Can religion not be fully studied with surveys or do we not use survey results well?

In a new book (which I have not read), sociologist Robert Wuthnow critiques the use of survey data to explain American religion:

Bad stats are easy targets, though. Setting these aside, it’s much more difficult to wage a sustained critique of polling. Enter Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton professor whose new book, Inventing American Religion, takes on the entire industry with the kind of telegraphed crankiness only academics can achieve. He argues that even gold-standard contemporary polling relies on flawed methodologies and biased questions. Polls about religion claim to show what Americans believe as a society, but actually, Wuthnow says, they say very little…

Even polling that wasn’t bought by evangelical Christians tended to focus on white, evangelical Protestants, Wuthnow writes. This trend continues today, especially in poll questions that treat the public practice of religion as separate from private belief. As the University of North Carolina professor Molly Worthen wrote in a 2012 column for The New York Times, “The very idea that it is possible to cordon off personal religious beliefs from a secular town square depends on Protestant assumptions about what counts as ‘religion,’ even if we now mask these sectarian foundations with labels like ‘Judeo-Christian.’”…

These standards are largely what Wuthnow’s book is concerned with: specifically, declining rates of responses to almost all polls; the short amount of time pollsters spend administering questionnaires; the racial and denominational biases embedded in the way most religion polls are framed; and the inundation of polls and polling information in public life. To him, there’s a lot more depth to be drawn from qualitative interviews than quantitative studies. “Talking to people at length in their own words, we learn that [religion] is quite personal and quite variable and rooted in the narratives of personal experience,” he said in an interview…

In interviews, people rarely frame their own religious experiences in terms of statistics and how they compare to trends around the country, Wuthnow said. They speak “more about the demarcations in their own personal biographies. It was something they were raised with, or something that affected who they married, or something that’s affecting how they’re raising their children.”

I suspect such critiques could be leveled at much of survey research: the questions can be simplistic, the askers of the questions can have a variety of motives and skills in developing useful survey questions, and the data gets bandied about in the media and public. Can surveys alone adequately address race, cultural values, politics views and behaviors, and more? That said, I’m sure there are specific issues with surveys regarding religion that should be addressed.

I wonder, though , if another important issue here is whether the public and the media know what to do with survey results. This book review suggests people take survey findings as gospel. They don’t know about the nuances of surveys or how to look at multiple survey questions or surveys that get at similar topics. Media reports on this data are often simplistic and lead with a “shocking” piece of information or some important trend (even if the data suggests continuity). While more social science projects on religion could benefit from mixed methods or by incorporating data from the other side (whether quantitative or qualitative), the public knows even less about these options or how to compare data. In other words, surveys always have issues but people are generally innumerate in knowing what to do with the findings.

Quick Review: Be Very Afraid

Robert Wuthnow is a sociologist of religion and culture and I was intrigued when I saw one of his recent books at the public library: Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats. A few thoughts about the book:

1. The book examines four threats: the nuclear threat, terrorism after 9/11, global pandemics, and global warming. Each threat has a chapter where Wuthnow provides an overview of the history and then a second chapter that provides more of an analysis. Each of these subjects is interesting and the historical chapters are decent overviews of the social construction of and response to each of the problems. The historical chapters tend to focus on popular culture (movies in particular) and government responses.

2. The primary theoretical aim is to demonstrate that people are not paralyzed or immobilized by such threats (as some have suggested) but rather are spurred into action. For governments and larger organizations, this means the development and expansion of agencies and procedures to deal with threats. Average citizens go about ways of making sense of the situation and preparing themselves. Wuthnow suggests action and searching for solutions is the typical human response to such situations and analyzing these patterns of response is revealing.

3. While the cases are interesting as is the theory, I feel this work could have done more to analyze each case and provide an overarching perspective on threats at the end. I also would have liked to see more of a summary of the interview data that Wuthnow and his team collected (mentioned in the first footnote to the Introduction) – how did this personal-level data fit with the broader social history of each threat?

Overall, an interesting work that left me wanting a little more explanation. These cases suggest that when a new threat arises, both bureaucracies and individuals will respond with action. But what kind of action – is it dependent on the particular threat, the particular culture, or some other factors?