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Why reporting on religious surveys is a bad idea – Austin Statesman quotes Byron R. Johnson and Rodney Stark

By Joshunda Sanders | Monday, August 29, 2011, 09:22 AM

As much as I enjoy polls and surveys, a recent Wall Street Journal article on the flaws of national news media reporting on surveys is a concern I’ve had that’s popped up again and again. In the absence of more people willing to talk openly about their faith, combined with the “halo effect” of self-reporting — when people report things because of what they think people want to hear versus what they actually do — the data seems to often come up shallow. At least, that’s what I usually think about it, as fascinating as I find data.

But Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson, are co-directors of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and they blame reporters for failing to follow up and correct misguided conclusions about the data. Rightly so, I think. They reported Friday that news organizations generally ignore surveys that show instances of trends being reversed:

The national news media yawned over the Baylor Survey’s findings that the number of American atheists has remained steady at 4 percent since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high. But when a study by the Barna Research Group claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation — even though it was a false alarm.

Surveys always find that younger people are less likely to attend church, yet this has never resulted in the decline of the churches. It merely reflects the fact that, having left home, many single young adults choose to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

Once they marry, though, and especially once they have children, their attendance rates recover. Unfortunately, because the press tends not to publicize this correction, many church leaders continue unnecessarily fretting about regaining the lost young people.

They mention the Barna Group’s recent survey that most reporters (myself included) interpreted as evidence that more American women were falling away from the church. Stark and Johnson point out that the data released was part of surveys that Barna has been conducting for 20 years but hype over the numbers and percentages obscured the fact that the gender gap in America is still alive and well. This stings a little bit, but it’s helpful to see areas where I fall into the same habit as my other colleagues — I’ll aim to do better:

Across 38 years, there have been only small variations in church attendance, and Barna’s reported 11 percentage-point decline in women’s church attendance (to 44 percent from 55 percent) simply didn’t happen. Nor has the gender gap narrowed. In 1991, according to [the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center] data, 38 percent of women and 28 percent of men said they attended weekly. In 2002, 36 percent of women and 24 percent of men attended weekly. In 2008, 36 percent of women and 25 percent of men attended weekly, and in 2010 it was 34 percent of women and 25 percent of men.

Finally, the Baylor data show that in 2007, 38 percent of women, compared with 26 percent of men, described themselves as “very religious.” So the gender gap—which holds for every religion in every nation around the globe—remains alive and well in America, just as it has for decades. As for media-hyped studies about religion, one should always beware of bad news bearers.