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Should Pollsters Go to Seminary? (RJS)

posted by Jesus Creed Admin

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Pete Enns has a new article up at the Huffington Post: Evolution and Religion: Why Religion Pollsters Should Go to Seminary First. Ignore the forum (especially the ads on the sidebar) and read the article – this is an interesting question.  Just a paragraph here, condensed, to get a taste. Commenting on a poll commissioned by the Center for Public Policy of Virginia Commonwealth University (complete poll report here), Pete notes (also quoting Jerry Coyne):

The poll reveals that one’s thoughts on evolution depend on “the nature and extent of religious belief,” … I agree that simply tacking evolution onto Christian faith minimizes the theological challenges. For many Christians, that theological challenge has involved a thoughtful re-examination of assumptions about the Bible.

Many Christians have been actively doing just that ever since Darwin. As
I read the poll and Coyne’s comments, however, I am struck by how the
pollsters themselves, and likely those answering, seem wholly oblivious
to that fact. At the end of his comments, Coyne complains of scientific
ignorance and the importance of educating “people about what evolution
is and how much evidence supports it.” I agree that this is important,
but theological ignorance is as much a problem as anything in the
evolution/Christianity debate.

The problem, Dr. Enns suggests, is the form of the boilerplate questions. They simply don’t cover the options well. They don’t contain enough nuance. Consider the options on the question of evolution:

Biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God guided this process.

Biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God did not guide this process.

God directly created biological life in its present form at one point in time.

Which of these best describes your view? Do the questions represent the right set of options or would you phrase it differently?

In response to this poll (VCU Survey p. 53) sampling 1001 adults in the US:

Biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God guided this process. (27% of men, 21% of women)

Biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God did not guide this process. (20% of men, 16% of women)

God directly created biological life in its present form at one point in time. (39% of men, 47% of women)

But do the options God guided the process or God did not guide the process really cover the options adequately? Evolutionary creation is not really a dichotomy between guided or not guided. And of course, this leaves little room for those who hold a view of progressive creation or some forms of ID. The options on the survey are limiting – and when the results are publicized can give the impression that these options span the available views.

Now I realize that the questions are phrased in a consistent way across many surveys over many years to allow comparison of the results. If a poll changes the questions it may give insight – but it will confuse comparison.  Nonetheless the questions can be frustrating in their limitations.

I always find the questions on the Bible more troubling and more limiting.

VCU Survey p. 26:

Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible

The Bible is the actual Word of God.

The Bible is the Word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally.

Bible is a book written by men and is not the Word of God.

Ecklund used a slightly differently phrasing (Science vs Religion p. 169):

Which one of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible

The Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally word for word.

The Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally.

The Bible is an ancient book of fables recorded by men.

In the VCU survey 40% chose “Actual Word of God” and 34% “Not Everything Taken Literally.”  The numbers for these first two have been relatively constant over the last decade. On the other hand the last option “Written by Men” has grown from 14% in 2001 to 21% in 2010, a significant increase perhaps. If Christians answered honestly everyone would chose a variant of the
middle options below. None of us take the poetry in the Psalms literally
– and few of us hold to an Ancient Near East cosmology. Most of us also tend to view it as both written by men and the Word of God. These questions
probe for “correct” answers – where correct is determined by community
more than reality of use and thought about the options.

Which of these best describes your view? Do the questions span the options with a reasonable completeness or would you phrase it differently?

Added from Scot’s first comment directing the conversation better:

I’d like to see the scientists frame five options to the question about origins.

And let’s have the theologians frame five options to the question about how to describe what to believe about the Bible.

What do you think?

If you wish you may contact me at rjs4mail[at]att.net.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 27, 2010 at 7:48 am


I’d like to see the scientists frame five options to the question about origins.
And let’s have the theologians frame five options to the question about how to describe what to believe about the Bible.
I’ll sit back and watch.



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Jason Lee

posted July 27, 2010 at 8:18 am


Andrew Village’s recent book “The Bible and Lay People” has the best survey items on view of that Bible that I’ve ever seen. For example, he give respondents particular passages of the Bible and then provides several options as to how they interpret the particular passage. Eg, was Jonah literally swallowed by a fish?
Village is more theological than social scientific, but I wonder if Village is of a new generation of empirical theologians or theologically literate social scientists?
Village’s sample was Anglicans and not a large national sample (the cost of which does not allow huge batteries of survey questions). So to come up with one or two good questions and try to boil things down to 3-5 response options concerning approach to the Bible … that is tough.



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Orual

posted July 27, 2010 at 9:18 am


I wholeheartedly agree (as both a Christian and an evolutionary scientist)! You should not write a poll on ANYTHING without a good level of proficiency about the topic involved. The phrasing of the questions completely determines the poll results. Unfortunately there is not room for infinite gradations of questions to fully and accurately capture the data, but we can do a whole lot better!



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Scot McKnight

posted July 27, 2010 at 9:19 am


Orual, what questions/statements would you design?



