Friday, October 23, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: The Numbers Game

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Earlier this month, the Cultural Research Center of Arizona Christian University released its 11th and latest detailed analysis of the results of its January American Worldview Inventory 2020 survey. In a long list of bullet points, CRC Director of Research George Barna noted that, among other disturbing trends, 44% of respondents who self-identify as Christian said they believe the Bible’s teaching about abortion is “ambiguous”, and that 34% said abortion is morally acceptable if it spares the mother from financial or emotional discomfort or hardship.

Tom: The Christian news website Not The Bee (“your source for headlines that should be satire, but aren’t”) took the survey at face value and pushed back hard with a salvo of scripture, and good for them.

A Problem with Method

We’ve commented on some of Barna’s surveys before in this space. IC, I’m wondering how you react to the results of this one.

Immanuel Can: The first and most obvious problem with such a survey is the definition of “Christian”.

Tom: You’ve complained about that before.

IC: Yes. The article takes for granted that all one needs in order to be counted as a Christian is to say, “I’m a Christian.” So that’s clearly wrong, and we’re going to get mixed results including both real believers with merely-nominal adherents … a serious problem for the data, to be sure.

Tom: There’s not a lot of detail in the 11th AWVI 2020 release about Barna’s survey methodology, other than the statement that their polling included a “nationally representative sample” of 2,000 “church attenders” from four groups of churches: evangelicals, Pentecostals and charismatics, mainline Protestants, and Catholics. I’m not sure all the respondents even met that very low bar of saying, “I’m a Christian”, IC.

So I agree with you; that does pose a serious problem for the data.

Mental Gymnastics

IC: The second problem with the survey is that baby murder is pretty obviously wrong … and the Not The Bee article agrees, listing a multitude of Bible passages to demonstrate that. And I don’t think even hardcore abortionists actually believe otherwise, despite all their elaborate protestations to the contrary. They know they’re committing murder. They just want to do it anyway. That’s obvious. And now they’ve graduated into full-on infanticide, as indicated by opposition to the federal Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act. As Christians, we should certainly all know that’s evil, no question at all. If we don’t, then we have no real knowledge of scripture, and what kind of so-called “Christian” is like that?

So it’s not the particular issue of abortion, or even of infanticide, that intrigues me here. Rather, it’s the process of mental gymnastics one has to go through to imagine that such a clear issue in scripture is still somehow “unclear” for Christians. If it can be done for that issue, it’s surely being done for others.

Making Murk

So I’m wondering two things: one, how are these alleged “Christians” managing to do this, and secondly, what else is getting that treatment? Any thoughts?

Tom: Well, assuming the surveys were distributed roughly equally among evangelicals, charismatics, Catholics and mainline Protestants, I think we have good reason to suspect that at least half the respondents were grossly ignorant of basic Christian orthodoxy. Roman Catholicism dogmatizes about its theological positions, but doesn’t hold to the sufficiency and finality of the Bible, so its congregants are not necessarily familiar with the multitude of anti-abortion verses quoted in the Not The Bee article. And the “mainline Protestants” surveyed included folks from the Episcopal Church, United Churches of Christ and United Methodists, whose scriptural illiteracy is evident in their rampant ordination of women and even the occasional atheist minister.

So I would say you don’t have to go through mental gymnastics to rationalize abortion if your church never cracks a Bible, and most of your views about right and wrong trickle in by osmosis from popular culture.

IC: Fair enough. But here’s what’s interesting: the respondents claim the Bible is “ambiguous”. That is, they don’t say, “I really don’t know what the Bible says,” or “My own views are ambiguous.” They answer as if they think they know what the Bible says, and it is ambiguous on abortion.

Knowledge and Ignorance

In other words, this is no claim of ignorance. This is the assumption of knowledge, isn’t it?

Tom: Well, I think we’d have to see the exact question they were asked to know that with certainty. I’ve looked for it online, and can’t find precisely how each of the abortion questions was framed in the survey. Analysis of the survey results is everywhere, but copies of the survey itself are nowhere to be found, including at the CRC’s website.

All the same, I can make a pretty good guess what it might have looked like from this earlier release about the same survey in another subject area. It looks to me as if the respondents were asked to characterize their own opinions about what the Bible says about abortion from a menu of pre-written options, one of which included the word “ambiguous”. That’s less of a “claim” than it is a “best guess” about what the Bible teaches. It’s actually the CRC people who refer to these survey answers as “claims”, as if the respondents are dogmatizing, when most of them, in my humble estimation, were probably just blundering through one of many questions in a 51-question survey.

IC: Okay, so there’s a real chance that the questionnaire itself accidentally produced the result that people were recorded as thinking the word of God “ambiguous”. It’s a design flaw in the study. Possibly so. Then perhaps not all the respondents actually meant to say the scriptures weren’t clear, only that their own heads weren’t clear. Understandable, if they didn’t actually read the scriptures in the first place. And it would also explain why the author of the Not The Bee article was so easily able to provide abundant quotations to show the Bible does handle the abortion issue with admirable clarity.

