Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So are interpretations of survey results apparently. Different groups often translate them in different ways. Consider how USA Today and Christianity Today interpret a recent Pew survey on religion.
In May of this year the Pew Research Center released a study titled: “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” The sub-title: “Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow.” Pew researchers claim the Christian share of the U.S. population declined almost 8 percentage points from 2007 to 2014, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. This shift is affecting all regions of the country and demographic groups, with the drop in “Christian affiliation” being “particularly pronounced among young adults.”
The drop has been driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Each of those large religious traditions has shrunk by approximately three percentage points since 2007. The evangelical Protestant share of the U.S. population also has dipped, but at a slower rate, falling by about one percentage point since 2007.
What’s fascinating is how different media outlets interpret these findings. Christianity Today headlined the Pew survey this way: “Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America.” The magazine claims that, amid a changing U.S. religious landscape, the sharp decline in Christian affiliation cannot be denied but “born-again believers aren’t to blame” for this. Their numbers remain strong and “stable.”
That’s one take. Then we have USA Today featuring this headline: “Christians drop, ‘nones’ soar in new religion portrait.” The rise of the ‘religious nones’—Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion and check the “none” box when asked—is “the new major force in American faith.” And they are “more comfortable admitting it” than ever before, according to John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
It appears that interpreting survey results is like beauty—both are in the eye of the beholder. USA Today leads with “religious exiles” while Christianity Today leads with evangelicals hanging on while exiles are mentioned late in their article. Why the different takes?
It could be prejudice, but it might be more a matter of which brain hemisphere rules. There is evidence that the faith community (think Christianity Today) leans toward being left-brained. According to Iain McGilchrist, the left hemisphere is “narrowly focused” and has no intuitive sense of numbers in context. It tends to see particular numbers.
The right hemisphere on the other hand tends to see numbers in cultural context. It has an intuitive sense of their importance relative.1 The right hemisphere does this by being “broadly vigilant,” writes McGilchrist, seeing the big picture. There is a fair amount of evidence that media in the wider world (think USA Today) leans toward being right-brained. If these findings from neuroimaging are close to the mark, it should give Christians pause when reading a religious magazine’s take on religious surveys.
A truer interpretation of the Pew survey might lie somewhere between USA Today and Christianity Today’s take. Or there might be another way to explain the rise of the ‘religious nones’—a reason that might surprise you. We’ll consider that next week.
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1 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).