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?"
Also, evangelicals have much more negative attitudes toward atheists and non-Christians than non-Christians have about us. I can understand why that happens. We have a strong in-group, and the unfortunate byproduct of that is suspicion of the out-group. But if one thing is clear in Scripture, it's that we're supposed to love people who are different from us. And we just don't do it as well as other groups do.
Should we be comparing ourselves with other groups? At the end of the book, you assign letter grades to evangelical Christianity in the U.S., giving us an A- in religious practices, a B in orthodoxy, and a B overall. But you're grading on a curve. We only look like we're doing well because others are doing so poorly.
Let's say x percent of evangelicals aren't reading their Bibles every day. Any number you put in there is a problem. I accept that. But you don't need to collect data if you're judging on perfection. Another basis of comparison is what I think the number should be. Like the Supreme Court justice who said, "I know it when I see it," I can recognize that 50 percent of evangelicals not reading their Bibles daily is an epidemic or a crisis. But again, you don't need data. That's basically putting your opinions into numbers.
By comparing ourselves with other groups, it gives us a sense of what's possible. If the religiously unaffiliated have good attitudes on race, maybe we should be able to as well.
This is not a call for complacency but for encouragement. Why not say, "We're reading our Scriptures more than most other religious traditions; let's do even better"? Instead, what we hear is, "Christianity's going to fail. You're all a bunch of failures. But if you buy my book, listen to my sermon, or go to my conference, I'll solve everything." These fear messages demoralize people, hinder the message of the church, and hide real problems.
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Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You've Been Told is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Previous articles on statistics in the church from Christianity Today and its sister publications include:
Curing Christians' Stats Abuse | The statistics we most love to repeat may be leading us to make bad choices about the church. (January 15, 2010)
The Problem with Counting Christians | Pew's new Religious Landscape Survey is helpful, but the maps are fuzzier than you might expect. (February 26, 2008)
Myths We Tell Ourselves | So your church members need alarming statistics to shock them into being more concerned about the lost? I hope not. (Leadership Journal's Your Church blog, May 1, 2001)
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