The national news media yawned over the Baylor Survey’s findings that the number of American atheists has remained steady at 4 percent since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high.
“But,” ponder Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson in the Wall Street Journal, “when a study by the Barna Research Group claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation — even though it was a false alarm.”
“Surveys always find that younger people are less likely to attend church,” note Stark and Johnson in the Journal‘s Houses of Worship feature, “yet this has never resulted in the decline of the churches. It merely reflects the fact that, having left home, many single young adults choose to sleep in on Sunday mornings.
The Journal article notes:
Once they marry, though, and especially once they have children, their attendance rates recover. Unfortunately, because the press tends not to publicize this correction, many church leaders continue unnecessarily fretting about regaining the lost young people.
In similar fashion, major media hailed another Barna report that young evangelicals are increasingly embracing liberal politics. But only religious periodicals carried the news that national surveys offer no support for this claim, and that younger evangelicals actually remain as conservative as their parents.
Given this track record, it was no surprise this month to see the prominent headlines announcing another finding from Barna that American women are rapidly falling away from religion. The basis for this was a comparison between a poll they conducted in 1991 and one they conducted in January of this year.
The reporters who ran with this story ought to have wondered why this change wasn’t picked up sooner if it was going on for 20 years. Many national surveys have been conducted during this period—in fact the Barna Group has been doing them all along. Did the organization check to see if its new results were consistent with its own previous data or with the many other national surveys widely available? There is no sign that it did. If it had, it would have found that its findings about women are as unfounded as previous claims about young people deserting the church and young evangelicals becoming liberals.
Barna reported in 2010 that about 40% of both men and women read the Bible during a typical week, as female weekly Bible-reading had fallen from 50% in 1991. By contrast, the 2007 Baylor national religion survey found that 29% of men and 40% of women read the Bible about weekly. The statistic for women is consistent with Barna’s reported findings, but the findings for men differ greatly.
The Baylor findings were in full agreement with the results of a 2000 Gallup Poll finding that 29% of men and 43% of women were weekly Bible-readers. This, in turn, was consistent with a 1988 study by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, which found that 25% of men and 39% of women were weekly readers. If the Barna claim about a major decline in women’s Bible-reading is true, it must have happened in the past three years. This is quite unlikely, given the remarkable stability of the statistics over the past several decades.