Monday, March 30, 2009

Breaking Down Data: Sociopolitical Views by Religious Affiliation

In discussions about the shape of America’s religious landscape, the most common assertion is that the United States is a Christian nation with Christian values. A typical phrasing of this claim often sounds something like the quote from Bishop E.W. Jackson, Sr. in this Wall Street Journal article, which reads, “To deny that the country is fundamentally Christian in its culture and its heritage is just not true.” Yet in that same article, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, points out that America is a pluralistic nation; indeed, America may boast the widest spread of religious belief within its population of any country in the world. But throughout this decade, and especially so in election years, political headlines focusing on tendencies of the greater electorate have spotlighted Christians, and Evangelicals -who constitute one-fifth of the voting population- in particular. What would be interesting to study, then, given the multitudes of religious groups in the United States and the tendency to default that the nation’s voice is inherently Christian, and more specifically Protestant, is this: which religion can say that its members share opinions closest to that of the “Average American”? Using data from last year’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, we can take an in-depth look at the social and political views of Americans broken down by their religious affiliation. Furthermore, by comparing the responses of each religious group to the total population’s response to questions posed in the survey, we can establish some basis as to which religious affiliation’s social views most closely mirror the national average; that is, the viewpoints espoused by an average American.

In its Social and Political Views (PDF) section, the Pew survey categorizes the respondents to its questions into fifteen separate religious or non-religious affiliations: Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, historically black Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, Agnostic, Secular Unaffiliated, and Religious Unaffiliated. These fifteen groups effectively make up the entire American population, showing the wide swath of belief systems that exist within the country. Those being surveyed were asked a series of questions intended to gauge how they felt about certain tenets of American society, such as how threatened they feel their values are by Hollywood, as well as their views on hotly debated issues like the acceptance of homosexuality and the legality of abortion. The Hollywood prompt read as such: “I often feel that my values are threatened by Hollywood and the entertainment industry,” to which the respondents had the option to agree, disagree, or do neither. For this specific prompt, 42% of the total population agreed that Hollywood was threatening, while 56% disagreed and 3% did not know or refused to answer. By comparison to the national average, 67% of Mormon survey participants agreed that the entertainment industry threatened their values, twenty-five points above the national average and the highest percentage of “Agrees” to this question; Atheists had the lowest percentage of “Agree” responses, with 19%.

By showing the discrepancies between national average responses to the Pew survey questions and responses of each group of believers or non-believers, I wanted to come up with an answer to which affiliation was the "most American" in their opinions. I will put it this way: if America had to send a member of one cohort to talk to an extraterrestrial who was curious about the social and political values of our country, which religion would be best suited? My method was to choose a number of prompts compiled in the survey that were well suited to providing good data for studying this question; I would then list the national average percentage response to one option of each prompt (for example, what percentage of respondents replied with “Agree” to the aforementioned Hollywood question), take the absolute value of the difference in percentage points between the national average and the responses of each group, and then find the average difference across the eleven prompts that I picked. Whichever group had the lowest average difference can be said to be closest to reflecting average American sociopolitical viewpoints, while those subsets with the highest average differences are groups that are far outside the mainstream of American sociological thought. The questions that I chose were ones that stuck out as representative of the most important political topics; these questions also had a sizable difference between the highest percent of positive responses and the lowest: I often feel that my values are threatened by Hollywood and the entertainment industry; I am satisfied with the way the political system is working in this country; I describe my political views as conservative; I describe my political views as moderate; I describe my political views as liberal; I worry the government is getting too involved in the issue of morality; I think abortion should be legal in most/all cases; Homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society; Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth; If given a choice, I would rather have a smaller government providing fewer services than a bigger government providing more services; The best way to ensure peace is through military strength (INSTEAD OF: Good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace).

These questions, the "total population" percentage responses, and the percentage responses of each affiliation were entered into an Excel file, which can be downloaded here. Once I had input all the data, I proceeded to calculate a “difference average,” or the average discrepancy between the total population response and the response of each affiliation. As stated before, I took the absolute value of the differences in percentages for each prompt, with the exception of prompts 3, 4, and 5, the “political views” questions: for these, I divided each difference by three before including it in the sum to be averaged, because there were three possible responses to one basic question, being “Describe your political views.” Once all the religious affiliations had their own total sum of discrepancies, their sum was divided by 11 to create the "difference average." To recap, the lower the difference average, the closer the religious affiliation is on the whole to the sociopolitical views of an average American. The averages were a bit surprising:


Difference Avg.





Black Protestant




Secular Unaffiliated







Jehovah's Witness


The graph at right shows the spectrum of American sociological opinion by affiliation of belief. The x-axis is chopped up into three sections, by means of how far away each affiliation was from the mean Difference Average in terms of standard deviations: the average Difference Average was 10.82, with a standard deviation of 5.45. The first group can be said to make up mainstream religious thought; the second group ranges from just outside the mainstream to "slightly less than radical"; the third group is on the fringes of American sociological opinion-holding.

According to this method, the group whose viewpoints most reflect that of the American population are Catholics, an affiliation that makes up 23.9% of the American population, according to Pew, yet has only elected one of their own as President (so, when ET comes with some tough questions, an average Catholic seems to be best suited to give him or her answers). Even more surprising is the fact that Evangelicals appear to have more radical social beliefs in America than both Muslims and Hindus, which makes more sense upon inspection of the data: on three separate questions –those regarding abortion, homosexuality, and evolution– Evangelicals’ responses were at least twenty-four percentage points away from the national average. The groups displaying the most radical viewpoints are not necessarily a shock, as we never really see too many atheists, agnostics, or Jehovah’s Witnesses on our mainstream news networks, or being elected to office for that matter.

