Friday, August 29, 2008

Passing along an inaccurate statistic

(Part 3 in a series)

In this series, I am tracking the creation and transformation of a statistic about Christianity. My goal in doing so is not to harp on this particular statistic but rather to show the various social processes that go into presenting information about Christianity to the public.

The next big mention of this statistic came in Christine Wicker’s 2008 book The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis inside the Church. She writes that “when asked to rate eleven groups in terms of respect, non-Christians rated evangelicals tenth. Only prostitutes rated lower (p. 143).” She goes on to give elaborate the consequences of this “anti-evangelical sentiment” being so high. In presenting this statistic, Wicker gives no other elaboration nor does she give a citation, as such the reader is left with the impression that this is an unambiguous fact.

Wicker appears to have done considerable research for this book, and so it’s reasonable to ask why would she ignore the larger, arguably more persuasive literature that shows Christians held in relatively high regard? Even within Barna’s data, there’s a positive spin in terms of attitudes toward born-again Christians. Again, I do not deem to know her (or anyone’s) motivation, but this book’s thesis is that “Evangelical Christianity in America is dying (p. 1).” Fittingly, the statistics that she chooses to present fit with this assumption. In this sense, the books presentation of this point reads more like a debating position or a legal paper—marshaling evidence to make a point rather than letting the broader evidence speak for itself.

More generally, a book about the Evangelical Church dying would probably sell much better than a more balanced, neutral examination of the ebbs and flows of faith.

Part 4 of the series.


J. R. Miller said...

I think you are right on. The publishing world is tough. Books that get more buzz for controversial thoughts and therefore sales are greater. This does not mean authors intentionally distort the info, but it does mean that what gets published has a tendency to be more black and white and less gray and balanced.

Anonymous said...

Let me correct your error.

You are able to find other statistics that don't back this one up. That doesn't make this one inaccurate.

It simply means that you would rather use other studies. Just as you accuse me of being sensationalist, I'd say that you are biased toward evangelicals and Christians. Your own use of statistics in other parts of the blog show that quite clearly.

In that bias, you have a huge amount of company. In fact, selling books that favor evangelicals is much easier than selling critical ones because there's a motivated, organized audience for favorable books.

Giving evangelicals what they want is an easy path to money and power.

To return to the question of statistics, you often quote statistics without researching them fully. Or presenting contrary data. For instance your blog on marriage shows one study. You like that study. You quoted it. There are many others.

But you didn't apply the same rule to yourself that you applied to me.

As for the attitudes about born-agains, in that section the book is looking at evangelicals as they are perceived in the public square. They themselves know quite well that their reputation has dipped, particularly because of their political activities. I quote a number of them saying so.

Helen said...

Have you read UnChristian? Have you asked any people who aren't Christians what they think of Christians?

Before you argue against this 'inaccurate statistic' any further I suggest you go spend time with some people who aren't Christians and ask them what they think of Christians.

Then please post the results of that first-hand research on your blog.

Brad Wright said...

Hello Helen,

I actually have read UnChristian, and I posted a 13 part review of it that starts here:

The review contains some of my own analysis that suggests that UnChristian's findings might be off the mark.

Let me know what you think, if you have the chance to read it.

Helen said...

Thanks for your response, Brad.

I had a quick look at your review.

I like your point about lack of accountability in Christian research. This applies to a lot of the 'information' Christians disseminate. I wish Christians would hold each other to a higher standard of rigor regarding information and research and not just 'trust' what's said if it comes from a Christian.

In my quick scan I didn't see anything that disproved Kinnaman's research.

I don't see the relevance of comparing with other religions - if Christianity does have an image problem then it doesn't go away just because some other religion has a worse one. And as you yourself pointed out, statistics from a group which is probably mostly Christians about what religions they have a low opinion of doesn't tell you anything useful about what people who aren't Christians think.

You disagreed that the image of Christians is in freefall. Maybe so but again, that doesn't mean there isn't an image problem that should be addressed.

I'm still wondering how much time you've spent talking to people who aren't Christians about their views of Christians.

I think Kinnaman is right because in my own experience Christians aren't highly regarded by people who aren't Christians.

I'd like to hear what your own experience is if you talk to some people who aren't Christians.

Helen said...

Btw (off topic) I like your photos.

Christine Wicker said...

I'm not so great on blogs, I guess. I didn't mean for my post to be anonymous. In case this one is too, I'm Christine Wicker. I wrote the book you're calling inaccurate. See my post below.

I agree with Helen's idea that you could easily find out what the rest of the world thinks about evangelicals. If you live near an evangelical megachurch, go into social groups where people don't know you, don't bring up your faith, and bring up the name of the megachurch. You won't have to do that for long before someone will tell you what they think.

One of the most memorable of my experiences came after having written a three-part series about a megachurch in Dallas when I was a reporter some years ago. I was searching for something in the library when a librarian said of the series, "I don't know why they had to put that mess on the front page of the newspaper."

When I asked why what I'd labored over for months was a mess, she gave me an earful about her opinion of evangelicals.

Here's another idea, announce to people who don't know about your faith, that one of your relatives has become an evangelical. Say it in a despairing way if you want to encourage honesty. See if anyone defends them. Or even tries to pep you up. Chances are good that they'll have a pack of horror stories to tell you about holidays ruined and relatives insulted.

Being defensive and denying the problem won't solve the problem.

BTW, reporters aren't popular either. But I don't try to kill the messenger for saying so.

Helen said...

Bradley I'd be interested in your thoughts on Episode 7: The Outsiders Interview in which four young people, two Christians and two who aren't Christians, are interviewed about their views on a variety of topics.

See if it comes out of this group that Christians are highly regarded.

They weren't chosen because they support an agenda to prove a point; they were chosen because of their age and willingness to be interviewed in public at a Christian conference.

It's not easy to find people who aren't Christians willing to be interviewed at a Christian conference. They tend to suspect the motives of the people inviting them and need reassuring about what will happen there before they agree to the interview. Which is another piece of evidence about whether Christians are highly regarded or not. If they are why would people who aren't Christians be reluctant to guest appear at their conferences?

I like Christine's suggestions. I hope you'll try them.

Brad Wright said...


Thank you for the suggestion on The Outsiders. It looks very interesting.

Also, thank you for the compliment of my photos. I'm just getting going on that, and it's a lot of fun.

I looked at some of the photos on your website, and you've got a really good eye for it!

Helen said...

Thanks Brad!

I hope you enjoy the Outsiders Interview.