Frank Newport on Survey Research and America’s Religiosity
Date: August 11th, 2013

Dr. Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll and author of the new book God Is Alive and Well, joins us to talk about how survey research is conducted and what polls have been telling us about the changing religiosity of the American people.  The first half of our discussion devotes attention to the issue of polling methodology, specifically as it relates to phone surveys.  While many folks see poll results reported on the evening news, few people understand the underlying procedures that produce these results.  We talk about several issues that may affect the results of surveys, including non-response bias, the drop in response rates, the increased usage of cell phones and how that affects how people answer questions, strategic answering of questions in a socially-acceptable manner, and interview interaction.  Dr. Newport notes that all of these issues are known to his profession and a great deal of effort is made to overcome the various problems associated with these potentially-biasing factors.

The discussion then shifts to the issue of America’s religiosity.  We begin with the topic that has been capturing everybody’s attention over the past decade — the increase in “religious nones” (i.e., those people who state that they have no religious affiliation).  Frank confirms that there has been a significant rise in the number of people who are not religiously affiliated based upon a standard set of questions that pollsters have been asking over time.  However, what this increase means might not be obviously clear.  While some scholars have jumped on these results as proof that America is becoming less religious, Dr. Newport has a different take on the matter.  We xplore who the “nones” are and Frank notes that the increased prevalence of “nones” tend to be correlated with the demographics of individuals who have always tended to be less religious than in the past — e.g., younger individuals, men, singles, and people in certain parts of the nation.  Tony advances a hypothesis that the trend in delayed marriages and fertility over the past twenty years has had an impact on people avoiding religious services in the earlier part of their life, which Dr. Newport confirms.  Frank also notes that “nones” are not necessarily atheists or agnostic.  Instead, he lays out the idea that there is more “truth in reporting” in surveys as compared with the past; people feel freer today to say they don’t attend church or are unaffiliated with a faith than in the past.  This gets us into a brief discussion of achieved versus ascribed characteristics, and that religious affiliation has moved from being an ascribed characteristic to an achieved characteristic.  This seems to be confirmed with the tendency that Protestants — who are more fluid in their religious affiliations — are the ones who are most likely to become “nones.”

The interview continues along other paths including an exploration to the rise of non-denominational churches and religious pluralism.  We also examine the issue of church growth and Dr. Newport gives his ideas about how and why some churches grow and others do not.  Fertility is quite obviously associated with church growth and there are certain denominations, namely the mainline Protestants, that have fewer children.  Immigration is also discussed.  The other factor that Frank raises is that of “religious marketing.”  Churches that focus on marketing their faith so as to bring people into the pews do better at attracting members, not surprisingly.  (Tony notes that comfortable chairs and coffee are an important part of that marketing campaign.)  We finish the interview with Frank’s thoughts on how the clergy can use modern survey research to better serve their missions.  Recorded: August 1, 2013.

RELATED LINKS

 Frank Newport’s biography at Gallup.

God Is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America, by Frank Newport.

Polling Matters:  Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People, by Frank Newport.

Summary of report on marriage survey as mentioned in podcast.

American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR).

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Paul Froese on America’s Four Gods.

Jeremy Lott on Mormons, Pope Francis, and Ugly Churches.

Thom S. Rainer on Baptist Conventions and Church Health.

Tony Carnes on Jesus’s Auto Body (and Soul) Shop, Blessed Pizza, and NYC Religions Part II.

Tony Carnes on a Journey Through NYC Religions.

Bill Clark on an Academic’s Spiritual Journey.

 


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