When Push-Polling comes to Religion

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Faithful readers of this blog know that I have a bugaboo about survey research that calls people who say they have no religion “unaffiliated” — as if they were just waiting to be signed up. It’s so much less ominously secular than calling them “Nones.”

That’s hardly an isolated example of sociological religion-coddling, according to my colleague Barry Kosmin (director of Trinity’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture) and Ryan Cragun of the University of Tampa. In the latest issue of Free Inquiry (journal of the Council for Secular Humanism), they charge that there’s a persistent pro-religious bias on the part of religion surveyors.

Such as Gallup, which recently asked people around the world, “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?” (If “convinced atheist,” why not “convinced believer”?)

Or Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby, who now asks his increasingly irreligious compatriots, “Would you be receptive to greater religious involvement if you found religion to be worthwhile?” Duh.

Kosmin and Cragun figured that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. They created a survey whose questions were biased against religion. They also wrote “explanatory” paragraphs designed to push respondents to give even more anti-religious answers than they otherwise would.

Absent ready funding for pro-secularist research, Cragun enlisted his students to conduct the survey as a pilot, with 455 respondents divided into experimental and control groups (those who were and were not read the paragraphs). In some cases, the push-polling moved the needle a lot. “How strongly do you oppose tax breaks for clergy?” had 25 percent of the control group opposed, as compared to 47 percent of the experimental group (40 and 42 percent were neutral on the question.

In other cases, the paragraphs hardly made a difference. “How responsible are religions for gender inequality in the U.S. today?” had 56 percent of the control group versus 64 percent of the experimental group choosing “completely” or “somewhat” responsible. “To what extent do you think religion is responsible for the anti-science attitudes of Americans” had 52 percent of the control group versus 63 percent of the experimental group choosing “completely” or “somewhat” responsible.

Of course, the questions themselves were loaded, but it’s still striking to see the extent to which respondents were prepared to consider religion a dubious factor in American society. For an honest portrait of attitudes about the role of religion, it would be good for surveyors to provide more opportunities for people to express anti-religious sentiments — in a balanced way, of course.

In that regard, Pew (which to its credit is now willing to call a None a None) deserves credit for asking LGBT people about the degree of  friendliness/unfriendliness they perceived in specific religious institutions. Interestingly, the numbers for all those except Jewish and Mainline Protestant were comparable to the Kosmin/Cragun number of those finding “religions responsible for the unequal treatment of homosexuals in the U.S. today.” (Over two-thirds.)

I’d have liked to see Pew ask, simply, “Do you see religions as unfriendly, neutral, or friendly to you?” Not just particular religious institutions, but religions generally. Let’s get the answer out there.