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The utility and limits of religious polling

The utility and limits of religious polling


Does the very act of polling the public about religion and their beliefs distort the results we read? Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University says that the simple questions required for typical polling creates unhelpful distortions by not digging into the nuances of faith and spirituality. For example, it is one thing to ask if a person “believes in God” but it is quite another thing to inquire about the nature and style of that belief.

RNS writes about the debate:

…political polling isn’t the only arena where scholars and the public have become  “fed up, frustrated and angry” at surveys that one leading sociologist claimed are of “dubious value or validity.”

Faith in religion surveys can be shaken too, said Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University.

He charges that the image of U.S. religion created by pollsters is too often inaccurate, shallow and misleading. A steady parade of surveys on faith and values misses the depth and nuance of American religious life while making puffed-up claims for credibility even as the rate of response falls to record low levels.

These poll findings are often misused by the media and misunderstood by the public, Wuthnow writes in his new book, “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith.”

Wuthnow writes in First Things:

Polling has taught us to think about religion in certain ways that happen to be convenient for conducting polls. The questions tap a few aspects of belief and behavior that can be tracked as trends and rarely provide opportunities to hear what people actually think. Polling’s credibility depends on a narrow definition of science and an equally limited understanding of the errors to which its results are subject. Its legitimacy hinges mostly on predicting elections and making news. With few exceptions, polling about religion is an industry based on the use of the single method of asking questions in a survey, not on multiple methods or extensive knowledge about religion itself. Above all, it depends on a public that is willing to believe that polls are sufficiently valuable to spend the time it takes to answer questions when pollsters call.

Polling has it limitations, and responsible pollsters acknowledge them, the question is how tightly focused do  you need the picture to be useful? The RNS report talks about the response to Wuthnow’s writing:

”Polls and surveys are blurry portraits of reality but without them we would be nearly blind,” said Mark Gray, senior researcher for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which focuses on Catholic data.

Gray said the polling community is already giving serious attention to concerns Wuthnow raises. But to trash polling as we now know it “would set us back to the early 20th century when we just had anecdotes about some people’s religious behavior,” Gray said.

Alan Cooperman, director of religion research for the Pew Research Center, said pollsters “are not responsible for everything the public does — or should — know. And we don’t pretend we are the only or best way.”

But the effort is worthwhile, he said: When ancient rabbis examined a passage in the Book of Deuteronomy about the first census, Cooperman said, they concluded, “We count things that we care about.”



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