Religion Data Roundup
DR. GINA A. ZURLO
CO-DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY
There are many ways to study religion from social scientific perspectives. Qualitative studies can be ethnographic, where the researcher engages in observation (or participation observation) and typically interviews within a religious community, creating a “thick description” (a la Clifford Geertz) of what they do, how they do it, what they think about it, and how it fits within a larger social context. One of the most prominent examples of this is Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem (Yale University Press, 1988). Such studies are typically small-scale (communities, individuals) and highlight what is known as “lived religion” – how people experience religion in their everyday lives.
Here at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, we engage in quantitative studies of religion that fall under the “demography of religion”. In other words, we track over time the size of Christianity and other world religions by country, people, and language, while projecting for the future. Other quantitative studies in religion include surveys, which are typically larger in scale than qualitative studies (though they can be as small as 1,000 respondents and as large as 50,000) and target a broader population, like that of an entire country or religious group. Perhaps most well-known for this is the Pew Research Center, whose religion surveys ask a series of questions to a representative sample of people about their religious beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes. There is a clear intersection between our work at the Center and that of other sociologists of religion; while we help provide the broader context of religion – that is, which religions are in what places –other sociologists inquire further about how they practice religion, what they think about it, and how attitudes toward religion are changing (see this page on our FAQ about some differences between us and Pew).
But how many people are actually Christians? Our only answer, from a demography of religion perspective, to this frequently-asked question is how many people affiliate to Christianity in a particular place or time. But we know this is not necessarily a satisfying answer to everyone. To that end, here is a list of surveys, researchers, and organizations that help shed light on the nuances of religion in its social context, both in the USA and abroad.
- Pew Research Center. They’ve done many high-quality studies of religion around the world, including religion in India, Christianity in Western Europe, Orthodox Christianity, religion in Latin America, and global Christianity.
- The Association of Religion Data Archives. This is the largest repository of quantitative religion data on the web. It has national profiles for each country with lots of information on each, plus a section of datasets from the USA and around the world. There are teaching tools and even a whole section dedicated to how to study your own congregation.
- International Social Survey Programme. The ISSP has been asking questions on religion and its social context since the 1980s and is very helpful in observing changes over time.
- Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The HIRR director, Scott Thumma, is the go-to guy for understanding congregations in the USA (via the Faith Communities Today survey), especially megachurches. They just received a $5.3 million grant to do a massive USA-wide study of the impact of COVID on religious congregations.
- National Congregations Study under the direction of Mark Chaves at Duke. Now in its third wave (and a fourth coming soon), the NCS provides longitudinal data on how American congregations are changing.
- The best data on megachurches in the world is from Warren Bird, who keeps a free, regularly updated Excel sheet online for anyone to download and use.
- World Values Survey. This is an oft-used dataset because of how many countries it surveys, asking essentially the same question everywhere to do cross-national comparisons. There’s an online tool where you can create your own datasets for free.
- There are many regional studies like the Asiabarometer, Afrobarometer, and Latinobarometro. They don’t always ask about religion, but they provide helpful contextual information. There’s also the European Values Study and the European Social Survey.
- Demographic and Health Surveys sometimes ask about religion alongside questions on nutrition, diseases, family planning, gender, and other topics.
- The General Social Survey is widely known in the USA as an important data source for American attitudes more broadly; there is also the Korean General Social Survey, Japanese General Social Survey, and the Chinese General Social Survey.
- In some countries, there are specific research departments dedicated to studying religion. For example, CONICET in Buenos Aires, Argentina, has twice conducted the only national survey of religion in that country.
The list goes on. At the Center, we value the work of these researchers around the world who diligently work to uncover the nuances of faith “on the ground,” in contrast to our 30,000-foot view. I encourage you to check them out and see what you discover!