Janet Eccles on Statistical Approaches to the Study of Religion

We have just been sent this (challenging!) contribution by Janet Eccles, a PhD candidate at Lancaster University supervised by Linda Woodhead.

Janet is conducting extremely interesting research into female affiliates and disaffiliates who have lived through the 1960s, primarily using interview and participant observation methods. As a consequence of her findings and those of others in the field, she is arguing for a more nuanced and qualitative approach to understanding religiosity. We clearly think that religiosity can be measured statistically – but we are throwing the floor open!


Challenging Statistical Approaches

By Janet Eccles

How much can statistics tell us about the state of ‘religion’ in Britain today, or in the past? Gordon Lynch has recently stated that

            ‘narrow conceptions of belief persist both in terms of the emphasis on survey data measuring respondents’ attitudes to creedal statements (eg, Voas and Crockett, 2005)  and the use of interviews to try to elicit the core beliefs and spirituality of those within and beyond institutional religion (eg, Hunt, 2003)’ (2010, 40).

 Propositional understandings of belief persist, he argues, even in the face of evidence that they make little sense to research respondents (Smith and Denton 2005). Lynch, in fact, is writing in a chapter for a new volume on religion and material culture in which much more emphasis is laid on the material, the objects people exchange and display, and the spaces in which they perform.  

In addition, Callum Brown has declared that

            ‘religious statistics are invariably circulating discourses on ecclesiastical machismo, national righteousness, class commentary or moral judgement  (sometimes all at once), and require to be treated as such (2003, 43)’.

He calls for the ‘on/off binary approach’ of religious statistics to be carefully reassessed to expose the structures which he says have been ‘imposed so cavalierly upon the past and the present’.

Piety or religiosity may be expressed in many different ways, both now and in the past – outside conventional church traditions altogether, for example. Some forms of religiosity are beyond practical forms of measurement. Statistics ‘take the personal out of the past, and treat it as “another world” which it may not be’ [emphasis in original].

 Meanwhile, speaking of contemporary times, David Lyon (2000) points out that beliefs and practices that were once sealed within an institutional form now ‘flow freely over formerly policed boundaries’ (2000, 43). Moreover, flexible practices currently demanded in the workplace undermine any ‘sense of permanent belonging that comes from telling the same “story” ’ (2000, 128).

All commitments, professional, social or religious, these days are ‘until further notice’, which, again, poses a problem for making assumptions about the state of people’s religiosity.

Finally, Robert Hinde (2010) has argued that although the ‘methods now available for enhancing the validity of questionnaires’ (as used in determining religiosity, for example) ‘are sophisticated, problems still arise in their construction, administration and interpretation’, referring readers to Brown (1987) for a critical review (2010, 235).

My own research, asking participants to tell me something of their life history, including anything they might describe as religious or spiritual, confirms a number of the points made above. Although ticking the box for non-churchgoer, for example, some of my participants had the same – if not stronger – beliefs in God or the afterlife, say, than some long-standing attenders, who often seemed to find it difficult to talk about God at all. One participant has been baptised in three different types of church and says she finds that committing herself to a particular church means she will immediately want to leave it – something she has done with amazing regularity over the course of her adult life. Can this kind of religiosity be adequately contained in a statistic?

Janet can be contacted at janet dot eccles at care4free dot net.


C. Brown, ‘The Secularization Decade: What the 1960s have done to the Study of Religious History’. In The Decline of Christianity in Western Europe, 1750-2000, ed. H. McLeod (CUP, 2003).

L. B. Brown, The Psychology of Religious Belief, (Academic Press, 1987).

R. Hinde, Why Gods Persist: a Scientific Approach to Religion, (Routledge, 2010).

K. Hunt, ‘Understanding the Spirituality of People Who Do Not Go to Church’. In Predicting Religion: Church, Secular and Alternative Futures, eds. G. Davie, P. Heelas and L. Woodhead (Ashgate, 2003).

G. Lynch, ‘Object Theory: Toward an Intersubjective, Mediated and Dynamic Theory of Religion’. In Religion and Material Culture: the Matter of Belief, ed. D. Morgan (Routledge, 2010).

D. Lyon, Jesus in Disneyland: Religion in Postmodern Times (Polity, 2000).

C. Smith and M. L. Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005).

D. Voas and A. Crockett, ‘Religion in Britain: Neither Believing nor Belonging’, Sociology (2005), 39/11, pp. 11-28.

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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