Go to Church, Skip Your Bible? Religious Incongruity in the News

As a Christian trained in sociology it’s sometimes difficult to “leave the statistics alone” when it appears in popular publications or sermons or adult Sunday school. Recently, several Christian news outlets noted a new survey finding, with bold titles like: “80% of Churchgoers Don’t Read Bible Daily.” Such a phrase is meant to provoke reading but the provocation is the interesting part. This claim assumes that Bible reading and churchgoing ought to go hand in hand, whereas survey findings suggest that this is not the case. This is an anecdotal example of what sociologist Mark Chaves argued regarding religious incongruity. His point was directed mainly at scholars and their work that makes this same assumption that religious people are supposed to be consistent in belief and behavior. In an earlier post, I showed that religious incongruity goes both ways: sometimes Asian American Christians appear less religious than expected, while Asian Americans with no religious affiliation can be surprisingly more religious than expected. Sometimes these expectations are built into surveys where questions are skipped based on a previous answer. This happened in the National Asian American Survey 2008 where those who reported “no religious affiliation” were not asked a question about church attendance.

The recent news reports about the incongruity of Bible reading and church attendance are based on a survey by LifeWay a publication arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Since I read academic articles and books that use very rigorous methods, I used to wonder “where did that speaker or publication get those numbers?” when the figures reported didn’t comport with what I knew in the academic research world. Groups like LifeWay who have a much broader audience get the ear of practitioners where the academics often don’t get noticed.

There are several ways one could figure out the accuracy of a reported relationship. One is built on reputation: what survey firm conducted the survey? Some survey firms like the Gallup Organization have built a solid record of reliable studies, and that name-brand recognition comes at a premium. LifeWay doesn’t report who conducted the survey in their methodology page. All we do know is that they defined a “churchgoing Protestant” as a Protestant who attends church once a month or more. Another tactic then would be replication. I first turned to the General Social Surveys, the longest running, most rigorous, and most comprehensive omnibus survey on American attitudes and behaviors. Sadly I discovered that there were only a couple of times in the past 20+ years of this survey that the question of Bible reading appeared, and none of these were in the 2000s. So I turned instead to the Baylor Religion Survey 2010, a solid survey conducted by the Gallup Organization every few years. As one of the contributors to the design of the survey, I feel confident in the findings since we work carefully to ask the right questions, and we work closely with a well-established survey group that provides us with the survey data of a large random sample of Americans.

So here is a screenshot of the graph that LifeWay posted to illustrate the reported Bible reading rates of Protestants who attend church once a month or more:

http://www.lifeway.com/images/970a39c1-6dc0-4744-b63b-737885ea29b8.jpg

Screenshot taken from website: http://www.lifeway.com/images/970a39c1-6dc0-4744-b63b-737885ea29b8.jpg

 

As they state, about 19% of Protestants who attend church at least once a month read their Bible every day. About the same percent do not read much if at all. How does the Baylor Religion Survey compare?

As you can see, we can’t make exact comparisons since LifeWay didn’t design their survey using the standard approach in academic social science research on the question of Bible reading. Indeed their aims are different. But we can make some approximate equivalence to draw some comparability. In LifeWay’s sample, 45% of Protestant monthly+ attenders read the Bible at least a few times a week. The BRS figure is lower: 34%. At the other extreme, the LifeWay survey found that 18% of Protestant monthly+ attenders read the Bible “rarely or never.” The BRS figure is nearly twice as high, 34%. The middle categories run roughly similarly in both surveys between 36% and 32%.

What this suggests is that while LifeWay’s main concern was to show that active church-attending Protestants are not engaging in sacred Scripture reading enough, the BRS finding suggests that they should be even more alarmed. A much lower fraction of active Protestants are reading a lot, and much higher fraction don’t read at all. Yet both of these findings show more support for Chaves’ argument. We’re surprised at the low congruity between different behaviors that we assume go together in the life of the Protestant Christian. But perhaps the incongruity is the norm, and that the exception is when individuals or groups are remarkably consistent.

So this raises the question for both scholars and practitioners: if incongruity is normal, how should we restructure the way we model religious behavior, and how would religious groups alter their teaching and ministry with this foundational shift in their thinking?

Much gratitude to research assistant, Shelly Isaacs, for finding the LifeWay links and graphing work.

Faith and the Duty Work of Fathering

When I teach sociology I usually think about daily life examples to stress the value of concepts in sociology, and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy blogging here, to test these examples and connect them to concepts. One of the big draws to sociology for me was the importance that good concepts can have in rethinking how our daily lives function. This is actually a key matter when we think about religion. Religion as a way to view reality, a worldview, changes the way we think about how we live life. As many a religious leader has noted, religious people make real decisions that radically alter the way their lives run. We’re invited to reconsider our priorities in life and how they mesh (or fail to mesh) with our lived reality. In the world of evangelicals they use phrases like “walk like you talk” or “having a consistent witness.”

Sociologist Mark Chaves noted however that this is a bad assumption to start with regarding the personal lives of religious people. We’re highly inconsistent or “incongruous” when it comes to what we believe and what we do. At its worst it’s popularly defined as hypocrisy and at best it’s being a “goody-goody” at some things but not others.  [Read more...]

What Asian American Religion Tells Us About Religious Incongruity

So as you’ve probably figured out, I am fascinated by Asian Americans and their religions. And wherever possible I try to find the best examples that can shed light on this population because they help us to learn about how we know anything about religion today, and how we need to improve what we know. I mentioned earlier that sociologists are struggling over how to identify Asian Americans and their religious preferences in surveys. And I alluded to the problem that people with “no religion” might in fact be religious .

What makes someone religious? In the minds of many it could simply be belief in God, or it could be praying, reading a sacred text, or attending a religious service on a regular basis. Sociologists describe this as measures of religiosity. We tend to think of religiosity in two forms: beliefs and behavior. Note: you can believe all kinds of things, and practice all kinds of rituals and say that you’re a Christian or that you have no religion. It’s what Brad Wright summarized in a recent argument made by sociologist Mark Chaves: most religious people experience incongruity between what they say they are, what they believe, and what they do. Asian Americans are no exception. To get an idea about how incongruity might look like we can examine the connection between one measure of religiosity, church attendance, and religious affiliation (how someone identifies their religion) among Asian Americans. [Read more...]


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