Numbers: Why you can’t count on them

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Whoever said “Numbers never lie” was not a religion reporter. Beware of confidently using specific numbers about religious identification or belief. Here’s why.

  • Censuses are the usual standard for counting people and their characteristics, but many do not ask people their religious affiliation.
  • Many countries count newborns as members of their parents’ faiths and issue identity cards stating this faith. Changing or removing this label can be difficult or impossible, regardless of what individuals actually believe.
  • There is no single religion survey that is considered to be the most reliable. The results differ depending on what options are offered, how people are contacted, how many people are surveyed and other factors. Numbers can vary widely, and many faith groups are so small that they rarely show up on surveys in proportion to their actual numbers. Some traditions are typically underrepresented because of difficulty in obtaining numbers.
  • With Roman Catholics, there is one pope and a highly structured hierarchy that tracks membership. But in many religions, such as Islam, there is no official governing body and no official count.
  • Some faiths, such as the Pentecostal movement, include people from many denominations, so there is no central record-keeping. Evangelical Christians are difficult to count because they often belong to nondenominational churches, official denominations or sometimes none at all.
  • Denominations and religions count their members differently, if at all, so it is difficult to compare their sizes. For example, thSouthernrn Baptist Convention, which does not baptize infants, counts people who are baptized. The United Methodist Church, which baptizes infants, counts people once they are confirmed. Mosques don’t require membership, so estimates of Muslims are just that — estimates.
  • Formal affiliation with a religious group doesn’t give a complete picture. Many Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others are not affiliated with houses of worship. Other factors must be used to determine religious or spiritual identity.
  • Some houses of worship or faith groups can be competitive about touting numbers of adherents or members, to the point that the number of Muslims and Jews in America has become highly politicized. For example, one survey by Jewish researchers counted fewer than 3 million Muslims at a time when Muslim groups were claiming numbers as high as 6 million. In contrast, some churches, such as the Church of Christ, Scientist, do not publish statistics because its numbers have declined so much.
  • Categories are controversial. Mormons consider themselves Christian, but most Christian groups do not. Messianic Jews, who believe Jesus was the messiah Jews await, consider themselves Jewish, but most Jews consider them Christian.
  • In the U.S. there are only estimates of the number of Buddhists, who are hard to count in part because immigrants and American converts practice so differently. Also, some people meditate or practice aspects of Buddhism but don’t consider themselves Buddhist, or they combine Buddhism with another faith, such as Judaism, resulting in people who call themselves “JewBus.”
  • Beware of calling any faith the “fastest-growing” in any context without documentation, which can be impossible to procure.
  • Poll results differ, depending on how questions are asked. This applies not only to believers, but also to descriptions of their beliefs. For example, people’s stated beliefs about a divine role in creation vary depending on the number and types of choices they are given.
  • People frequently lie when asked about religion, perhaps out of a desire to look good and perhaps out of denial. Surveys have shown that more people say they attend worship services than actually show up.
  • In countries where certain faiths or ethnic groups are not recognized, reporting is bound to be skewed. Counting the number of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, Baha’is in Iran, Christians in North Korea or Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar would be a difficult if not impossible task given government restrictions and social hostilities.
  • Sophisticated advocacy groups promote their own polls, which support their own agendas. Beware of spin.

How to make it all add up

Don’t let the size of faith groups – either globally or locally – overly influence your coverage. American reporters will likely do more stories on Catholics and evangelicals because of their numbers, but many groups’ impact and influence outstrip their size. The Episcopal Church is small in America, but its battles over homosexuality are closely watched. Jews are less than 2 percent of the U.S. population but have an important voice, as do Muslims. Buddhism has relatively few followers in the U.S. but is easily found in American popular culture.

All the general guidelines of good journalism apply when quoting statistics in religion stories. In addition:

  • Be specific about what numbers represent. For example, specify what numbers are based on (worship attendance, membership, baptism, etc.).
  • Be careful with comparisons. If you have apples and oranges, say so and note that two groups’ definition of “member” differs.
  • Look carefully at poll questions and results yourself, rather than accepting one statistic without question. The poll, as a whole, may tell a different story.
  • Check to see if different organizations have done polls on the same subject. and search engines make this easy.

Disputed statistics

  1. Give a range of numbers or qualify a statistic if it is in doubt: There are 3 million to 7 million Muslims in America, according to various surveys. There are well more than 1 million Hindus, experts say.
  2. Note when numbers are disputed: Write that a group says it has 5 million followers, but others (specify who and why) say otherwise.
  3. Quote several numbers from different sources.
  4. Characterize the amount, if the specific number is not necessary. Sometimes the number is not controversial in a story and it is enough to say that the denomination has “more than doubled,” without debating whether it has tripled.

FAST FACTS: According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans support daily prayer being spoken in the classroom. This is trending downward from 66 percent in 2001 and 70 percent in 1999.