Statistics, and More Statistics
Statistics always captivate me. The results of polls, the research that is conducted, its interpretation, and the ways in which we respond to the findings – all fascinating. I aced my stats class at university despite not knowing where the exam was held because I’d never been to a class. It’s all in the tools, really, and I had an amazing calculator that did all the work for me, even way back when.
So I was thrilled when Alan Cooperman, of Pew Research Center was speaking at the Chautauqua Institution one afternoon this week, right after Bill Moyers finished interviewing Robert P. Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, whose work also captivates me. While Jones spoke mostly about the research that went into his book The End of White Christian America, Cooperman spoke to the rise of the Nones – those with no religious affiliation – and their impact on the religious landscape.
I’m at the Chautauqua Institution at the invitation of the United Church of Christ’s denominational house to serve as a Chaplain for the week. This is the fifteenth summer that I’ve had the privilege of being at Chautauqua for a week but the first time as a chaplain. Scott and I were married here in 2003 and have come every year since. It’s where the larger portions of both my books have been written, the writing, editing, and proof-reading taking place in consecutive summers.
Every week has a theme and this week’s was “Crisis of Faith?” For months, I’ve looked forward to hearing religious leaders and secularists discuss the sociological phenomena related to the rise of the Nones, the demise of mainline Christianity, and the pending implosion of evangelical Christianity which, too, has seen significant decline in numbers for the past couple of decades.
Crisis of Faith??????
As the speakers and topics were announced, however, it seemed that the question mark was being given more weight than the crisis. Several topics, while identifying concerns, seemed to suggest that religion, especially Christianity and Judaism, is doing just fine. So I was relieved to see Jones and Cooperman on the schedule since, I believed, their perspectives would surely help those who visit Chautauqua – an older, predominantly white, Christian crowd who has welcomed John Spong, Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels and most other progressive Christian thinkers and authors – come to grips with the proverbial writing on the wall.
Jones was dead on. He spoke about the year that went down like no one but Donald Trump could have possibly predicted and shared his analysis of the polls and research the PRRI had done both before the election and following its cataclysmic result. It was a pleasure hearing him. Which was all I could do; I was seated behind a four foot diameter pillar where the sound system could find me but visuals were impossible. The Hall of Philosophy seats about 500 while over three times that often arrive to hear the gifted speakers slated by the Religion Department.
When Jones was finished, it was clear that many had sat long enough on the hard benches of the Hall of Philosophy and as they made their way out, I scored a seat with a view for Cooperman’s lecture. Woohoo!
Cooperman’s statistics were just as interesting as Jones’. He noted several times that he “had no dogs in the game,” a dispassion required for a researcher who doesn’t want to skew the data. I was glad to hear that, since I had sometimes wondered how Pew Research addressed the inevitable problem of bias.
But as he spoke, I sensed a bias toward religion seeping in. Of course, speakers often take the temperature of a crowd or consider who it is to whom we are speaking when we prepare our remarks. Cooperman clearly thought he knew his audience so it may be that he was simply speaking to them as he referenced Robert Putnam’s American Grace to remind us that religious people volunteer more, care more for their neighbours, donate more, and vote more regularly. Overall, they are better citizens. In light of this, there is a grave danger inherent in the rise of the Nones, Cooperman warned, because the Nones won’t care for their communities in the way that religious people do.
Cooperman noted a few of the organizations he believes are addressing the needs of the Nones. Crossfit and Soul Cycle work hard to let their paying members know how important they are. The Laundry Project in Tampa sends its members out to laundromats to offer families a little time by doing their laundry for them or taking care of their children. And he referenced a Bishop in Florida who had created an “End of life planner” for congregations so that they won’t waste all their resources on the last few years of their lives as we humans so often do. But he neglected to mention secular movements like the Oasis Network which are doing the very real and important work of creating communities in which the well-being of the Nones is cared for and nourished.
At the beginning of his presentation, Cooperman had taken an unnecessary shot at Jones when he declared there is no such thing as a “white Christian America” and that the people Jones had surveyed were too diverse to be considered a single group. Maybe that’s what originally raised my hackles. But his remarks about Nones, the largest and fastest growing “religious” demographic in the States, made it clear that he, himself, was more than comfortable casting them as a single monolithic group.
In a way, he is right. The demographic has only recently emerged. It takes awhile to get a feel for who any new group is – what they are like, how they are different, what many iterations of them exist and how they interact both within the demographic and with groups outside of it. The internal diversity of the Nones has yet to be delineated let alone studied.
More Research Necessary
But he was oh so wrong, too. After failing to answer my question about whether the liberal church had abdicated its responsibility to those it had educated beyond belief, Cooperman was asked who the “gods” of the Nones were. With a shrug of his shoulders, he replied, “Shopping.”
[Tweet “The Director of Pew Research suggests shopping is the god of the Nones. Time for more research.]
There may be Nones whose god is shopping. There may well be a statistically significant number of Nones who get their best rush and biggest affirmations at the mall. But there are many Christians whose god is shopping, too. Indeed, as a correspondent noted, the Vatican has a pretty gluttonous record in that regard. To say nothing of the purveyors of the prosperity gospel, something that has arisen out of a gospel narrative that speaks directly against it.
What Nones are Shopping For
I would wager, however, that what many Nones are shopping for is exactly what religious communities provide their members: well-being. That’s what my question to Cooperman had sought to address: had mainline denominations that taught their clergy and laity enough to shatter any literal illusions about Christianity, failed to maintain the greatest and most important element of their work – the bringing together of communities in which people are loved, challenged, edified, and convicted, communities in which individuals engage in the work of creating an ethical framework within which they endeavour to live, communities that will support the challenges such frameworks evoke in people’s lives, celebrating with them when they thrive and lamenting the contexts that breach their best intentions.
It took Christianity two thousand years to create the kind of communities that lead to flourishing in the individuals Putnam writes about in American Grace Grace. In Amen, I cite the research Putnam did with Chaeyoon Lim in which they found that it wasn’t the religious beliefs that create and sustain well-being; it is the number of social contacts enjoyed by those who use religious communities to create them. If the Nones had such communities, and organizations like the Oasis Network are creating them, the Nones will care for their communities just as well as, and perhaps even better than, religious people do now.
Cooperman was wrong about the Nones because he knows nothing about them beyond the statistical significance they provide as he draws his graphs and pie charts that provide churches with information he thinks they need. Rather than insulting the many Nones in his audience or brushing off my question by suggesting those I am interested in are too few to be of any significance in the creation of tomorrow, perhaps he should pay a little more attention to finding out who they are. After all, the Nones are the future whether Cooperman likes it or not. It would be better for him and for all people of goodwill to ensure they have the tools and communities in place that will strengthen their well-being, nourish their hearts, and help them create a future built on truth, goodness, and beauty. If the Nones are shopping for anything, it will be that. In fact, that’s what almost everyone is shopping for, those who find it in their religious beliefs, those who find it in their malls, and those who, right now, have no hope at all for finding it.