Pretty Important .3%

Feb 26, 2008
I saw similar stories in both of the daily papers today (alas, not a statement I'll be able to make for much longer), reporting the Pew Forum's new U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. And I gotta say, at least they managed to escape sounding panicked about the results.

Researchers also found such a sharp decline in American Protestantism that "the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country."


As Jason at Wild Hunt points out, the survey is good news -- or at least interesting news? -- for Pagans in that it's the first formal survey to estimate our population at over a million in the United States. Maybe next time around, if we're lucky, we'll have demographic results of our own, instead of just as a chunk of the "other" category. (Although I have to say, the demographic breakdown of the "other" category is pretty interesting.)

My social sciences training was in anthropology, where we sneer at surveys as tools of the weak -- after all, people lie on surveys. Admittedly, religion is a hugely personal thing and I'm not going to accuse anyone in particular of lying on the survey because as far as religion goes, what you say you are is pretty much what you are. But anthropologists like to study how what people do conflicts with what they say they do, so from an anthropological standpoint -- How many of those people who marked themselves affiliated with a particular church really spend a lot of time with that institution, and how many of them are what my grandma used to call Christmas & Easter Christians? Does that break down differently over denomination? And does that have any impact on the way people live their lives? Anthropologically I'd be willing to bet America is already a minority Protestant nation. (I wish there was a good way to study that, but ethnography requires spending time with a particular group of people, and it'd be hard to find a group of Christmas & Easter Christians., I could get very insulting there, and I won't.)

I hate to get into a debate over who's a Real True Christian and who isn't (especially as I no longer have a vested interest in the argument) but surveys always raise these questions in my mind, even though I know there's no good way to answer them and it's not like the answers would prove anything anyway. Maybe it's because I feel guilty. My therapist asked me how important religion was in my life, and I said "pretty important" -- what does that mean, that I meditate every day, that I turn to magic and the gods to help me with myself, that I celebrate the quarter days and give little offerings every once in a while and always say hello to the crows in case Macha is watching her children today? Is that what other people mean when they say their religion is "pretty important," or do they mean something else? That's a question that a survey can't answer, but without that answer, how do those numbers mean anything beyond the broadest possible strokes?

This is why I tend not to take surveys, myself. I think about them too much.

No comments: