Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...and Other Lies You've Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media
Wright, Bradley R.E.
Bethany House Publishers
July 1, 2010
256 pp., $12.19
Young people are not abandoning church. Evangelical beliefs and practices get stronger with more education. Prayer, Bible reading, and evangelism are up. Perceptions about evangelicals have improved dramatically. The data are clear on these matters, says University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright, but evangelicals still want to believe the worst statistics about themselves. Christianity Today's Ted Olsen (who, among other things, compiles the Go Figure statistics in our Briefing section) talked to Wright about Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You've Been Told (Bethany House), which aims to change conventional wisdom.
There's a lot of good news in your book. What's the best news?
Not to be glib, but the good news is that most of the bad news is wrong. It isn't that there's one specific zinger that changes everything. But there's a large body of work that is mostly factually inaccurate.
Why? Are the survey questions bad? Is the math wrong? Is it how the survey subjects are chosen? Is it the analysis? Or is it the way the numbers get used post-publication?
All of the above, but especially the last two. Take the divorce rate. For years, studies have shown that Christians have lower divorce rates than others. But people aren't interested. If you want to motivate people to take their marriages seriously, you look for a negative, scary statistic. Meanwhile, there's so much good news in journals and academic books that isn't getting through to the public.
But are academic sources really better? I see plenty of weird conclusions in the journals.
Academics are under the same pressure as anyone else: You get brownie points for coming up with something new. So sometimes you push the newness so hard that you end up in silly places. You need to see people respond to a finding or a theory over five or ten years. Academics over time are accurate but irrelevant. Meanwhile, someone like George Barna can come out with a statistic, put out press releases, and everyone gets it.
I wouldn't say "this source is always good" and "that source is always bad." Rather, we have to make sense of statistics for ourselves, applying our own experience. If I went to a group of Christians and made some sort of outlandish theological or political statement, they would question it. But if I put it in numbers, people would tend to accept it without discernment.
But wouldn't that advice just confirm our biases?
Yes, that would be going too far in the other direction. Rather than picking which statistics we agree with, we should be a little more agnostic about all of them. You don't have to believe them. Christians are called to accept and love people unconditionally. That doesn't apply to statistics. We should be cranky and judgmental.
Social scientists tend to think it's a bigger problem to believe something that's false than to reject something that's true. So we can ratchet up the discernment a lot and still be pretty safe.
What stats did you set out to disprove that turned out to be right?
My goal was to follow the data, not so much to disprove anyone. If you're wondering what I was hoping would be good news but wasn't, it's race. I thought we were doing better. But white evangelicals have more racially prejudiced attitudes toward African Americans than do white non-evangelical Christians and (especially) white non-Christians.
I was also dismayed about our attitudes toward gays. I'm not talking about whether gay sex is appropriate, but the standard "social distance" questions in sociology, like whether someone should be allowed to give a talk in public or have their book in a library or, "How do you feel about this kind of person?"