More Thucydides, please

thucydides 01To paraphrase my friend Dan Kearns, The Washington Post‘s story about the Pew study is too much Aristotle and too little Plato and Thucydides. It contained interesting facts and figures, but lacked a big idea or organizing device.

Journalists don’t exactly have reputation as numbers crunchers. So it was refreshing to read Post Reporters Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline L. Salmon detail the religious landscape:

(The) survey confirms on a grand scale trends that demographers have noted for years: the slipping percentage of Protestants, now down to 51, and the rise of people who call themselves unaffiliated, now at 16 percent, up from similar surveys.

The survey also lays out … the Catholic Church’s challenge here: no American faith group has lost more adherents. Among U.S. adults, about the same percentage — 24 — call themselves Catholic as in the past, but that statistic masks significant turnover. The percentage has held up primarily because of the huge number of recent Latino immigrants, who are largely Catholic, the survey found. Sixty-eight percent of people raised Catholic still identify with their childhood

Also, Boorstein and Salmon provided useful statistics about American Catholics:

Some Catholic researchers played down the survey’s finding that about 10 percent of U.S. adults are former Catholics, and they said the church has always been significantly impacted by immigration. They also said the church’s membership has increased by about 20 million since 1965.

The problem with the Post‘s story is that the facts and figures were disconnected from one another. It was too much micro and too little macro. Yes, like other reporters who wrote about the Pew study, Boorstein and Salmon wrote on a tight deadline. And yes, they broached one larger theme:

Old barometers of religiosity such as church membership are becoming less important as Americans craft a more bottom-up, individualized concept of faith.

Leave aside the term “old barometers.” Concentrate on the phrase “bottom-up, individualized concept of faith.” Does this refer to what Robert Putnam calls privatized religion? To flexidoxy? To apatheism? To indifferentism?

Those questions might sound like quibbles, but they are not. The Post‘s story failed to tell readers the significance of the trends it described. More Americans switch religions and denominations, more Catholics are leaving the faith while more people are becoming non-religious — readers want to know what’s all the fuss about. What are the social implications of the move toward a individualized concept of faith?

To take one example, political scientist Putnam argues that Americans’ embrace of privatized religion is a symptom of civic decay. Americans are less and less likely to work together to solve problems, especially those that afflict the poor and neglected. Instead of working through their churches to serve the community as a whole, they go to church to save themselves.

The tight deadline on this story made it difficult for reporters to give readers the big picture or an interpretive framework. But they still have time this week. They should go for it: deliver a factual and intellectual scoop. A little Thucydides can go a long way.

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  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Part of the problem I see is that this is the sort of study that needs a baseline to compare with in order to gain a narrative. But it is that baseline. At least I don’t know of any other study that is quite comparable: the Glenmary data that was used to produce the Valpo maps is based on church reportage rather than surveys, and it largely omits the historically black churches because they didn’t respond; and Gallup’s numbers are based on much smaller samples and don’t lend themselves to the same degree of comparison.

    The narrative question is particularly brought out by the release of the Episcopal “red book” data at the end of January. In this case there is a lengthy data set which lends itself to considerable historical analysis. Looking at it, I came to a somewhat surprising conclusion: the drop in ECUSA membership since 2003 appears to trace to departure of middle-aged members, and that some of the conventional theories about the change are probably wrong. What I see, in looking at the Pew Forum numbers, is that they do tend to shoot down some theories; but media reports in particular have tended to try to construct a narrative based on old, unproven theories about the past. For instance, as far as changing denominations is concerned, it historically was held that ECUSA had a high adult convert rate into the denomination. This doesn’t jibe with the Pew numbers now, but I am not sure how true it ever was. The claim that people are now more prone to changing is unsupported, because there’s no baseline on which to base that. I’ve been working on the Wikipedia article on religious affiliation of US Presidents, and it’s striking how few of the 19th century presidents can be marked as definite believing members of specific denominations; it casts into doubt the theory that people were in the past wont to stick with a single church for life.

    The best data here are static relationships within this study. The trend data are more attractive for reporting, but they lack support.

