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I recently described the problems that occur in making and understanding social statistics. Now I want to apply some of these lessons to religious numbers, to understanding (for instance) the rise and fall of particular churches. These comments apply particularly to understanding Christian numbers in the world at large, compared with the other great faiths.
We often read figures that particular churches have X million members. Some of the problems with such statistics are obvious enough, especially the idea that churches always try to over-claim members in an effort to make themselves look as successful as possible. You even hear comments that religious data are especially soft or dubious, although distinguished scholars like Todd Johnson and Roger Finke make an excellent case for the value of religion-related numbers, when properly understood and studied.
Questions - Time - Issues - Figures
To return to the questions I identified last time, the issues to be addressed when looking at any figures:
Who is doing the counting?
What are they counting?
Are those agencies or groups in a position to observe and assess reality?
Motives - Stats - Ways
Do they have motives to interpret the stats in particular ways?
What can the raw numbers tell us about attitudes or behaviors?
Church - Example - Question - Kind - Census
In the church example I mentioned earlier, the “Who” question is vital. If you are lucky enough to have any kind of religious census, churches themselves often report their numbers, and of course they count different things (the “What”). Some count active members, variously defined. Some count communicants, in churches where Communion is a key institution. Some give a more general statement of adherents, variously defined.
Sometimes, churches change their criteria for counting members, and that alteration might add or remove many thousands from the rolls. An unwary observer might conclude that such a change represented a surge or collapse in actual membership, rather than a statistical artifact.
I often deal with African churches...
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