Tom: That’s my thought. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying the spiritual perception of the average pew-sitter in the average American church is not something speedily approaching dire — it definitely is — but I really don’t think we are reading the survey responses of trained liberal theologians here. I suspect what the vast majority of these survey results are revealing is an appalling ignorance of what’s actually written in the Bible, rather than any calculated effort to whitewash away what the scriptures teach.

Conspiracy Theories

I don’t mean to be a conspiracy theorist here, but do you suppose it’s even faintly possible that both the Cultural Research Center and the Christian media get more mileage and more publicity from delivering shocking survey results than they do from telling us things we already know?

IC: I thought of that. For certain. I think that is why they also liked to use the “self-definition” criterion in their study, accepting anybody who self-identified as a “Christian” as if he/she were a real one. But I can tell you for sure, the self-identification criterion is one of the least reliable ways to know what a person actually believes. Almost any other criterion is more precise, and using it inflates the number of people included in your sample to truly bloated proportions. And that makes for very exciting results, because it makes it look like all your numbers are the maximum possible, so it makes the claims based on the study much more sensational and impressive ... and more wildly inaccurate or dishonest.

Tom: Funny you would bring that up. As you know, I love numbers, and you got me interested in how all this collected data is being presented, so I went to the CRC website and downloaded four of the other ten press releases about this survey. It seems their 51 questions got fairly granular, but the headlines coming from the media (which, to be fair, pull direct quotes from the CRC press releases) are much more sensational than the actual data.

Analyzing Responses to the Abortion Question

Release #6, for example, is the one having to do with morality, and it touches on the abortion question. So the survey asked respondents how they would counsel a pregnant woman considering an abortion because her partner has bailed on her and she cannot take care of the child alone. There are five possible responses: “Yes”, “No”, “Not a moral issue”, “Would offer no advice” and “Don’t know”.

Below the chart with the survey data is this note:
“This behavior was indisputably the most polarizing of the five behaviors tested. Nine out of ten adults with a biblical worldview (92%) and eight out of ten SAGE Cons (83%) defined it as an immoral action. [Bold text mine] At the other end of the continuum — indicating that having an abortion is not immoral — were spiritual skeptics (17%), political liberals (22%), and adults connected to a non-Christian faith (29%).”
So then, the survey data was sufficiently granular for the CRC to break out the category of “adults with a biblical worldview” separately from other so-called “Christians” (elsewhere they distinguish between “born-again Christians” and “other self-identified Christians”). And what does the data show? It leads me, at least, to the conclusion that the vast majority (92%) of serious Christians (those pesky “born-again” folks, I’ll wager) remain quite conservative — yea, biblical — in their beliefs about the immorality of abortion.

Have Disinformation Will Travel

IC: Well, look at that. That’s just how wildly deceptive a study of this kind can be. I’ll bet most people just read the headline, and assume that the writers are going to do their thinking for them, honestly, and tell them what the data actually suggests. But not in this case.

Tom: Exactly. Where is the headline that says, “Nine out of ten serious Christians claim abortion is immoral even under extenuating circumstances”? It ain’t there, is where it is. That’s not a newsworthy story. That’s the boring old status quo since about 1970. So instead, we get headline numbers generated by labeling as “Christian” a group made up of political liberals, spiritual skeptics and “adults connected to a non-Christian faith” (whatever that means), lumping them into the pro-abortion “Christian” category just because that’s the name they use, and then telling us “Christians” are going soft on the abortion question. Blame the CRC for that part of it. But then The Christian Post takes those numbers and runs with the headline “Over 4 in 10 American Christians ...”, which turns it into a shock piece, after which Not The Bee picks it up and inadvertently perpetuates the original mischaracterization.

But even a moment’s serious thought tells us these numbers cannot be so: if so many Christians are now apathetic about overturning Roe v. Wade, why are the Democrats in such an all-fired tizzy over another conservative Supreme Court Justice being confirmed? It doesn’t make any sense at all.

Burying the Lede

I’m not saying the CRC is being deliberately dishonest here, but let’s just say I don’t find their methods as transparent as they could be. The lede is seriously buried.

IC: The TRUTH is buried. And I’m suspicious it’s not accidental. If people come to believe that a significant percentage of Christians is going soft on this issue, it has at least two very unsavory consequences: first, that it makes Christians look like ignorant hypocrites to the world, and second, that since people tend to stay with the herd, it implies to Christians that being “average” can now involve being pro-abortion; after all, your peers have dropped their objections, so why haven’t you?

Perhaps the creators of the study and the writers of the article were only really interested in creating sensation and generating revenue. Maybe. But it also seems to me that this kind of article, at this time, serves the particular interests of some very devious and wicked people. Maybe that’s by chance … maybe it’s not … either way, that’s what it does.

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