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JHM

posted July 27, 2010 at 9:43 am


Scot,
I think I’d rather have 5 yes/no questions than one question with 5 options but here’s how I might do it (the exact wording might need some work):
1) Don’t know, don’t care. God is Creator and that’s good enough for me.
2) God created the universe over billions of years through physical/biological processes without interference. God interacts with humanity purely on a spiritual level.
3) God created the universe billion of years ago. The first living organism was specially created by God, from which all subsequent life originated via biological processes.
4) God created the universe and all life over billions of years through many individual creative events.
5) God created the universe, earth, and all life about 6,000-10,000 years ago.
I don’t know if these really capture everything. I think perhaps key beliefs to ascertain are how involved (in the supernatural, non-ordinary sense) do people think God was in creation and do they expect to see see specific evidence that God was involved.
Another thought I had was I wonder if you could get better information if one asked about Adam and Eve instead, something along the lines of:
1) Don’t know, don’t care. The Cross and Resurrection are good enough for me.
2) Adam and Eve are mythological characters used to describe theological truths. The Fall describes the spiritual condition that all people find themselves in.
3) Adam and Eve were historical people and representative of all humanity past and present. The Fall severed the spiritual ties between God and humanity.
4) Adam and Eve were the first humanoids to have the image of God “breathed” into them and be truly human. The Fall severed the spiritual ties between God and the descendants of Adam and Eve.
5) Adam and Eve were historical figures who were the first humans and who’s Fall changed the spiritual and physical world.



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DRT

posted July 27, 2010 at 9:58 am


My cut without looking at anyone else….
The earth and its life have always been around in one form or another.
The earth and solar system coalesced out of galactic debris (like dust), solidified and slowly developed life on it?s own over the course of the past 4 billion or so years.
The earth and solar system coalesced out of galactic debris (like dust), solidified and slowly developed life per God?s plan over the course of the past 4 billion or so years.
The earth and solar system coalesced out of galactic debris (like dust), solidified and slowly developed life through God?s intervention over the course of the past 4 billion or so years.
The earth and solar system coalesced out of galactic debris (like dust), solidified and rapidly developed life through God?s intervention over the course of the past 10 thousand or so years.
God created the earth and solar system and all life in a matter of days, long ago.



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RJS

posted July 27, 2010 at 9:58 am


JHM,
Good addition on Adam and Eve – this really needs to be included in the mix.



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Robert A

posted July 27, 2010 at 10:19 am


Another example of why it is foolish to push highly technical conversations into the mainstream.
The amount of polarizing that is taking place in the media and in our pews over issues that are very technical and very complicated makes it so much harder to talk honestly about these topics. Both the media and too many of our parishioners want soundbites and catchphrases to sum up these ideas. Often that isn’t possible.
When it comes to polling, I have no idea how someone can frame a question about the complicated nature of evolution in a simple sentence and expect to elicit an honest reply.



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Orual

posted July 27, 2010 at 11:51 am


I definitely agree that Adam and Eve are a really important thing to ask about. I loved JHM’s questions, I think they’re fairly comprehensive but still few enough to be useful as a metric.
For evolution the main issues I hear from people go something like “I can believe in evolution, but not that people ever came from animals” or “Well, maybe everything else was just random chance but human evolution was predestined”. So I would add in questions allowing for those gradations. Also, some people believe in the hands-off God who started it and then just let it go.
I would do something like this, I think:
1) All biological life, including humans, is the result of an evolutionary process that began with simple chemical reactions and has continued over billions of years to the present day. The existence of biological life is the result of a series of coincidences and was in no way begun or guided by any supernatural being.
2) All biological life, including humans, is the result of an evolutionary process that began with simple chemical reactions and has continued over billions of years to the present day. The original spark of life was bestowed by a supernatural being, but was in no way guided or directed by that being after the initial creation.
3) All biological life, including humans, is the result of an evolutionary process that began with simple chemical reactions and has continued over billions of years to the present day. The original spark of life was bestowed by a supernatural being, who also guided and directed the evolution of humans over the course of history to our present form, but did not guide or direct the evolution of non-human lifeforms.
4) All biological life, including humans, is the result of an evolutionary process that began with simple chemical reactions and has continued over billions of years to the present day. The original spark of life was bestowed by a supernatural being who also guided and directed the evolution of all life to its present form.
5) All non-human biological life is the result of an evolutionary process that began with simple chemical reactions and has continued over billions of years to the present day. Humans were not evolved but were separately and specially created in our present form by a supernatural being, who bestowed the original spark of life on the ancestor of all non-human life and guided its evolution to its present form.
5) All non-human biological life was originally created by a supernatural being in the form of recognizable organisms, but has evolved and changed to some extent over the course of history. Humans were specially created by that supernatural being in their present form.
6) All biological life, including humans, was specially created in its present form by a supernatural being with few to no changes over the course of time.



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Orual

posted July 27, 2010 at 11:53 am


Whoops, that should have been 5>6>7 not 5>5>6!



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MarkP

posted July 27, 2010 at 12:08 pm


Nobody likes polls — we all know that no question can capture the nuance brought to an issue by someone who cares about it and has taken some time to think about it. I’ve complained about this often to people who know about polls, and they say the point is that making people choose still tells us something about them. It may be that something useful is said about the hermeneutic of someone who affirms that “the Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally word for word” even if they don’t actually read the Bible the way they think they do.



