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Wed Oct 19, 2016, 04:21 AM

Where Polls and Surveys Fall Short: A Conversation with Robert Wuthnow...

[font size="4"]Where Polls and Surveys Fall Short: A Conversation with Robert Wuthnow on “Inventing American Religion”[/font]
By Andrew Aghapour / September 30, 2015

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Polls can produce inconsistent, and sometimes baffling, representations of American belief. They also range in accuracy, from sophisticated sociological surveys to thinly veiled propaganda (the sharia law poll being an example of the latter). Furthermore, as Robert Wuthnow documents in Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation's Faith, polling can itself influence the way that we understand its object of study. Wuthnow's new book documents how the polling industry has influenced—and distorted—the way that religion is understood in America, by religious practitioners and scholars alike.

Robert Wuthnow is professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Princeton University. The Cubit recently reached out to him by phone to discuss Jimmy Carter, the “Nones,” and guidelines for interpreting poll data about religion.

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Today’s most controversial polling trend is the rise of the “Nones”—those who indicate religious non-affiliation in surveys by selecting “none of the above.” Nones seem to have jumped from a stable 6-8% of the population during the 1970s and 1980s to, in recent years, 16-20%. Do you think this reflects a shift toward disbelief in America?

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One is that a number of the people who are categorized as Nones still claim to believe in God. Many of them occasionally attend religious services; hardly any of them identify clearly as atheist. So they may be, for some reason, identifying themselves as non-religious even though they still believe. We also know from some of the surveys that they identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” meaning that somehow they're interested in God and spirituality, and existential questions of life and death, but are turned off by organized religion.

I edited this to hit the four-paragraph rule and still get to one of the major points. The interview is long, but well-worth the read, especially as we continue to read the confusion with, or outright distortion of, the definition of "non-religious." And yes, I know it's a year old, but I saw the topic on another site, again with the use of "nones/non-religious" without defining it further. I wanted to see if anyone was thinking on this the way I was. Glad to have found someone who knows their stuff on how polls work, and why there's much more to the story of the "nones" than is generally reported.

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