Polls and Pews: complexity in self-identity

The ongoing polling research done by Pew on religion in America has been a major touchstone in understanding national trends, but new research by Pew further affirms how difficult it is to get a sense of what religion means in this country, and how impossible it is to capture a picture of that.

Photo by Emmanuel Appiah

By changing the method of polling from one primarily based in phone interviews to a system where a panel of pre-selected people fill out online surveys, the pollsters are realizing that people are more likely to represent themselves as “religious” and “church-going” to a person on the phone than they are when privately answering on their own. It is objectively funny that people would lie about being a part of a religion which condemns lying, but Pew points out that it isn’t necessary a lie. Someone who says they are “moderately religious” one day might, because of circumstances or how the question was asked, say the next that they are “only slightly religious.”

Of course, actual church attendance is a more empirical metric, and we should be able to hypothetically track actual attendance versus self-reported attendance. This gets a little sticky too, though, as the research notes:

“[…] when respondents in a telephone or face-to-face survey overstate how often they go to religious services, they may not be consciously telling a lie so much as projecting a self-image that is important to them. They may be saying, in effect, “I’m the kind of person who goes to church every week” rather than, “Without fail, I actually go to church every single week.” When answering the same question online, without the subtle psychological impact of speaking to another person, respondents evidently give answers that are closer to their actual behavior.”

Pew Research Center

Which is to say, people’s identity doesn’t necessarily align with their actions. Is someone who self-identifies as church-going but never actually goes to church actually a church-goer? A simple quantitative question becomes a complicated metaphysical puzzle. If anything, the enterprise of the 21st century has demonstrated in sharp relief the many complexities of identity.

The problem isn’t necessarily that someone would misrepresent themselves to a pollster because they prefer to give an answer that is socially desirable. The problem is that the person doesn’t recognize this answer is at odds with their behavior, and that matters of self-identity are unassailable. Instead of simply writing off a non-church-attending person who identifies as church-going by saying they are lying, we must accept that some actually identify as church-going, maybe even if they don’t actually attend church at all. The fact that they don’t enter into the building doesn’t change their self-image as a “church-goer,” and presenting them with the facts shouldn’t change it either; they simply see themselves as “church-going,” even if they don’t satisfy the generally accepted reality of that term.

There is a way in which this is simply a semantic argument and not a metaphysical one. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that a person’s self-identity has a material change on the reality around them, but I also don’t want to reduce identity down to a matter of definition of the terms. There is a real sense in which the person who never sets foot inside a church but thinks of themselves as a devoted church-goer is what they see themselves as, because, after all, who is anyone else to tell them what they are? As with all questions of identity, the conclusion is ultimately a self-identification, which means others cannot dispute the conclusion.

This also doesn’t just boil down to solipsism. Self-identity doesn’t change the fact of how often someone’s physical body enters into a worship space. But it does change how we view research, as well as how we view others: when people tell you who they are, believe them.

What happened to online church?

Are you still going to church? Virtually, I mean. Some places are holding physically distant, reduced capacity meetings, of course. Some have experimented with outdoor services, although winter is coming quickly. But the majority of churches are still holding online, virtual services. The people, though, are giving up.

The research from the Barna Group in June gave a pretty shocking picture of the state of faith in America. About half of people were still “attending” virtual church, less than a third were engaging with church leadership, less than 15% were participating in a discussion group or bible study. It isn’t a surprise that people wouldn’t immediately embrace this unusual method of churchgoing, but the shocking part about these statistics is that they are amongst regular churchgoers! That means, even within the church’s most devoted followers, membership is waning in an unprecedented way.

Personally, I was pretty committed to regular Sunday viewing in the spring and early summer. I was definitely one of the “hoppers” that the research mentions, switching freely between several services at congregations which I wouldn’t normally attend. The incredible ease of access to a variety of churches made “attending” different services fun and novel. I would switch between several live, or watch portions of other churches’ later in the day.

That has slowly dwindled, and now I find myself zipping past Sunday without even thinking about booting up a live stream. The incredible variety of online services available was also its undoing: although I enjoyed getting to experience each church’s take on virtual service early on, after several weeks I wasn’t engaged enough to continue. There is only so much novelty a virtual service can offer, after all, and by simply passively watching I wasn’t really engaging with any one church.

I wonder how much the numbers have fallen off since June. One can only assume that my personal experience mirrors a trend. One also has to wonder how this will change churchgoing in the future; it seems equally as likely that churchgoers who have fallen off in virtual attendance will happily return in person as it does that they simply become lapsed practitioners.

