Measuring and Mapping “Religious”

How religious is your state?

How religious is your state? This post from the Pew Research Center will tell you in its interactive map based on the most recent Religious Landscape Study. Among the most religious states are Alabama and Mississippi and the least religious include Massachusetts and New Hampshire. This post from Pew represents quantified data in an accessible way. But at the same time, the authors of the post are upfront that, “There are many potential ways of defining what it means to be religious.” The four measures Pew used were adults who “say religion is very important in their lives,” “say they attend worship services at least weekly,” “say they pray daily,” and “say they believe in God with absolute certainty.” For the purposes of this survey and the information they present here, these measures seem sufficient.

However, I am always cautious with surveys such as these. Why are these the factors that were chosen to measure the degree of how “religious” a state is? For one, many people don’t or can’t necessarily attend worship services weekly. What counts as a worship service in the first place? Additionally, many people may participate in activities that others may deem religious but that they themselves may not consider to be prayer. And what about people who identify as spiritual but not religious? How do they self-report? And where do we count them? Beyond the possibilities of people who identify on the boundaries of “religious,” the concepts themselves seem based on a Christian paradigm. For example, certain people who identify as Hindu may believe in multiple gods. So do they believe in God with absolute certainty? And what about people who identify as Buddhist or perhaps Bahá’í whose closest temple is too far to attend on a weekly basis? The questions go on. For an identified Christian, these questions may be simple. For a religious “Other,” they become more complex.

While these instances raise important questions, data analysis is always like this. By quantifying qualitative data, you necessarily lose nuance and pertinent information. But you also gain information that can help you ask more questions that arise from the findings as well as questions about research methods themselves. Examples include: Why is Texas ranked 11th when one might assume it would be higher? How were these questions chosen in the first place? Generally, I take Pew’s research to be sound. But because of the nature of this type of research, I always make a point of reading carefully and using that critical thinking cap to ask important questions.