“Lies, damned lies and statistics….”

“Lies, damned lies and statistics….” December 4, 2011

It’s a saying; please don’t get offended or accuse me of swearing!

So, here’s a fact. No matter what fact a person cites, someone will contradict it. If I say to a sufficiently large audience (anywhere, anytime) “The Bible contains 66 books” SOMEONE will inevitably correct me by saying (for example) “No, it has only 49 books.” And often they’ll simply toss out the correction in a kind of “Gotcha!” fashion and leave it there without explanation. It happens all the time.

(The “fact” is that it all depends on who’s counting. If a person is going by the traditional Hebrew way of enumerating the books of their canon and adds the New Testament it would be 49 because the Hebrew Bible [watch now, someone will correct me!] has 22 books because, among other things, the so-called “minor prophets” are counted as one book. And, of course, a Catholic will correct me by insisting on adding the books Protestants call “apocryphal.” So the issue of the number of books in the Bible is essentially contested, but that doesn’t make my assertion of 66 books false.)

In our fun postmodern age there are almost no incontestable facts.

So, here, this weekend, I posted a message in which I repeated the statistic that divorce among evangelicals is as common as among non-evangelicals. Predictably, several people leaped to correct me. Some of them cited a sociologist I’ve never heard of who, so they claim, has proven that statistic wrong.

One thing I request is that IF you are going to correct me, cite the entire source and specifically what it says. I don’t have time to go looking up every author or source someone mentions. Explain as fully as possible in your comment WHY you are correcting my statement of a fact and give full documentation and a brief summary of what the source says that allegedly proves my statement wrong.

This time I did go to the source that is most often cited to support the statistic that evangelicals experience divorce as soften as non-evangelicals: George Barna. Here is the internet source: http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/15-familykids/42-new-marriage-and-divorce-statistics-released.

As I suspected, everything depends on how one defines “evangelical.” In his research, Barna distinguished between “born again” and “evangelical.” AS HE DEFINED “evangelical” it is true that divorce is not quite as common as in the general population.  However, among people who describe themselves as “born again” it is just about as common. I don’t necessarily agree with Barna’s definition of “evangelical.” His criteria for being “evangelical” sound more like fundamentalist to me and I’m sure many in the “born again” category ARE evangelicals but have shied away from the label because of its common association with the Religious Right and fundamentalism, etc.

We could argue statistics all day long and get nowhere. My point was that, it seems to me, just because church attends swings upward (over a long period of time) and megachurches are thriving, etc., the secularization theory is not thereby falsified. One has to look deeper into the real beliefs and spiritual commitments of people flocking into churches and into the beliefs and practices of the churches themselves. IN MY OWN OPINION, in other words, just because a megachurch appears with 20 thousand people in attendance every Sunday says little or nothing about the quality of its Christianity. My point in a nutshell is that sociologists tend to focus on quantity and not quality.  I’m less impressed with the quality of American evangelical Christianity than with its quantity.

Now, what does the statistic indicate that shows conservative evangelicals or fundamentalists experience divorce less often? First, according to Barna, it’s not THAT MUCH less often (than the general population). Somewhere between 25% and 30% of self-identified evangelicals go through divorce. In the general population it’s around 33%. One could argue that this is evidence of heightened spirituality OR one could argue it is evidence of stricter community norms OR both. Certainly in the church I grew up in (extremely conservative) there were few divorces.  But when I say “few divorces” I have to add WHO STAYED IN THE CHURCH! People who divorced often left the church and ceased considering themselves born again or evangelical or even Christian because born again, evangelical Christians rejected them. And rocky marriages within the church often survived simply because to divorce meant sinking to second class status within the church. (Divorced people could not serve on any board or teach Sunday School or Vacation Bible School, etc.) (Again, please don’t come at me because you know of exceptions; of course there were always exceptions! That’s one of the things that drove me crazy in that religious context.)

So, the statistic that evangelicals experience divorce as often as non-evangelicals is not flat out wrong (like my fact that the Bible contains 66 books). It depends on how one defines “evangelical.”  I stand by my point–which is that considering oneself “evangelical” in America today does not say anything about one’s likelihood to experience divorce.  For the most part we American evangelicals have become comfortable with divorce and, except in fundamentalist circles, do not insist on the sanctity of marriage except to condemn “gay marriage.”


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