Last week, something fairly momentous happened, at least if you’re a student of American religion: The 2010 Religious Congregations and Membership Study was released. Every 10 years the ASARB, a group of church statisticians across the country, works together to collect information on how many people are associated with every congregations (temple, mosque, etc) across the country. This year’s was by far the most complete ever; congregations were reported for 263 religious groups, most of whom also provided data on adherents down to the county level. Maybe even more importantly, extensive effort was made to account for groups which historically have remained uncounted or poorly counted, including African-American Christian churches, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim groups.
If what I wrote above already has you hooked and you want to dive into numbers right now, feel free. There are plenty to occupy you for some time over at the ARDA (full disclosure: I am a research associate with the ARDA as part of my graduate studies and also a trained church leader; the opinions and conclusions in this post are mine however and do not represent any organization). If you prefer maps, try the RCMS 2010 homepage. If you’re not yet convinced why you should care, keep reading… Read more…
While it is more personal and subjective than a typical post here, you are invited to check out my most recent post at my ministry blog, faithfulchange. It relates to a personal struggle of identity and vocation and to approaches toward sociology of religion and learning in general. Find it below:
A graph caught my attention this week, both because of its provocative nature and because of its actual content.In fact, it struck me so much (and you’ll see why if you stay for show-and-tell) that I thought I would write about it instead of an article or book this week.
So I apologize if I end up sounding a little too preachy today. Also, please be aware that, while I have opinions about the actual issues addressed in the graph, it is just an example, and I am not trying to sway anyone’s political or religious leanings. You’ve been warned.
Welcome to storytime.
This is a fable about two people who liked numbers.
The first was a statistician who wanted to know more about the national debt. So she found some numbers about how it grew over the last 30 years or so and tried a bunch of ways to make them easier to understand.Eventually, she made some charts and put them up on the internet for people to ooh and ahh over. Then she forgot about them and got on with her number crunching. She decided the numbers needed a little more salt.
The second was a progressive political organizer. Because he liked politics and spent 20 hours a day either at the local party headquarters or knocking on doors, with 24-hour news channels on in the background incessantly whenever he was indoors. He loved numbers, particularly when they showed that his candidates were ahead in the polls or that fundraising goals had been exceeded.
One day, the organizer stumbled upon the charts from the statistician and saw something he liked. Out of the collection, he spotted one he loved because, as previously mentioned, he liked numbers that made his candidates look good. Being a responsible organizer, he checked the reference and it checked out. The data was from the treasury department, and so he posted it on the organizational website and Facebook page and let the internet work its magic while he went back to watching the news and knocking on doors.
This is what the chart looked like:
Simple story, open and closed. Republicans like to spend a lot more money than they make; Democrats kind of do but not so much. Here’s the thing. I spent 10 minutes with Calculator and Notepad (i.e. things you have access to or you couldn’t be reading this) and didn’t even have to look up any other data (like, say, the actual dollar values) to paint 2 very different pictures with the numbers. Then I spent another 10 minutes in Excel making the charts below to show you. It’s not hard, but it requires two things:
- Think for yourself.
Let’s tell the story a little differently than the organizer did, using the rest of the charts our imaginary statistician slaved over:
We’ll start simple, by just controlling for the number of years a president was in office. It makes sense that increasing the debt 100% (i.e. doubling it) in 8 years would be different than 4 (George H.W. Bush) or, say, 2 and change (Obama so far). This one’s not too bad and the story’s basically the same, except it doesn’t let the short-timers off the hook quite so much. But the story still seems to be that Democratic presidents do a better job than Republican ones at controlling deficits.
Now, look at the 3rd chart. Here, I just put it in terms of proportions of the national debt at the beginning of 1981. I didn’t have to look up actual dollar values, because I already had the percentages. So, for example, you can see that George W Bush actually increased the debt around four times as much as Reagan, because Reagan started with a smaller percentage of our country owned by, say, China and friends.
