Letter: In Response to Skip Hellewell’s ‘Dubious Data’

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I believe Skip Hellewell’s column challenging the Pew Research Center findings of declining rates of Christianity (echoing Dec. 10, 2018 findings of Religious News Service of the University of Missouri) requires multiple corrections.

First, his suspicion that the respondents are exaggerating their church attendance is irrelevant when comparing percentage changes over time in otherwise equivalent groups.

Second, Mr. Hellewell’s speculation that it is media reporting about the increase in the “None” category of religious affiliation that is driving further increases is fundamentally illogical, as that leaves unexplained the initial rise.

Third, Mr. Hellewell falsely claims that the 26 percent “None” value means that all of the remaining 74 percent must be “affiliated with a church.” Many of the remaining 74 percent may have some form of religious affiliation but not be a member of a “church,” or rarely attend religious services.

Fourth, Mr. Hellewell claims that “it’s well-documented that parents become more religious after the birth of children.” I could find no reference to support this. Southern Nazarene University (snu.edu) identifies that once a person reaches the age of 30, there is only a 4 percent chance they will ever become Christian. The idea that significant numbers of atheist millennials who have children in their 30s are going to become Christian is highly improbable.

Fifth, with regard to declining birth rates and religiosity, Hellewell has the cart before the horse. The declining birth rate is likely in part a result of reduced rates of religiosity, since religious women start having children at an earlier age, and more of them (2008 study “Religiosity and Fertility in the United States: The Role of Fertility Intentions” by Sarah Hayford).

Sixth, Hellewell apparently understands the statistical phrase “regression to the mean” to signify “go back to a previous value.” Former rates of religiosity do not constitute a fixed “normal” for U.S. society, to which later measurements will return. (The death rate from the plague will not likely return to what it was in the middle ages.)

Lastly, I do agree there is no reason for despair. The UN’s World Happiness Report 2018 (in which the U.S. ranks 18th) found that the happiest countries have low rates of religiosity; in fact, religiosity correlates negatively. The most important determinants are high GDP per capita, robust social support, healthy life expectancy and freedom to make life choices. Enhancing our social safety net would increase our national happiness score, not increasing the birth rate.

Gary M. Stewart, Laguna Beach



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