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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

God is Alive and Well in the U.S.

One of my uncles, complaining about the findings of a recent survey, questioned its accuracy, noting that "no one interviewed me." His remark reflects a common misunderstanding about surveys: that you have to interview a lot of people in order for a survey to be accurate. That, however, is not true. What matters is that the sample that is drawn is representative of the population at large. As George Gallup once noted, sampling a population is like taste-testing soup; a single spoonful can reflect the taste of the whole bowl, if the soup is well-stirred (similarly, doctors don't have to drain all the blood out of our bodies in order to test it for various diseases; as long as the blood sample drawn is representative of the rest, the tests can be quite accurate.). In other words, a survey can accurately reflect a much larger population so long as the sample is well-stirred -- that is, as long as it's representative of the whole.

Survey research is the subject of a recent Research on Religion podcast ("Frank Newport on Survey Research and America’s Religiosity"). It not only explores how surveys can be conducted accurately (i.e., getting a well-stirred sample) but also whether the recent rise in religious "nones" should be interpreted as evidence that America's becoming less religious. The interviewee, Frank Newport, Editor-in-Chief at Gallup (yes, that Gallup) thinks not. In fact he has written about it his most recent book, "God Is Alive & Well: The Future of Religion in America." Here's a brief description of the podcast:
Dr. Frank Newport, the Editor-in-Chief at Gallup, discusses the process of public opinion research and what it tells us about America’s changing religious landscape. We spend a significant amount of time discussing how polls are conducted, what their limitations are, and how survey companies like Gallup try to overcome these problems. This is a fantastic primer for those who are unfamiliar with survey research. We spend the second half of the interview discussing Dr. Newport’s book, “God Is Alive & Well,” which argues that America is still a vibrantly spiritual nation.
As I noted in a previous post ("How Religion Benefits Everyone, Even Nonbelievers"), although approximately 20% of Americans indicate that they have no religious affiliation, we should not interpret this to mean that they are irreligious (as many have done). For instance, of the religiously unaffiliated,
  • 18% consider themselves religious
  • 37% consider themselves spiritual but not religious
  • 33% believe that religion is somewhat or very important
  • 41% pray weekly or more
  • 68% believe in God
  • 30% have had a religious or mystical experience
  • 30% believe in spiritual energy in things like mountains, rocks, and crystals
  • 31% have been in touch with someone who has died
  • 25% believe in astrology
  • 24% attend church, synagogue, temple, etc.
  • 19% have seen or been in the presence of a ghost
  • 15% have consulted a psychic
I'm not sure how you would categorize such folks, but "atheist," "irreligious," and "secular" aren't the first words that jump to mind.

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