One thing is certain: in order to maintain worshipers, churches have to find a way to increase real engagement. Not just getting people to passively watch their productions, but engage in community in a significant way, as they would by attending. Many congregations are constantly innovating new ways to address this. The social and communal aspects of church are lost in a virtual ceremony, and these are the primary factors in retention in a normal church setting. If churches are going to continue to be restricted in their ability to hold in-person services, they will need to find a better way to simulate this communal engagement if they hope to retain parishioners in the short-term.

Holy Murals: how a new WPA could save the church

We don’t really make murals anymore. Not like we used to, at least. Lots of old post offices or fancy lobbies from a certain era have sweeping wall art, mosaic or hand painted, depicting industrious Americans or verdant farms or, sometimes, nothing specific at all. Most of these are a creation of artists employed by the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, where artists unemployed by the Great Depression were hired by the federal government to beautify public spaces and enrich American culture.

San Pedro, CA post office

These WPA murals are from the 30s, but if you’re like me you almost think of them in a similar class to the ubiquitous murals behind altars in churches. These reredos or apse walls tend to date more to the 60s, when there was a huge boom in contemporary church architecture. They tend to be gold.

Cabrini Shrine, NYC

Although the WPA had branches funding all the major arts, the murals are the most striking example of that cultural infusion today. There are, of course, the many important buildings created under the auspices of the WPA, but we now consider those remaining structures simply part of the fabric of our cities. The music and theater and writing have been relegated to libraries as trends changed. The murals, though, seem trapped in amber, a relic of a different time; stylized with distinctive Deco details, they remind us of an inter-war America that seems like a story told by our grandparents. There are so many of these murals in part because so much of the WPA budget was allocated for their creation.

Nearly 90 years later, we are, once again, facing wide-spread unemployment amongst artists. The ongoing shutdown has put many out of business entirely, while others survive only on enhanced unemployment opportunities. Additionally, churches have been unable to meet regularly, which has caused communities of faith to struggle both financially and spiritually.

We can look to the past for an answer to this problem. We can create a New WPA.

Georgette Seabrooke working On Her WPA Federal Art Project mural,  Recreation In Harlem, for the Nurses’ Recreation Room in Harlem Hospital.

The WPA appropriation in 1935 was 6.7% of GDP. A similar amount in today would be less than $1.5 trillion. The CARES act, passed in the infancy of this emergency, was well over $2 trillion, and we didn’t get a SINGLE mural out of it. A new WPA could be funded with a fraction of the amount we’re already freely willing to give to mega-corporations who have plenty of money in the bank. Funding artists instead not only stimulates the economy and provides for struggling Americans, but also enriches our culture, furthers artistic development, and beautifies our public spaces.

Of course, the current challenges make music and theater productions difficult, but visual art, construction, and writing can largely be done independently. As we understand more about the risk involved with gathering for performance art, we can fund new and innovative ways in which people in those disciplines create. In the meantime, artists can pass along the technique of their trades by teaching (remotely), and a large scale arts education initiative would both save artists and enrich schools. Other countries are already doing this.

If this New WPA is also allowed to install public art in churches, this could be a way to save our struggling houses of worship. Doesn’t your church need some refurbishment? Maybe a renewed exterior, complete with outside art for everyone to enjoy? Or perhaps there is a large blank wall, waiting for some benefactor to fund a fantastic mural on it. Of course, there are problems in using secular funding for sacred art, and people would probably be more amenable to funding church art publicly if churches paid their fair share in taxes (a discussion for a different time). Still, this could be a productive, creative way to support churches, artists, and communities in a way that doesn’t simply throw money at an ever-increasing problem.

Why Church is Deadly (right now)

It’s easy to exaggerate when we have little information, and nobody benefits from fear-mongering. We are becoming increasingly aware, though, that church itself could be the most dangerous place to be during the current pandemic.

Why are churches so dangerous in regards to the spread of this disease? Because we do all the things the church that are most likely to spread the virus: we sing, we happily greet each other, we recite readings together, we commune, we gather. In particular, singing seems to be especially hazardous, based on information we have from a specific choir gathering in early March. The amazing thing about this specific story is the amount of information we have: one infected individual, who thought they only had a slight cold, unknowingly infected at least 45 of the rehearsal’s 60 participants. Two eventually died from complications with the virus. Several more were hospitalized. They didn’t hug or shake hands, they used hand sanitizer, they even spaced seats slightly farther apart.

The first instinct as this relates to churches is simply to cut the choir. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough, or even the major concern as far as churches go. Churches are one of the few places where we communally sing, even regardless of our interest or ability in music. Singing together, even informally, seems to intensify both the distance and the concentration of the spread. Even spaced 6 feet apart or more in a large space may not be enough to counteract the additional aerosolization of particles.

