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.