Jun 25, 2011

Data and ambiguities

Religious data is meant to give us facts, measurable things, things we can know we know about religion in the world today.

And we may well be living in a golden age of religious data -- Try figuring out how many people were optimistic about the future the year C.I. Scofield went to jail or, say, what percentage of Protestants held Calvinistic beliefs about Total Depravity when Charles Finney said humans could make revivals happen, and you quickly learn to appreciate the amount of information we have today.

But.

What I really appreciate is how this data can spotlight what we don't know. The ambiguities.

For example, take a headline like:
EVANGELICAL LEADERS FAVORABLE TOWARDS CATHOLICS, PENTECOSTALS

Now, that's actually interesting and marks a change, as, historically, Pentecostals and Catholics have in different ways been seen as dangerous and problematic and not real Christians, etc., etc. But then, say, you see that and you ask, "Wait, do they mean favorable towards the theology? the institutions? individuals who happen to be those things? what?"

And the answer to that is: Exactly.

As you find with the awesome footnote 2 in this Pew poll that's made some news this last week:
"As with many survey questions, these favorability ratings are open to varying interpretations. When expressing a view on a religious group, a respondent may be thinking about all followers of that faith, or about a few people the respondent knows personally, or about certain doctrines or teachings of the religion, or about a mix of these and other factors. The wording of the survey does not specify how the respondent should think about the question, and evangelical leaders who approached Pew Forum staff for guidance at the Cape Town 2010 congress were advised simply to answer the question as best they could."
Info is great for the study of religion. One of the things it's good for, though, is thinking about what it doesn't tell you and what you, really, don't have a way to get a handle on.