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Measuring belief?

Pop quiz: What do standing in a long line outside a temple on New Year’s Eve, kneeling alone in a giant cathedral, and gathering around with 10-15 friends in an apartment room all have in common? It’s kind of an unfair question but the answer is that each of these would qualify equally as a statistical instance of “having prayed” despite the glaringly different social context and relational ramifications of the action itself. My little gimmick highlights an important question about religious research: do our standard operationalizations actually capture what we want them to? Are instances of the “same” religious practices commensurate across traditions and cultures?

Global, comparative statistical studies remain important research goals, and for good reason. Religion remains a significant element of modern life, and may be growing in importance given its common role as a source of push-back against the forces of globalization or as a globalizing force itself. We are right to want to understand what is going on on the ground and what larger trends are in play and the implications they may have. However, if our metrics are faulty, at best we will be playing with partial findings. At worst, we will end up with terribly skewed visions of global religious trends.

For American and European researchers, the question of what is behind the numbers does not typically cause much pause. The statistically marginal nature of anything but Christianity in these two regions has meant a certain assumed uniformity of measurement. While there have been some protestations from Catholic quarters that our metrics are too Protestant, rethinks have only come on rather momentous issues. One example would be the slow jettisoning of RELTRAD as it became increasingly clear that liberal/conservative told us a lot more than did Baptist/Presbyterian.

Religion remains a significant element of modern life, and may be growing in importance given its common role as a source of push-back against the forces of globalization or as a globalizing force itself.

When we look outside classically Christian cultural contexts, however, the usefulness of our measures begin to rapidly decline. In my research context (Asia: most specifically China and Japan), unless you are dealing with Christian communities (and even then it is not a sure thing), self-identification and attendance, two typically key indicators, are misleading. Unless you are talking to a priest linked to a particular religious tradition (Daoist, Buddhist, Shinto, etc.) or one of the few fervently committed practitioners, belonging isn’t as important as efficacy. Even if you are not personally Buddhist or Shinto, that won’t keep you from seeking out shrines and temples known for their practical impact on everything from healthy births to successful test scores to safe travels, regardless of a given deity’s affiliation. Similarly, the concept of weekly attendance at religious events is purely a Christian imposition on the data. That just is not how religions in China and Japan work. Attendance has more to do with major life events and significant festivals. Measured on that scale, the Chinese and Japanese are far more faithful then they are often given credit for.

Returning to my pop quiz, it is not just the points of difference that should give our statistical endeavors pause; it is also the points of similarity. Prayer is one of the few practices in which nearly every religion can find some common ground. If there are superhuman powers, then communicating with them would be the natural province of a religion. Yet, if we are interested in the social nature and impact of religion, how people pray is just as important as whether they pray. We are, ultimately, most interested in the causal nature of prayer – the causal mechanisms that such actions activate and the results they tend to inspire. If we use the examples from my quiz, we can see very different possibilities for what is, statistically, the same action. All three would seem to either strengthen or draw on some personal devotion. However, the first would seem to work more as a source of communal solidarity and collective identity (a fact that was at the heart of how State Shinto was formed in the early Meiji years). The second lacks a direct communal/relational element, but would certainly heighten a sense of connection with the institutional apparatus of church…or just as easily allow for hit-and-run prayer with little broader social implications. The third, with its strong relational component could have all manner of effects.

While a cursory consideration, the point, I hope, is clear. Where religious practices are concerned, not all actions are created equal, even if we call them by the same name.

Featured image credit: A set of Jizo along the pathways near Kiyomizudera in Kyoto, Japan, photographed by the author. Used with the author’s permission. 

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