Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So are interpretations of survey results apparently. Different groups often translate them in different ways. Consider how USA Today and Christianity Today interpret a recent Pew survey on religion.

In May of this year the Pew Research Center released a study titled: “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” The sub-title: “Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow.” Pew researchers claim the Christian share of the U.S. population declined almost 8 percentage points from 2007 to 2014, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. This shift is affecting all regions of the country and demographic groups, with the drop in “Christian affiliation” being “particularly pronounced among young adults.”

The drop has been driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Each of those large religious traditions has shrunk by approximately three percentage points since 2007. The evangelical Protestant share of the U.S. population also has dipped, but at a slower rate, falling by about one percentage point since 2007.

What’s fascinating is how different media outlets interpret these findings. Christianity Today headlined the Pew survey this way: “Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America.” The magazine claims that, amid a changing U.S. religious landscape, the sharp decline in Christian affiliation cannot be denied but “born-again believers aren’t to blame” for this. Their numbers remain strong and “stable.”

That’s one take. Then we have USA Today featuring this headline: “Christians drop, ‘nones’ soar in new religion portrait.” The rise of the ‘religious nones’—Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion and check the “none” box when asked—is “the new major force in American faith.” And they are “more comfortable admitting it” than ever before, according to John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

It appears that interpreting survey results is like beauty—both are in the eye of the beholder. USA Today leads with “religious exiles” while Christianity Today leads with evangelicals hanging on while exiles are mentioned late in their article. Why the different takes?

It could be prejudice, but it might be more a matter of which brain hemisphere rules. There is evidence that the faith community (think Christianity Today) leans toward being left-brained. According to Iain McGilchrist, the left hemisphere is “narrowly focused” and has no intuitive sense of numbers in context. It tends to see particular numbers.

The right hemisphere on the other hand tends to see numbers in cultural context. It has an intuitive sense of their importance relative.1 The right hemisphere does this by being “broadly vigilant,” writes McGilchrist, seeing the big picture. There is a fair amount of evidence that media in the wider world (think USA Today) leans toward being right-brained. If these findings from neuroimaging are close to the mark, it should give Christians pause when reading a religious magazine’s take on religious surveys.

A truer interpretation of the Pew survey might lie somewhere between USA Today and Christianity Today’s take. Or there might be another way to explain the rise of the ‘religious nones’—a reason that might surprise you. We’ll consider that next week.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

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6 Responses to “Eye of the Beholder”

  1. Jim Duncan says:

    statistics are often used like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than illumination.

  2. Trent McEntyre says:

    The Christianity Today take strikes me as a “guard the fort” mentality. Maybe that is appealing to evangelicals who feel called to defend “America’s Christian Heritage.” It’s a defensive strategy that at best will just slow the decline of Christian faith in American communities.

    The USA Today take strikes me as imaginative. “Nones soar” sounds refreshing and invigorating. But I don’t here a compelling narrative for the growing number of people who have no religious affiliation. “None” is fine as long as you don’t have to explain “why.” (Why are we here? Why are somethings beautiful and others not? Why are humans prone to error?)

    Mike, I look forward to your next post on the rise of the religious nones. My guess is that it has something to do with how Christians have reduced our faith from a way of life to a marginalized part of life.

  3. Mike Metzger says:

    Trent – I tend to agree with your take on CT. It sounds a bit like circling the wagons. Without a doubt, there can be “confirmation bias” in both cases (as well with my take). My sense is that the rise of the religious nones is rather foreign to most churchgoers–and perhaps threatening.

  4. Biz says:

    Hey Mike,

    Looking forward to this new set of blogs. I too was struck by the way CT framed the issue. Their particular interpretation grabbed me as ‘out of sync’ but I had no clear words to verbalize my thoughts. This is/will be helpful!

  5. Adam Mueller says:

    Good Morning Mike and Trent,

    I think you both have a valid point with respect to the rise of the religious “nones.” Allow me to add to the discussion by submitting that my generation (I’m 32) seems to think that not offering any religious affiliation is the appropriate thing to do. In other words, it’s almost viewed as being polite. If you affiliate with a religious belief, then you are bound to “moral facts.” Our culture doesn’t like the idea of “moral facts.” Below is a quote from a fantastic article I’ve read.

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/why-our-children-dont-think-there-are-moral-facts/?_r=3

    “In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.”

  6. Marshall says:

    Thought provoking article. Thank you, Mike. If much of identity is who we are and then what we do, not what we say we are, I wonder if USA Today’s read on the situation isn’t more accurate. We’ve had a lot of verbal, religious identification but how many are truly born again, producing fruit? Maybe the numbers actually have a chance to rise now? Interesting times.

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