GetReligion drinking game: Trends, demographics and Ryan Burge's newsy charts

GetReligion drinking game: Trends, demographics and Ryan Burge's newsy charts

It’s been a while since we had a good GetReligion drinking game.

So here’s the rule for this one: You take a drinking of an adult beverage whenever a GetReligion post mentions demographics, birth rates or, what the heck, “81 percent.”

These discussions may increase in the future, because a very interesting progressive Baptist fellow, who is also a political scientist, has said that it is fine with him if your GetReligionistas reproduce some of this fascinating charts that focus on religion, politics and, often, religion and politics.

The main thing is that these charts often point to valid news stories. Here at GetReligion, we like that. Here’s a large chunk of a recent “On Religion” column that focused on this scholar’s work. This is long, but essential:

Earlier this year, political scientist Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University dug into the 2018 General Social Survey, crunched some data and then took to Twitter to note that Americans with ties to no particular religious tradition were now about 23% of the population. That percentage is slightly higher than evangelical Protestantism and almost exactly the same as Roman Catholicism.

"At that point my phone went crazy and I started hearing from everyone" in the mainstream media, said Burge, who is co-founder of the Religion In Public weblog. "All of a sudden it was time to talk about the 'nones' all over again."

Burge recently started another hot discussion on Twitter with some GSS statistics showing trends among believers — young and old — in several crucial flocks.

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Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat a year or two knows that it is wise for journalists to read church membership totals with one eyebrow raised high. The professionals who work in religious institutions certainly know that membership statistics are estimates, at best.

As we always used to say when I was growing up Southern Baptist; There are towns in Texas where there are more Baptists than there are people.

But there’s no way around it — estimated membership and attendance figures really do matter. This is especially true when they directly affect the polity and governance of a specific religious body.

This brings us — #DUH — to that dramatic United Methodist battle that took place the other day in St. Louis. This was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

The follow-up coverage, with few exceptions, has focused on the rainbow-draped reactions of United Methodist leaders on the losing side of this special conference — which was charged with finding a way forward after four decades of doctrinal disagreements about marriage, sexuality (LGBTQ grab headlines) and the Bible. Could the UMC as a whole require that its clergy keep the vows they took, in ordination rites, to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline?

But let’s look at an even more basic and crucial question, one linked to membership statistics. Ready? How many United Methodists are there in the United Methodist Church?

One would think that the official United Methodist News Service would be a solid place to look for that information. A year ago, it published a report online that stated:

The United Methodist Church’s global membership now exceeds 12.5 million.

These membership figures come from the most recent annual conference journals sent to the General Council on Finance and Administration. The vast majority of the journals are from 2016 with some from 2017 or earlier years including one from 2013.

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, used these totals in calculating how many delegates each conference sends to the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly in 2020. 

Yes, the word “global” is crucial. The United Methodist Church is a global institution and that reality shapes the structures that govern it.

That brings us to a post-war story in the Washington Post that contains some very interesting — I would say strange — language about church statistics.

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Pew 'nones' study 2.0: Perhaps America’s religion cup is only half empty?

Pew 'nones' study 2.0: Perhaps America’s religion cup is only half empty?

In teaching journalism classes the Religion Guy has often used the little 1954 classic “How to Lie with Statistics,” a great primer for any reporter, especially one like this writer who is mathematically challenged. The following has nothing to do with “lies,” but reminds us that though numbers appear to be hard facts they’re always subject to some spin.

That theme is raised as the media report on the new second installment of data from the Pew Research Center’s 2014 survey about religion with 35,071 respondents.

Such a massive sample allows a small margin of error. And unlike most pollsters the Pew team is very sophisticated about religion. For instance, if a person identifies as “Presbyterian,” is that the moderate to liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) or staunchly conservative Presbyterian Church in America, or some other body?

One caution:  Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow would want us to note down on page 126 that the “response rate” among attempted phone calls was only 11.1 percent for landlines and 10.2 percent for cell phones. As the Religion Guy noted previously, this is a nagging problem in 21st Century polling.

Pew’s first installment last May grabbed many a headline with the news that Americans with no religious affiliation -- those headline-grabbing "nones" -- increased from 16 percent in a comparable survey in 2007 to the current 23 percent. (Hurrah to Pew for replicating its prior poll to show us such trending.) 

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On the journalistic usefulness of independent partisans in religion news

On the journalistic usefulness of independent partisans in religion news

Godbeat 101: Reporters who cover the sprawling Southern Baptist Convention are well advised to monitor both the official Baptist Press and Baptist News Global, operated by folks who disagree with the SBC’s staunchly conservative administration. Likewise with the Presbyterian Church (USA); reporters should check out the headquarters Presbyterian News Service but also fare from the conservative

The usefulness of such independent partisans is also evident with the Episcopal Church’s ongoing struggles. For example, the official Episcopal News Service has been slow to post an article about the 2014 local reports (.pdf found here) compiled in the annual “Table of Statistics." Has anything been published? Keep checking here.

Compare this reluctance with Baptist Press’s prompt recent report on unhappy annual statistics.

Reporters who carefully follow independent sources already knew about the Episcopal numbers because they’re reported -- indeed, trumpeted -- by from the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy, which keeps a close skeptical eye on the “mainline” Protestant denominations. I.R.D.’s  polemical headline: “Episcopalians Continue Bleeding Members, Attendance at Alarming Rate.” 

The nub: Episcopal attrition continues.  Compared with the prior year, membership dropped 2.7 percent, to 1,817,004. The decline in average Sunday worship attendance was worse, by 3.7 percent to 600,411. The South Carolina diocese’s walkout is a good chunk of this. Other numbers were also down. Consider that as recently as 2002 average attendance was 846,640 and membership was 2,320,221. Not to mention the 3,285,826 members back in 1970; in the years since, the U.S. population has more than doubled.  

Most “mainline” groups have likewise suffered steady losses since the 1960s but, writer Jeffrey Walton notes, the Episcopal slide mostly leveled off during the 1990s.

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UK's Telegraph finds atheists in Florida -- film at 11

Here’s a shocker: America is becoming more secular, atheism is on the rise and — get this! — for now there are more observant Muslims than Jews in Florida. Of course, it depends on whether you define a Jew as one who practices the Jewish faith or simply identifies culturally.

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Innumeracy on the Godbeat

In the summer of 1992, toy-company Mattel was criticized when their new Teen Talk Barbie included in her list of stock phrases, “Math class is tough!” The company offered to replace the doll for disgruntled customers, but they could have saved both time and money by simply rebranding the dolls as Journalist Barbie.

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