Sunday, April 5, 2009

Religion Polls: Cum Grano Salis

Last weekend’s Gallup Poll came to unsettling conclusions about Catholic beliefs. We’re to be salt and light, so I hereby offer three grains of salt to take with the poll (next post: the light it sheds).

1. Nonsmokers smoke Marlboros. No doubt the faith of Catholics today is weak. But how weak? We don’t know from this survey. If you administer a survey that asks, at the top, “Are you a smoker or a nonsmoker?” and, at the bottom, “Which brand of cigarettes do you smoke?” you’ll find that a surprisingly high number of “nonsmokers” prefer Marlboros. The point is: If you give someone the opportunity on a survey to identify with one group or another, they may well identify with a group that they might not ordinarily consider themselves a part of.

In a survey asking, “Are you Catholic?” “Yes” answers can mean anything from “I loved the sweet smell of my grandmother’s bedroom, where she kept the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and though I have never darkened the door of a church, I am to my bones the child of the child of that Catholic granny” to “I hate the Church. I wish I could be unbaptized. But baptized I am,” ... not to mention “I can’t remember which religion I am, but I hear about that one a lot.”

So, though we all know anecdotally that there’s a ring of truth to it, the part of the survey that identifies “Catholics” without qualification is too broad.

2. The twice-as-much syndrome. But what about the part of the survey that asks about Catholics who go to Mass “weekly, or almost every week”? There’s a problem here, too. The precepts of the Church spell out the minimum of “what you have to do to be Catholic.” An “almost every week” commitment to Mass doesn’t meet the minimum. So, even here, the survey is not capturing what it thinks it’s capturing. It’s not capturing practicing Catholics.

Are we being sticklers? No. Another notorious failing in surveys is that people regularly employ “wishful thinking” so much that they don’t even know that they’re doing it.

When an editor tells me, “It will be ready in 20 minutes” I thank them, and plan for the work to be done in 40 minutes. When someone tells me it takes 10 minutes to get to their house from the church, I assume they did it once in a lucky 13 minutes, rounded down to 10, and that it normally takes 20. But wishful thinking has made that 10 minutes stick in their head.

And when someone tells me they go to church “almost every Sunday” I figure they go twice a month, or less—but that it feels like a heck of a lot more than that to them.

3. Questioning the questions. My last grain of salt are the questions themselves. The poll asks which of several behaviors is “morally acceptable.”

On the question of abortion and other issues, the numbers are probably fairly accurate. I don’t think the survey recorded a significant number of people who answered the abortion question literally, with “indirect abortion” in mind.

But on the death penalty: On the one hand, it is morally acceptable (the Catechism says the state can have recourse to it); on the other hand, it’s not (the Catechism says that the times in which it ought to be used are practically nonexistent). So how would the Pope answer, if he were asked—Yes or No—if the death penalty were acceptable?

On having a baby outside marriage: If you’re pregnant, it is morally unacceptable to do anything but have the baby. So how should you answer that question?

On divorce: There are fairly common situations of abuse in which it’s morally acceptable to divorce.

So those numbers can get very skewed, also. National Catholic Register

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