Who’s counting?

Doing the numbers on membership
Journalists covering religion regularly cite membership figures for the various religious organizations. They want to give readers an idea of how many people might be affected by developments in a particular group or tradition.

Some religious bodies are attentive to statistics, and their data inspire some degree of confidence. But when the figures seem to be raw estimates in very round and rather high numbers, I am reminded of the big-church pastor who when asked about membership would answer, “Well, evange-statistically speaking . . .”

Religious groups associated with racial or ethnic minorities have often erred on the side of rounding their figures upwards, and have been largely forgiven for the exaggeration because—it is thought—they lack the means and motivation to be precise about the figures. But when vague self-estimates get into print—usually uncontested—it only misleads the public about the relative influence of faith groups.


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