Pew 'nones' study 2.0: Perhaps America’s religion cup is only half empty?

In teaching journalism classes the Religion Guy has often used the little 1954 classic “How to Lie with Statistics,” a great primer for any reporter, especially one like this writer who is mathematically challenged. The following has nothing to do with “lies,” but reminds us that though numbers appear to be hard facts they’re always subject to some spin.

That theme is raised as the media report on the new second installment of data from the Pew Research Center’s 2014 survey about religion with 35,071 respondents.

Such a massive sample allows a small margin of error. And unlike most pollsters the Pew team is very sophisticated about religion. For instance, if a person identifies as “Presbyterian,” is that the moderate to liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) or staunchly conservative Presbyterian Church in America, or some other body?

One caution:  Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow would want us to note down on page 126 that the “response rate” among attempted phone calls was only 11.1 percent for landlines and 10.2 percent for cell phones. As the Religion Guy noted previously, this is a nagging problem in 21st Century polling.

Pew’s first installment last May grabbed many a headline with the news that Americans with no religious affiliation -- those headline-grabbing "nones" -- increased from 16 percent in a comparable survey in 2007 to the current 23 percent. (Hurrah to Pew for replicating its prior poll to show us such trending.) 

Pew installment two shows us this: “People who say they have a religion -- which is still the vast majority of the population -- show no discernible dip in levels of observance.” The quote is from Pew’s director of religion research, Alan Cooperman, well-known to Godbeat toilers for his fine performance during years with the Washington Post. Cooperman is wise to add the perspective that “the vast majority” in the U.S. of A. remains religious, quite in contrast with say Western Europe.

There’s much else to think about as writers delve into the Pew data. It looks like some folks who may have had an attenuated or nominal identity with a  religious group are feeling less pressure to claim they’re religious. It should be easy to find quotable religion analysts who’d say that’s actually a good thing for religious groups -- though is it a good thing for American society?

In the ray of hope for believers department, about nine out of 10 Americans say organized religion brings people together, strengthens community ties and is important in helping the needy. That’s the majority view even among the religiously unaffiliated. Those “New Atheist” polemicists have much work to do.

Another theme here is that those non-religious and anti-religious “nones” (having no identify or affiliation, or agnostics, or atheists) are hardening the lines while religious believers remain committed and even show a modest uptick in devotion. Among those reporting religious affiliation there were 3 percent increases in these three categories: those who read scriptures at least weekly, who participate in small groups at least weekly, and who share their beliefs with others at least weekly.

But then, compared with 2007 the “nones” are less likely to say religion is “important” in their lives (41 percent down to 34 percent), to pray at least monthly (42 percent to 37 percent) or to “believe in God or a universal spirit” (from 70 percent to 61 percent).

Such growing polarization is evident in American politics, and that aspect of Pew 2.0 naturally got press notice. Perhaps for the first time in history, the religious “nones” are now the largest segment in the coalition of those who identify with the Democratic Party,  at 28 percent, exceeding Catholics (21 percent) andevangelical Protestants (16 percent -- a segment of American voters that political reporters and party strategists should carefully consider). Evangelicals, of course, remain the biggest chunk among self-identified Republicans, at 38 percent, vs. Catholics (21 percent) and “mainline” Protestants (17 percent).

There’s a strong move in various faiths to say homosexuality should be accepted in society, though note that this doesn’t necessarily mean religious bodies should alter their traditions. The most worrisome thing here for church strategists is the major dropoff in devotion and traditional doctrines in the “Millennial generation,” and signs they won’t return to involvement as they mature. There’s this and so much else to ponder. Thank you, Pew.

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