When you do this and frame it in terms of dollars, rather than the percentage of the debt they started with, the story itself looks very different. Now, there is a more definite pattern (a social scientist might call it a regression line or line of best fit after doing some math) of constantly increasing deficits over time with a small break (an outlier) during the Clinton administration. The practical implication could be that W and Obama are really the greatest culprits for our national debt, but also (if you think for a minute) that maybe there is a larger pattern that has nothing to do with the political party of the president at all but is a function of something else in how the U.S. political system functions.
Now tell me, when in the rash days of your youth, you ran up credit cards, which was more important: That the new Plasma-3D-rific TV was only 5% of your total debt (since you took out all those student loans) or that it was $2000 you had to pay back eventually at interest? While we may do the same kind of mental gymnastics to justify spending money we don’t have because “Really, what’s another dinner out or album on iTunes in the scheme of things?” that doesn’t somehow mitigate the absolute cost of what we’re doing. It generally makes it worse.
To be clear, I am not saying you should be pro- or anti- any particular party because of this. Both parties do it. It’s human nature, just like the organizer, to look for “statistics” that support what you already think.
You want proof? Search for websites justifying KJV-onlyism . It’s sometimes hard to find them because there are so many anti-KJV-only websites. Try this one for a start. In the third paragraph from the bottom, it makes an argument about the reading level of the KJV being lower (i.e. easier) than all other English translations. This person is even kind enough to say why: the words are short.
That’s it. That’s all the reading level is based on. Not the complexity of the sentences. Not the use of language that has either disappeared from English or has changed dramatically in meaning. Not that fact that, being word-for-word, it uses basically Hebrew and Greek grammar, not English.
And yet: that one test of reading level (by the way, the KJV tests harder on every other major scale of reading level) continues to be cited, especially in this 400th Anniversary year of the Authorized Version (KJV). Because it says what people want it to.
So the moral of the story today is this: PAY ATTENTION!
While the organizer may have accomplished his goal of making his party look good, and even done so with good intentions, it was only with spin. There is more than enough data in the world to justify whatever you happen to think, if you just search hard enough and spin it properly. If you actually care about the national debt, or the “decline” of liberal protestantism, or whatever it may be, stop and think about what you’re being fed. And if you can’t tell what the numbers actually mean, then don’t trust it and do not, under any circumstances, spew it forth just because somebody with a fancy job title said it.
This has been story-time with Nathaniel. And rant time with Nathaniel. Please tune in next week for more exciting morals and numbers and stuff. Thank you.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” -United States Declaration of Independence
The problem with this (brilliant) statement is how you measure and promote happiness. A constitutional scholar will probably argue that the founders intended this to refer to property. Other contemporary formulations used that kind of verbiage, after and Jefferson et al tended to agree with that kind of idea. But one economist today, Carol Graham has dedicated her career to exploring exactly what the pursuit of happiness really entails. Even though it’s a little out of the field of sociology, landing somewhere between social psychology, health studies, and economics, I’m going to tackle her new book (titled, drum roll please… The Pursuit of Happiness) here in terms of its implications both for national policy and for religious leaders.
First of all, the question should be asked: what in the world is an economist doing studying happiness? In case you have not made the acquaintance of any, I have, and can tell you that they like numbers. A lot. They like hard data like gross national product, unemployment rates, and the natural log of personal income (as opposed to the Duraflame). So why happiness?
Well, apparently there is a movement afoot, lead by the associates of a certain economist who shall remain nameless (but whose book is reviewed on this page), to find out what causes happiness and satisfaction and integrate these measures of “subjective well-being” into national policy debates. In other words, in addition to a measure of gross national product, government reports might have another number call gross national happiness.
While you might be tempted to write this off as over-the-top or nanny-state-ism, consider this for a second. Graham and company have found a whole slough of correlates of happiness, ranging from income to health care, and all are generally things we like to encourage. But by using happiness data, we can discuss things like the amount of extra income it takes to recover the lost happiness from getting laid off or losing your home. It’s common sense that losing your job costs more than just the money you lose, but now there is a way to quantify that and consider the true costs of these events when crafting policy.
More useful than that to religious leaders is this: Graham has developed a theory of happiness and life satisfaction based on her research that has broad-ranging implications for understanding the ways in which religion and faith provide support to practitioners and others.