I had never hoped for this to be a COVID blog and I prefer to read and write about things unrelated to the virus. But this is such a sticking point for churches right now, and it will continue to dog religion for the near future. We’ve already looked at how the foster religious community when you can’t meet, but virtual interaction only seems like a stopgap until we can gather again. How can we sing in a strange land? Must we hang up our lyres on the willows there? How can we experience joy at church when we’re constantly in fear of an invisible spectre? What is church without songs, or speaking, or even greeting one another? And of course, why hasn’t “God’s saving hand” spared us from this?

It represents a cataclysmic obstacle for churches. Of course it doesn’t spell the end of religion, which has survived plagues plenty of times, and it doesn’t even mean things will be different in the future. But how this challenges believers today, and how believers and non-believers alike react and recover, will alter the face of organized religion in our lifetimes.

Should religious doubters still go to church?

Organized religion is sometimes referred to as a “monolith.” It’s a kind of metonymy, a shorthand to relate the experience of organized religion to the massive, solid, impersonal nature of a block of stone or ancient monument. It seems like everyone sitting around you in church is unified in their belief, immovable like rock, steadfast in belief.


Obviously, churches are made up of individuals, and individuals aren’t a monolith. It just feels like that when you’re all directed towards a priest-figure who only says one thing. This was literally a central complaint of Martin Luther in the 95 theses he famously nailed to the church door: the structure of religion is organized around interpreters who are generally united in their interpretation, even though it may be obvious to us as individuals that there are alternate interpretations.

Polling is pretty clear that congregations aren’t monolithic. In the Catholic church, famously over 90% of women use birth control expressly forbidden by Rome. Its such an epidemic that I remember lots of homilies growing up in the 90s excoriating “cafeteria Catholics” who would pick and choose from the tenants of The Church.

Yet the faithful keep showing up! Parishioners get told, unequivically, that they can’t believe the things they believe and still be called Catholic, but they do it anyway. There are Catholics that are pro-choice, that support gender equality in the clergy, that advocate marriage equality, that deny supernatural metaphysical explanations.

This is a balancing act upon a treacherous tightrope: press the hard line and alienate a large swath of followers, or turn a blind eye and risk losing some core theology. The church wavers between these two extremes depending on the hierarchy, but it has become increasingly apparent that it isn’t the church which decides. People who go to church self-identify by virtue of their attendance but also by their own label. As churches have become increasingly desperate for attendance they’ve resigned themselves to the fact that they can’t be the one to apply a label.

This understanding of religious identity has come about intersectionally with our understandings of gender, sexual, and ethnic identities. As in all matters of identity, the individual defines their existence and it doesn’t make sense for anyone else to have an opinion. Of course, we now understand gender and sexual orientation to be largely involuntary; that we don’t choose our identity in these categories but come to understand them, especially if they are less common socially. There are also elements of identity which are immutable, like gender assigned at birth or the genetic aspects of race (such as they exist, if at all).

Religion and religious identity are largely chosen, and in this way they are different from gender or sexual orientation. Religious identity seems more like ethnic identity in that there are combination of physical, cultural, sociological, and personal factors at play, many of which are predetermined and many of which are not. My understanding of theology isn’t predetermined by any factors outside of my knowledge and research, but my atheist theological identity is outweighed by the variety of other factors which comprise my Catholic identity. Namely, I’m historically Catholic in terms of my family lineage, I’m culturally Catholic in terms of my upbringing, and I’m tribally Catholic in terms of my identity. All this even though I attend churches of other denominations more often than I attend mass!

Our evolving understanding of identity is hard. Hard to understand, hard to classify, and hard to discuss politely. The part about it that is exceedingly easy, though, is that you just have to listen to what people tell you they are and accept that regardless of your preconceived judgements. Furthermore, churches have to acknowledge and accept peoples’ identity, even as those churches struggle with their own.

So when you go to a church and start talking to a person at coffee hour and you realize that they are agnostic even though they go to Episcopal services, or that they’re a humanist who happens to be in a Mormon family, or that they pray like a Muslim but are ecumenical in their theology, you begin to realize that the church isn’t a monolith. The church isn’t monolithic because the church is people, and people aren’t monolithic. This is what Christians mean by “the body of Christ,” at least metaphorically: that together we make divinity. It doesn’t matter what part of the body you represent, and it doesn’t matter how much you identify with the people you’re worshiping with; what matters is that we’re figuring it out together.