Monday, May 14, 2012

Numbers Lie

Religious organizations love statistics.
Who can blame them?  Membership stats help religious leaders and organizers explain themselves, figure out funding, and define themselves to other organizations. Maybe we can forgive the tendency to round up, to accentuate the positive and minimize the negative. 

But there is a much more basic problem with statistics. Who counts as a member of your religion? Is that everyone who was baptized when they were a child? Is that active members of an actual parish? Is that weekly attenders? Is that persons who self identify, and their children? As CARA pointed out, US Catholic churches count their 'membership' number based on totally divergent data.

Bruegel's Tower of Babel.

Religious organizations wildly overestimate membership.
Nationwide, only half of people who self-identify as Catholic (74.5 million) attended services that month (36.5 million). But at least they attended at Christmas and Easter, right? That has to be the bare minimum of being called "Catholic". That's only 50.6 million. That's a difference of 23.8 million - a hugely significant statistic.

And only 2.9 million Catholics are "very involved" in parish life - like enrolled in schools. And only 50,000 Catholics are involved in parish ministry, as paid or volunteer leaders.

So which of these numbers will an organization use? 

What does it mean to be a 'member'?

What does it take to get the full effect of a religious organization? How involved in the community should you be? How devoted to the ritual practices? How invested in the financial and organizational life of the organization? We must ask,

What are members looking for in religions? 
Is it the rituals? The community of friends? If that is the case, why are 23.8 million Catholics clearly not doing these things, and the vast majority not showing any further interest in the organization? Is this just laziness, not wanting to get up Sunday morning? I worked for Easter, Christmas, and every Sunday morning for the last three years, so would any waiter ever be a 'member' of a church?  Is that 23.8 million waiters?

People get something from calling themselves 'Catholic' but not from actually being catholic.

Two thoughts: 

1) be careful of any religious statistic, membership number, anything like that. There are a lot of very different numbers out there on religions, and a lot of people overestimate their religiosity. 

2) prepare to see the statistics appear to drop off dramatically in the next decade. If I know myself and my friends, we aren't afraid to be honest about our religiosity, about our actual feelings and involvement in religions. As we make up a more significant proportion of the sample, the statistics will be more representative of actual membership. Essentially, 23.8 million will stop self-identifying.