In a nutshell, here it is: People can be happy in almost any conditions as long as:
A) Their conditions are stable and
B) They have little hope of mobility.
No, wait, that can’t be right… The great insight is that it’s ok that you scrape by in the war-torn desert of Afghanistan and I have an iPhone mount in my shiny new Hummer? No.
Here’s why: that metric of happiness accounts for only short-term contentment. Ask someone a question like “How satisfied are you with your life?” or even “Compare your life to the best possible life” and you in fact often get a different answer.
You see, Jeremy Bentham had a theory of what he called hedonic utility, which basically stated that we should make as many people as happy (content, etc) as possible. In that way, Afghans can be happy with their life, Tanzanians can be happier with their healthcare than Americans, and so on.
Aristotle, who lived long before Bentham, had a different theory of happiness, related more closely to the ideas of agency and free will. It had more to do with having power over your life, to choose how you live and what’s important to you.
People can be happy without agency, but it is less likely that they would sit back and say, yeah, having no control over my life is the best thing I can imagine. And the data bear that out. And then you say: “That’s great. You’ve convinced that if I was in congress I might care. But I’m not.”
Don’t sell yourself short. It matters as much if not more for churches, and here’s why. There is not only material content (i.e. happiness) to this discussion but a theological content (free will). From a Christian theological perspective, the less personal agency a person has, the less they resemble God and the more they resemble animals. The reformations reflected this insight- they were essentially about giving the people a place as producers of their own faiths, not just passive consumers of theology. Bible reading and sermons which taught listeners to reason all point to the importance of agency.
By this measure, you can think about and evaluate how worship is organized and content is taught. On the one hand, you have happy Benthamite Afghans. They come together to be encouraged and supported in their present situation. Joel Osteen’s message of prosperity is an extreme example of this in the context of American culture. If you ask “What are most Americans already trying to do?” and then compare Osteen’s message, they line up.
By contrast, Martin Luther King Jr taught a very different type of message. Read (or better, listen) to some of his sermons and speeches and you will quickly discover the copious exhortations to actively seek change in the status quo, all supported by biblical references. One of his great messages was that all Americans must seek to have a measure of freedom and control in their own lives and in the life of the nation, regardless of their background. Aristotle would be proud.
That is not to say that Osteen doesn’t encourage people to improve their lives. All you have to do is watch an interview with him or read any of his books to see he believes God has great plans to prosper you. Nor is it to say that King did not seek to provide comfort to his parishioners; he was a pastor in every sense of the word. But if you compare results, King clearly made more people uncomfortable and Osteen did less to promote the long-term advancement of human self-determination.
Graham’s ideas about politics could equally well be made about churches with a little modification. After wrestling with data, philosophy, and political theory, she comes to the conclusion that (assuming a few basic conditions of subsistence are met) the government’s job is not to make us happy. But it has a vital role in promoting agency.
Whether you use her words or call it something else like living into your potential or having the freedom to exercise your free will, happiness in full is more than just contentment. It is a challenge to nations, to people, and to faith leaders.
So you’re here. That’s rather silly, or at least fruitless, because I’m not, at least not yet. But come by again sometime. Eventually this page may host an amazing blog that will interpret the pants off some of the best research in the sociology of religion so that it is naked (so to speak) to the lay observer, meaning anyone who would actually like to do something immediately useful with it, rather than its sitting around in a room filled with sociologists grunting and nodding at each other. No, we don’t really do that, by the way. We’re actually a pretty laid back group of down to earth people, just with a lot of education that sometimes causes forgetfulness and/or willful ignorance of the limited value of research per se without praxis. Self included. So, seriously, take some headache medicine to recover from the eye-crossing length of this paragraph and sheer quantity of commas, and then follow @faithfulchange on twitter and watch expectantly for the next few days to months to years until this project gets off the ground. Or you could read my other, somewhat sporadic blog that is slightly more partisan and/or theological and substantially less focused than this one intends to be. Congratulations for reading to the end of this. To claim your prize, direct message or @reply me on Twitter and I will say something really great about you. Yeah.