APRIL 26, 2004
Behind the Count
Martin E. Marty
This week: a little essay on statistics and surveys. When I joined the Christian Century staff forty-eight years ago, the editors used to joke about how, when they were bored or the Letters to the Editor file was slim, they could evoke responses from readers. Their tactic: choose topics to which people bring passion. Back then it was anti-vivisection, anti-fluoridation of water, or anti- the possible appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
Sightings always gets responses, often helpfully corrective and sometimes angry, over a topic most would consider rather dull: reports on survey research or head-counting, i.e., statistics. Since the United States Census is no longer permitted to ask religion-questions (since 1936), religious groups, demographers, and statisticians are on their own. In a voluntary society, where religions are not established, it is to the advantage of every group to come up with the largest numbers possible to impress others and cheer their own.
Back then, I was a parish pastor, even as I was reporting on denominational and parachurch life. It was natural for ministers of subsidized "mission" parishes to turn in large numbers, showing that denominational agencies' investments were paying off. We would count the organist at both Sunday services, and her baby-sat child and sitter twice as well. Then, eventually, we went off subsidy and, across the denominational board, congregations were expected to turn over "benevolence" and "mission" funds to the jurisdictions, so many dollars per head. Suddenly there were far fewer heads, and statistics became more reliable.
These years, the most controversy over numbers occurs whenever there is reference to Jews, Muslims, or, among "no preference," the atheists and agnostics in America. In most surveys, the number of Jews gets rounded off at 1 to 1.3 percent of the population, as in 2,831,000 people "self-identified" as Jews in 2001. In the American Jewish Identity Survey of 2000, however, we read of 5.5 million Jews. Who counts? "Of these, 1.4 million were aligned with a religion other than Judaism, 1.4 million were secular or non-religious... "
Muslims? "Muslim leaders in the U.S. optimistically estimate that there are approximately 6.5 million Muslims in the country (1999)... newspaper accounts (2001) frequently refer to an estimated 8 million American Muslims" comments Adherents.com. The 2000 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches estimates that there are 3,950,000 Muslims in America. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) says that there are 2.8 million Muslims maximum. The AJC and others are quick to assert that there's never been a scientific or even semi-scientific numbering of Muslims, practicing and not. (I'll get letters chastening the asserters and this reporter.)
As for atheists, agnostics, etc., the story is too complex for this short column. The resident expert is Dudley Duncan, a Californian who keeps score and who recently wrote an article, "The Rise of the Nones." He'll be glad to respond to e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Rudin of AJC can be reached at Jamesrudin@aol.com. Ask for his fine recent Religion News Service summary "Demographic Trends."
And you'll get a wonderful compilation from http://www.adherents.com/rel_USA.html.