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DRT

posted July 27, 2010 at 12:38 pm


Great Orual. It becomes obvious that my basic belief structure (worldview) is that humans may be in God’s image, but we are still just another of the animals. I guess for many the divide between animals and humans is bigger than the divide between humans and god. To me, we are virtually identical to the animals, and a long long way from god.



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Fish

posted July 27, 2010 at 12:50 pm


Until you become a Christian, you have no idea of the theological hair-splitting that is done. It is a language onto itself, reserved for those initiated. I mean, look at all the long words and subtle differences in the choices. Before I was a Christian, I didn’t spend one second worrying the theological implications of evolution as it related to the fall. I didn’t even know what the fall was, nor did I care. I believed in evolution and whatever the bible said would just have to sort itself out. John Q Public just isn’t that involved to think about these issues, I’m afraid. It’s an intra-Christian thing.



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DRT

posted July 27, 2010 at 12:52 pm


….and in many cases (perhaps all) in may be that the animals are actually closer to god than us.



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DRT

posted July 27, 2010 at 12:57 pm


fish, absolutely this is the intra-christian view. In the Buddhist view we would have to add whether the world system came into being on its own or whether the Karmic propensity of the future world system inhabitants had reached the threshold or not…Perhaps we should have that question too.



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Jason Lee

posted July 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm


Fish: You raise a good point that these are Christian concerns. But according to the data cited in this post, 74% of Americans believe the Bible is the actual or inspired word of God. This probably isn’t too far off other estimates. So even if these discussions have to do with Christians, Christians make up a large portion of the US. If you added all the Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims up, it would be a tiny percentage of the country.



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Fish

posted July 27, 2010 at 1:59 pm


Looks like beliefnet hiccupped (which it is doing more and more often) so another try…
Well, sure, most Americans say they are Christian. But what percentage engages in or cares about this level of theological thinking?
I am an engineer and an avocational archaologist. Just as with theology, both those fields have a language and way of thinking all our own. When I launch into a detailed explanation of why something is really interesting from an archaeological perspective, people’s eyes glaze over. They aren’t interested in the microscopic usage indications and outre pass flaking on a bifacial knife from the early archaic period made of a non-local silicified chert. It’s an arrowhead.
I guess my point is that expecting the public to engage in the same level of thinking as professional and amateur theologians (thus the title of this post) is expecting too much.



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Andy Holt

posted July 27, 2010 at 2:36 pm


This would be a terrible poll, but maybe it would be more accurate to have people construct the statement that most closely matches their own view out of a series of propositions.
The Bible is the actual Word of God.
Every word of the Bible is to be understood literally.
The Bible is a collection of myths.
The commands of the Bible are outdated and irrelevant.
The Bible is composed of many different literary types.
The different kinds of literature in the Bible have their own rules of interpretation.
The teachings of the Bible transcend culture and context.
The Bible is best understood in its historical and cultural context.
The Bible has no errors.
The original manuscripts of the Bible have no errors.
The Bible is authoritative for the Church.
The Bible has the final say on all matters of faith and practice.
The Bible is just another voice at the table, alongside experience, tradition, and personal convictions.
I’m sure this list could go on and on, which makes it completely unwieldy as a poll. But it would be interesting to have people put together their understanding of Scripture through “bite-size” propositions. I’m trying to go think through these issues with my small group–maybe I’ll try this exercise with them…



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Mich

posted July 27, 2010 at 4:16 pm


This is a problem with ALL polls–they’re reductionist by nature.
If you want an essay question don’t answer the poll.



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DRT

posted July 27, 2010 at 4:52 pm


!
!
We witnessed the birth of a new form of punishment, the essay question.



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RJS

posted July 27, 2010 at 5:40 pm


Mich,
I agree that this is the problem with all polls – but some are better than others.
How many people here assumed the first question asks about evolution?
It doesn’t. The question on biological life is really ambiguous.
Problem here of course is that if we take the options literally they only deal with origin of life – those who favor ID could pick one or three, even many of us who favor evolutionary creation could pick one or three. It all depends what you mean by biological life. The poll is assumed to address evolution, but the options don’t actually address the question of evolution at all. They only ask if life originated by chance, with direct action, or with God’s guidance. Once you have life evolution can act to diversify that life.
Then there is the problem of the word “guided” – what does this mean? And what does “directly” mean?



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RJS

posted July 27, 2010 at 5:41 pm


Of course I used “evolution” setting it up in the post (but I shouldn’t have).



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J.L.Schafer

posted July 27, 2010 at 8:56 pm


As a professional statistician with expertise in this sort of thing, I would say that Andy #18 is on the right track. If your goal is to describe and understand the belief structure of a population, your best bet is to ask lots of questions and then analyze the relationships among the items. (And I say this with all due respect to Pete Enns, whom I greatly admire.) If I were to design the instrument, I would opt for lots of items like the ones that Andy mentioned. You don’t need to give all the questions to every respondent; you can use random subsampling of the items to keep the questionnaire to a manageable length. No matter how much thought goes into the wording of the actual items, it’s much better to use lots of them.



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