueness of Christianity. As a counterargument to this last point, though, many of the “other” religions in the U.S. (such as Judaism, Mormonism, Christian Science) have similar moral beliefs as Christianity.

Furthermore, what if the Holy Spirit, in its literally infinite wisdom, set up a primarily social mechanism to promote marriage in the church, say teaching and social support. If this same social mechanism is replicated elsewhere, say in other religions or in other settings, such as counseling, and it proves to be effective, does that in anyway invalidate the work of the Spirit? Though I certainly believe, and have experienced, the supernatural, trans-rational work of God, not all things in our faith have to be such. Put differently, knowing how something was done does not preclude that someone did it.

Where does this leave us? Knowing that Christians have relatively low divorce rates is meaningful information, but we should be mindful that it raises more questions than it answers.


This concludes this extended series on Christian divorce rates. I would like to thank the various people who commented on previous posts, for they have clarified the issues and sharpened my thinking on them. I appreciate your time and insight.

As a convenience to new readers, I will post a much-shorter summary of the series tomorrow.


Scott Kemp said...

I just want to say "Thank you". I find your analysis cogent and meaningful. I always wondered about Barna's analysis, but I never knew how to find what data sets they used and how to interpret them. I know just enough about statistics to be quite sure that you can't trust them any further than you trust the analyst.

Chris Langseth said...

I would like to see a statistical evaluation not of the behavior of Christians but the behavior of God. A few sample questions that I would like answered are: Do Christians get fewer flat tires than non Christians? Do Christians have fewer broken arms? Are there more car accidents among the non churched? Do Christians live longer on average? Are there fewer Christian patients in hospitals? In other words does prayer make a difference? Can God's protection, blessing, or love be displayed statistically?
I am a believer, I pray daily, but sometimes I wonder if I truely understand how God works. Can a Christian expect less tragedy in life? I guess it all boils down to whether the effects of prayer can be evaluated statistically. I hope and ...pray ...that prayer makes a verifiable difference in our lives. Or, would Jesus say that only a wicked generation asks for statistical validation of their faith.

J. R. Miller said...

This is a very good series Brad! Thank you so much for taking the time to research and post your findings.