If Ned Flanders ever got sarcastic, he might say a story in the Telegraph on a recent study of the religious was "diddly-dumb."
The study, by researchers in the U.S., the U.K. and New Zealand, appears to find something hard to disagree with: that popular stereotypes of religion make believers less attractive to others. You know, like the dorky, reverent Flanders in The Simpsons. And yes, the study names the fictional character as an example.
But the newspaper overreaches in implying that the attitudes prevail in all three countries, when the study doesn't say that. The Telegraph stumbles also in meekly repeating the conclusions without asking questions.
The study begins with the unshocking notion of "religious homogamy," which means simply that you prefer people with similar beliefs. It then moves to stereotyping -- asking respondents to rate religious people on qualities like "extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experiences."
The researchers found that that, "true to the stereotype of anally-retentive Christians," non-religious participants regarded the religious as closed-minded," even if they aren’t. Says the Telegraph:
Non-believers were not only less attracted to religious people the more regularly they attended services, but also rated less “open” the more religious they seemed.
In a separate experiment the dating profiles of the fictitious religious people were amended to include comments such as: “I don’t pretend my ethical perspective is the only one.”
As a result, religious people deemed more “open” were judged more desirable by non-religious people but less so by fellow believers.
Here's the first mark against this article: It's written almost entirely from the standpoint of non-religious people. It says nothing about the interest, or lack thereof, by the religious toward the non-religious. It just lets one group judge the other.
Here is where reporting differs from mere summarizing or taking dictation. The writer could have asked things like, "This is only half the picture, you know. Did you do any research on whether the non-religious are attractive to religious people? After all, in the United States, even most young people say they're religious."
Because the study did look also at views by the religious toward the non-religious, one of the researchers says in a guest article in the Huffington Post. Psychologist Jonathan Long of Oxford says the study found that the religious are actually a bit more likely to date the non-religious than the opposite.
The Telegraph should have also asked the number of participants. Yes, the study took place in three nations, but with how many individuals? A trend among, say, 10,000 people would be better evidence than one among 100.
Perhaps the writer was thinking about a study announced last April in the Telegraph, which found that just over a third of Britons think religion has a "positive role to play in our daily lives," and that more than a quarter think it "actually has a negative effect." But even that article said 59 percent of everyone in the world sees religion positively. It said also that few people in countries like America and Hong Kong have a negative view of religion.
Psychologist Long confesses that the most striking findings came out of Britain, and that religion appeared to matter more in the U.S. and New Zealand. The Telegraph article leaves out that caveat. It says the results hold for "secular western countries."
The reporter could have also made some calls to pastors and youth leaders -- and religious organizations like the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship -- for their reaction. Who knows, maybe they'd agree. You never know until you ask.
All these oversights are especially surprising when the writer is bylined as the Telegraph's religious affairs editor. But at least he made an effort: The Huffington Post simply turned over blog space for Long's 560-word article.
Even using Ned Flanders as an example of a religious person is flawed; Simpsons fans know that Ned has his weaknesses. He had a fling with a movie star and a Christian rock singer. And he was briefly married to a cocktail waitress he met in Las Vegas, who left him because he was "too good."
So Ned is pretty datable after all. Why shouldn't religious people be, as well?
Picture found at www.veryfunnypics.eu.