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NonDualBibleVerses/ Eric Chaffee

    Mark,
    I confess to having little inclination to read Thucydides in order to understand trends in religious affiliation. (I know you’re not serious.) And I’m not very interested in stats, anyhow. But I am interested in the teleology of denominations and civilizations. To that end, I’ve ordered two books to get a better handle on this issue: Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West; and, from Arnold Toynbee’s Gilford Lectures: A Historian’s Approach to Religion. (While I’m not a journalist — merely a wannabe, these titles may give me some insight, as journalists are ‘historians’ of the nearest period.)

    ~eric.

  • Julia

    Check out the age statistics here http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/table-age-by-tradition.pdf

    Problem – this is setting out the percentages of various age groups within each religion. There is no chart setting out where the different age groups sort themselves. (I could do that myself, of course, but I’m not a mathemetician.)

    Anecdotally, many of us Catholics observe that many of our young people tend to fall away in their college and post-college years. They aren’t exactly changing their affiliation, they just have different priorities for awhile. They tend to come back in big numbers when they marry and have children. Not all, of course, but a large contingent do return.

    Maybe other religious traditions are different, but I don’t see useful harbingers of the future in the statistics of folks in their 20s being unaffiliated or going New-Agey. Those years are prime for trying out all sorts of beliefs and personas. A comparison to 5 years ago or 10 years ago would give more useful information.

  • Jerry

    In the quest for context over the Pew findings, once again I liked the treatment from PBS Newshour in this case because the findings are put in a historical context: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/religion/jan-june08/faith_02-26.html

    NANCY AMMERMAN, Boston University: Well, we certainly have a picture of the recent situation in American religion as one in which, in the olden days, people lived in a small town, they lived with families over many generations, everybody was the same religious tradition, they stayed put.

    But what we know is that, since particularly World War II, we have become a more mobile society. We’ve also become a society in which a higher proportion of people have left home, gone off to college, met somebody who was perhaps of a different religious faith, married them.

    So this kind of fluidity and change has really picked up speed in the post-World War II period.

    But it’s also interesting to put this in a longer historical trajectory and say, “Well, what was it like, you know, before 100 years ago or so?”

    And I think one of the things that’s interesting about this picture of Americans choosing religious traditions and moving away from the tradition in which perhaps they were raised is that that’s exactly where we started.
    As a country, we started with people who were willing to leave the tradition of their childhood, get on a boat, and go start something new.

    It’s also worth noting in a broader historical context that it was not too long ago that 95 theses were nailed to a church door which started a significant change to Christianity. What would a Pew study have shown back then? :-)

  • Julia

    And I think one of the things that’s interesting about this picture of Americans choosing religious traditions and moving away from the tradition in which perhaps they were raised is that that’s exactly where we started.
    As a country, we started with people who were willing to leave the tradition of their childhood, get on a boat, and go start something new.

    I’m assuming the writer is referring to the Mayflower folks. This story about harassed religious dissidents founding our country is only partially true. What people forget is that the first permanent settlement in North America was at Jamestown. Those settlers had the blessing of the king and the official religion was Church of England – brought with them from the old country. These people were not running from religious persecution at all. Visit Williamsburg and you will be told that people who did not show up for Church of England services were subject not only to fine, but also to jail. Also – no other church was allowed to be built.

    It’s a nice myth that people shed their old religion and started something new here. The vast majority of people brought along their religious beliefs.

  • http://religion.beloblog.com/ Jeffrey Weiss

    And as for the context and practice questions, stay tuned. The Pew folks said they had so much data that the needed to issue a series of reports. This was only the first. The next one, sez I, will be much more interesting in that the Pew-ers say it will explore what people who say they are Baptist or Catholic or “unaffiliated” (and was I the only one who found that word odd in this context?)or etc actually do with their beliefs. Supposed to be out later this year.

  • Joe

    I am puzzled by this statememt about the relatively stable percentage of Catholics:

    The percentage has held up primarily because of the huge number of recent Latino immigrants, who are largely Catholic, the survey found. Sixty-eight percent of people raised Catholic still identify with their childhood

    But why should an influx of Latinos affect the overall percentages? In other words, I would think that newly arriving Latinos do not add significantly to the overall US population — yet they would have to if the proposition is correct that “recent Latino immigrants” are responsible for the Catholic percentage remaining stable.


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