Thursday, June 26, 2008

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Mark Twain in "Chapters from My Autobiography," popularized the saying that serves as the title for this post: "Figures often beguile me particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'" Twain's comments come to my mind as I thought about the recent report on religious observance in America published by the Pew Charitable Trust, The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

Let me first say that I think that statistical studies can be of great value in helping researchers see patterns in human behavior, for example, that are not immediately apparent. As with ever tool, however, statistical research can only do what it can do. One of the limitations of something like the recent Pew Charitable Trust survey (PCTS) is that while it allows us to compare different religious groups in some areas (specifically behavioral), it does a rather spotty job in helping us understand the thinking that may, or may not, underlie and motivate that behavior.

So, for example, according to the PCTS roughly one third (34%) of Orthodox Christians report attend church on an at least weekly basis. Looking at the survey this is less than the national average of all religions (39%) and indeed less than Evangelical Christians (58%), members of historic black churches (59%), Catholics (42%), Jehovah Witnesses (82%) and Mormons (75%). At least in terms of weekly church attendance Orthodox Christians are on a par with mainline Protestants (also 34%). The only people less active on a weekly basis in their religious tradition are "Other Christians" (27%), Jews (16%), Buddhist (17%), Hindus (24%), Other Faiths (14%) and the religious unaffiliated (5%).

To understand what these statistics mean for the pastoral life of the Orthodox Church we would need to know whether or not Orthodox weekly participation in services has increased or decreased over long term. Given the similarity between Orthodox Christian and Mainline Protestant attendance, I would suspect that our attendance rates have in fact gone done as they have for most Mainline Protestant communities.

Even with historical information we would next have to ask why Orthodox Christians participate at the levels that they do.

The survey question that sought to determine the importance of religion in a person's life tells us that 87% of Orthodox Christians surveyed report that religion (and here I am assuming this means the Orthodox faith) is very important (56%) or somewhat important (31%) in their lives. There first thing that should be apparent is the huge gap between the percentage of Orthodox Christians who say that their faith is important to them (87%) and the number of Orthodox Christians who attend Liturgy on at least a weekly basis (34%). Whatever else their faith might mean to them, it does not necessarily embrace the regular participation in the liturgical life of the Church.

Based on my own pastoral experience (which until fairly recently was primarily within the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America) I would be hesitant to conclude that for most, or even many, Orthodox Christians religion is a private or individual matter. Rather I would wonder if the locus of religious life rather than being the Church's liturgical worship is not rather the nuclear and extended families and culture. In such a social context, a context I hasten to add the PCTS does not explore, religious commitment is less a matter of What I Do and more Who We Are. My own pastoral experience seems to bear this out. Based on my admittedly more limited experience with non-Greek Orthodox Christians as well as my conversations with Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic clergy and faithful, what I would term a familial/cultural orientation is more common in Eastern Christianity than among most Evangelical Christians.

The work of sociologist Peter Berger offers us some insight here to what this data might mean for the pastoral life of the Orthodox Church. Berger argues that society—be it a religious society such as the Church, or a secular society, such as US culture, is both an objective and a subjective reality. Together with Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner The Homeless Mind, Berger is interested in the explication of "the relationships between certain institutional processes . . . and certain constellations of consciousness" (p. 97). To accomplish this task they introduce two constructs, package and carrier. A "package" is a specific mode of consciousness. For example, "it is probably safe to assume that people working on complicated machinery in a factory should not go into trances." Consequently, training people to work in a factory demands that one cultivate in them "an anti-trance attitude [while] on the job." To do this, one must structure the work situation so that not going into a trance is both possible and desirable. For this to happen one needs a very specific "carrier," of consciousness; carriers lend credibility to various "packages" of consciousness. "Put differently, any kind of consciousness is plausible only in particular social circumstances." (pp. 16, 17)

Looked at in terms of packages and carriers, I would suggest that, at least in America, many Orthodox Christians are more similar to mainline Protestants than Evangelical Christians in their approach to religion. It is not liturgy, and the participation in liturgy, that lends credibility to one's identity or self-awareness as an Orthodox Christian. Rather, for many, indeed most, it is family and culture that lends credibility to one's identity as an Orthodox Christian.

In my next few posts I want to draw out more fully the implications of family and culture rather than liturgy as the carrier of a person's self-image as an Orthodox Christian.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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