What these results tell me is that there is a well-defined mainstream of religious thought in America, and it is indeed Christian. However, it is comprised of moderate Christian voices: these are people who are skeptical of Hollywood and the political system, who are moderately conservative in their politics, and who for the most part accept the ways of life of others, as reflected in their overall above-average acceptance of homosexuality and abortion rights. It is this mainstream, along with members of historically black Protestant churches who fall barely outside its current, that comprise a bit more than half of the United States population, with Evangelicals present for another 26.3%. It is a bit unnerving that Evangelicals have the potential to hold a large sway on the political process with what might be called “moderately radical” sociopolitical viewpoints; however, as the last election may have shown, when the mainstream is flowing for the most part in one direction, that will be where the end results are found.

Monday, March 2, 2009

God Speaks: Does Not Have Human Voice

Something that bothers me about the Christian perspective in my country is the belief that God has human qualities and human tendencies. My issue with the idea that God listens to us, understands us in personal terms, or judges us using our own, constructed morality comes from my belief that people created this deity – not the other way around. I know this hammers at the deepest foundation of the Christian faith, but it does not have to raze the religiosity of folks of this conviction; more on this at the end of the post. My mindset comes from thinking about the history of our world in what I consider an honest, evidence-informed way: the planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago, humans came along about a million years ago in some form, and our minds evolved into their own capacities of imagination. From this we gained curiosity and innovation, and the initial step in answering the great mysteries of the world and the universe was to create all-powerful beings that resemble ourselves.

The universe is a vast place. Hundreds of billions of galaxies vast. It, like Earth, is evolving, has evolved over billions of years. Those hundreds of billions of galaxies each have hundreds of billions of stars; how could we think that we are the most significant form of life in the grand scheme of the universe? We happened to evolve on a planet that happens to be the perfect distance from the star it is orbiting, and the further away from our home planet our scope gets, the smaller we realize we are, relative to the infinitude of our existence. To believe that the force behind this never-ending reality and its natural processes enforces the morality of one intelligent species orbiting one star is extremely self-serving and narrow minded.

I prefer Albert Einstein's philosophy of religion. Einstein was a deeply religious person, reverent towards the arrangement of natural laws that govern the movements of celestial bodies and Earthly nature alike; to paraphrase, he described his religion as "veneration for this subtle, intangible, and inexplicable force beyond anything we can comprehend." When asked if he believed in God, Einstein replied, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings” (Max Jammer: Einstein and Religion, Princeton University Press 1999, p. 49). Good and evil are strictly relative to human needs and desires, and the universe continues to churn whether we are present or not; "life flows on within you and without you," if I may. The viewpoint that the force that moves the stars judges our every action creates an environment of irrational fear and a debasement of humans' intellectual capacities.

This weekend I made the drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix and back. As will happen on most long drives in America, I came across a fair amount of Christian-influenced billboards, bumper stickers, and license plate holders: a representation of the marriage of mainstream organized religion in the United States and the commercialization that permeates every facet of the country (sorry to go all Peanuts). I saw a "God Speaks" billboard for the first time in a while: those all-black posters with white writing that are signed by God. The message on the billboard enforced the idea that God is just as annoyed with the human experience as humans are: something akin to this God Speaks advertisement, which reads, "Keep using my name in vain, I'll make rush hour longer. -God" (see right). I think that neither what language comes out of our mouths, nor the marginal time added to our commutes are a concern of God's (to repeat, I do not think "concerns" really figure into the deistic picture); furthermore, I would argue that this specific mental image of the supreme power does not leave room for higher human spiritual fulfillment; if a deity is sitting around for all time and making me slightly irritated at traffic congestion, simply because I said two or three specific words out of frustration or sleep-deprivation, then this deity should not be perceived as all-wise or all-powerful. Put in another way, the God of these billboards (I believe He has a sizable marketing and advertising budget) reinforces the anthropomorphic psychological deity, and I do not believe that a God who is simply a human in omniscient form leaves much allowance for spiritual evolution or transcendence to higher religious planes of being, experiences of which we are certainly capable.

Christianity, in my opinion, has the potential to be larger than its myths. I was raised Presbyterian, attending church every Sunday until the age of fourteen. I consider myself, at present, a relatively moral person - I enjoy helping people out, I try to turn the other cheek, I am not violent - and I credit the Christian environment for imprinting many of these feelings and intuitions unto me. What I do not fondly remember in my childhood experience is the acceptance of the myth-stories of the Bible at a literal level: using metaphors including heaven and hell and the virgin birth as truth, the veracity of miracles, tales of resurrection. I wish for the Christian populace to completely utilize the moral goodness of Jesus' message, while muffling the symbolic and mythological, turning these tales into background noise. My argument is that religious people do not need to accept the thaumaturgic as a precursor to either spiritual fruition or moral goodness; the powers of God can be much more subtle and completely inexplicable, as Einstein would have it, and we can still feel a veneration for the concept of life itself, without confusing ourselves into too narrow scopes of understanding.
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