Faithful measures bring transparency to polls, deepen understanding of religion

12/14/2017 09:14 am ET

What does it say about the cultural divide in America that there has been a skyrocketing escalation in the use of language perceived by many as taking the name of God in vain?

As pollsters, researchers and media outlets come under increasing pressure to promote findings that “sell” in a crowded information marketplace, how can individuals separate the wheat from the chaff in survey data?

One might even ask how science can hope to capture in concrete form experiences that leading psychology researchers such as Peter Hill and Kenneth Pargament note “are as inherently elusive and mysterious as religion and spirituality.”

The answers to these and other questions, such as how to determine the beliefs of a growing percentage of people not affiliating with traditional religious groups, are difficult to come by in a rapidly evolving religious landscape.

But there is cause for hope, suggests a new book exploring methods in the art and science of measuring religion in the 21st century.

In 12 essays in “Faithful Measures: New Methods in the Measurement of Religion,” leading religion researchers across academic disciplines explore an array of evolving approaches that can help deepen understanding of the role of religion in public and private lives today.

They include ways to compare polls on factors from survey methodology to question wording for a clearer understanding of their value and potential bias.

And sophisticated new research approaches that go beyond broad measures such as survey attendance to capture the myriad understandings and expressions of personal faith.

Measuring religiosity is not as simple as weighing out a pound of ground beef or pouring a liter of wine, note the book’s editors, sociologists Roger Finke of Pennsylvania State University and Christopher Bader of Chapman University.

It comes with the responsibility to be faithful in measurements, and intellectually humble enough to be open to new ideas and new findings.

Further, according to Hill and Pargament in their essay, “Daunting as the task may be, it cannot be sidestepped.”

New wine

There is no one method on its own that can completely measure the complexity of an individual’s religious beliefs, much less the beliefs of entire groups.

Even the best surveys and polls must contend with the limits of question wording, respondent bias, declining response rates and other factors that can limit their ability to make useful claims.

And while surveys gather the most public attention, they are but one step on the path toward greater scientific insight.

Finding answers that matter often requires multiple approaches and an openness to new methods that may better account for dynamic changes in American religion.

The good news, lifted up in “Faithful Measures,” is that there are plenty of promising new tools and measures out there.

Among them:

How about not fooling me once: A major concern of many scholars of religion is how a burgeoning polling industry is presenting data of dubious value as indicators of significant religious trends.

“Despite plummeting response rates and widespread public cynicism, polling companies and the news media keep on doing business as usual-asking the same questions, reporting confidence intervals that are no longer meaningful, and claiming that the latest numbers represent news,” Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow declared in his recent book, “Inventing American Religion.” “The working relationships that once connected pollsters and academic social scientists have become a chasm of distrust.”

One innovative way that the Association of Religion Data Archives is helping tip the scales toward transparency is with its new Measurement Wizard.

In their new book, Bader and Finke, who also serve as directors of the Association of Religion Data Archives, report on one of the site’s major innovations: A Measurement Wizard that allows users to compare and evaluate measures of religion from some 1,000 surveys.

One example they give is how attitudes toward human origins can change depending on the way the question is asked.

So, surveys that forced respondents to choose between evolution or God revealed a much sharper divide than surveys that allowed respondents the option of supporting evolution, but viewing it as a process guided by God. The latter data, Bader and Finke noted, were better able “to capture the actual, often moderate positions of the respondents.”

Source: Faith Matters Survey, 2006

Real-time feedback: The developers of SoulPulse are at the vanguard of new smartphone-based sampling methods that gather information about individual’s religious practices, beliefs and feelings “in the moment.”

For two weeks, SoulPulse participants respond on their phone to two surveys a day that present a portrait of how their awareness of God, as well as feelings of love, joy and peace, varied over the period.

For the field of religion research, SoulPulse can be a powerful new method identifying and analyzing spiritual states based on immediate reports, University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright and colleagues said.

Google this: The tech giant’s Ngram Viewer allows individuals to search more than 2 billion words and phrases from digitized books primarily written between 1800 and 2008.

For religion scholars, this makes available a potential treasure trove of data to measure religion over time, Finke and Samford University sociologist Jennifer McClure reported.

In one example, they note how the rapid growth in the use of the term fundamentalist since 1980 illustrates how a word’s meaning in culture can change over time. The term arose in the early 20th century to identify a Protestant movement defending conservative Christian beliefs. In modern times, it is more likely to identify individuals or groups perceived as rigid and inflexible in their beliefs.

For a measure over time of religious sensitivity, and perhaps the state of American culture, a search for a word combining God and “dammit” provided striking results. The word was almost nonexistent in American books until 1920, and was used less than 30 times in 1940. By 2000, the word was appearing more than 2,200 times, a 735 percent increase in usage of the term since 1940 relative to the total number of words published in each year.

Breaking away

There are understandable reasons why new research methods are not universally embraced, Finke and Bader note.

For one, institutions tend to be “comfortable with the tried and true.”

Journal editors and reviewers tend to be more skeptical of new measures. Ethical review boards may have heightened concerns about innovative approaches. Even many foundations that provide funding tend to feel less confident venturing into new territory.

There are also issues of continuity and cost, Finke and Bader state. The desire to chart trends over time can discourage the introduction of relevant new questions.

And it can be expensive to update survey questions or use methodologies that will increase response rates and the trustworthiness of what is reported.

But there also is a high price to be paid in both a loss of scientific knowledge and the potential to mislead and lose trust with the public in disseminating inaccurate or outdated findings.

Finke and Bader challenge those involved with religion research to question the “sacred cows” of the past.

“The safest route is always to fall back upon the methods we know and the measures that seem comfortably familiar,” they declare.

“But if researchers venture beyond their standard templates for measurement and methods, and if gatekeepers maintain a scholarly skepticism without being dismissive, the decades ahead promise to offer unparalleled levels of creativity and exploration in the study of religion.”

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