About the discipline
Statistics is a valuable tool in understanding religious trends and the role of religion in society. A mathematical science, it collects, analyses, interprets, explains and presents data, making it useful to a variety of academic disciplines, including religion. There is a growing interest and need for religious statistics that record the percentage of various faiths in cities, schools, professions, or nations; as well as to record trends in religious beliefs and viewpoints on current issues and events.
Statistics on religion are useful to religious organizations, schools, academics, governments and even politicians. There are many needs and opportunities for using both methodological and collaborative approaches in collecting and analyzing information about religion.
Using statistics: Statistics and religion have recently gained attention due to Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam’s book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Putnam and a team of researchers analyzed data and used quantitative measures such as survey methods to reach conclusions about social capital (the “value of people dealing with people”). Based on the statistics, Putnam argues that civil society is breaking down as Americans become more disconnected from their families, neighbors, communities and the republic. Putnam devotes a chapter to religion, noting statistical ties between religious attendance and higher rates of engagement in civic life. However, he also found that church attendance is declining along with other kinds of civic engagement.
What is useful for those interested in religion is that declining church attendance appears to follow the same trends as other declining voluntary and membership organizations. This means it is unlikely to be affected by developments specific to religion. Looking for root causes or solutions only within the religious sphere overlooks a larger problem of disengagement, Putnam argues. This is useful information for religious organizations that are losing membership and trying to find innovative ways to attract youth and new members. It is also informative for those who want to increase involvement in civic life and its attendant benefits to individuals and society. If those who attend religious institutions are more likely to engage, becoming involved in religion could be a catalyst for more engagement.
Challenges today: Those collecting and analyzing information about religion will find it is difficult to obtain information about people’s religion. The U.S. Census, which counts people and many characteristics, does not ask people their religious affiliation and employers are not supposed to ask potential employees. Sources of statistics on religion are also inconsistent. Results differ based on how questions are asked, how people are contacted, and their options for response.
Some traditions – such as African-American denominations – are typically underrepresented because of difficulty obtaining numbers. Numbers are also difficult to compare because religions track membership differently. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, counts people who are baptized; the United Methodist Church counts people who are confirmed; mosques don’t require membership so any counts are only estimates; and only about half of Jews in the United States are affiliated with synagogues. Some houses of worship make estimates on the number of people at an average service; others count those who are on the membership rolls. Categories can also be problematic: Mormons consider themselves Christians but many Christians do not. Messianic Jews considers themselves Jews but many Jews consider them Christians.
Some religious groups are so statistically small, or their adherents so distributed, that they are difficult to count, and there are sometimes language barriers for faiths whose adherents are primarily immigrants. Those collecting information need to also bear in mind that people frequently lie when asked about religion, and that numbers provided by faiths about their own faith can be inflated.
Religion statistics, like all statistics, carry with them the need for caution about how they are used. It is not unusual for religion statistics to be used to maximize or minimize trends, based on the agenda of the faith or agency doing the reporting. Statistics can also be used and misused in business and government. Still, there remains a great need for a more consistent and detailed collection of information about religious affiliation and belief. There are employment opportunities for statisticians looking at religion in academia, government and among religious entities. Statisticians could also add questions on religion, spirituality, affiliation and beliefs when collecting data in other fields to gain further insight into religious belief and its impact; and to better understand and serve these communities.
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- “Religion and Secularization in Europe, Statistics Demonstrate Declining Church Attendance for Many Reasons” by Michael Streich, May 26, 2009.
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- Social Statistics for a Diverse Society. Chava Frankfort-Nachmias and Anna Leon-Guerrero. Pine Forge Press, 2008.
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- A Summary View of All Religions; Including the Creeds, Statistics, and Benevolent Operations of the Principal Protestant Sects. Daniel Wise and J. Porter. Boston Type and Stereotype Foundry, 1840.
- Statistics for the Social Sciences. R. Mark Sirkin. Sage Publications, Inc., 2005.
- The American Christian record: containing the history, confession of faith, and statistics of each religious denomination in the United States and Europe.Washington: D.C., Buell & Blanchard & Lea, 2009.
- Strange Notes on Modern Statistics and Traditional Popular Religion in China: Further Reflections on the Importance of Sinology for Social Change as Applied to China. (L. Mende and M. Von Siebert (eds.). Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000.
- Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Rodney Stark and Roger Finke. University of California Press, 2000.
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Codes of ethics
- American Statistical Association Ethics
- American Association for Public Opinion Research – Code of Professional Ethics & Practices
- Journal of Religion
- Journal of Religion and Society
- Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion
- Journal of the American Academy of Religion
- Electronic Journal of Statistics
- Journal of Statistics Education
- Statistics: A Journal of Theoretical and Applied Statistics
- The Center on Religion & the Professions’ Collection of Survey and Poll Research, 2000-present
- American Religious Identification Survey (ReligionLink)
- Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
- Association of Religion Data Archives
- Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Datasets
- The Barna Group
- Gallup religion polls
- Ellison Research
- Lifeway Research
- Spirituality in Higher Education
- FACT Faith Communities Today
- Religion statistics by country
- University Libraries religion statistics links
- Librarians’ Internet Index – religion and statistics
- The Pluralism Project – statistics by tradition
- Religion and Divorce statistics
- Statistics about Black Americans – Religion
- Percentage of population claiming no religion by state (StateMaster)
- Table of Statistics on Religious Affiliations in the Americas and the Iberian Peninsula
- Religion and belief in the UK: some surveys and statistics (British Humanist Association)
- Data Pathfinders: Statistics on Religion (GIMSS), Religious Data: Statistics for Researchers
Professional associations and faith groups
- American Academy of Religion
- Association for the Sociology of Religion
- Association of Christians in Mathematical Sciences
- Canadian Science and Christian Affiliation
- Christian Association for Psychological Studies
- Christian Pharmacists Fellowship International
- Faith Based Marketing Association
- Fellowship of Scientists
- International Association of Muslim Psychologists
- North American Association of Islamic and Muslim Studies
- Religion Newswriters Association
- Religious Communication Association