Defining the dimensions of religiosity

Religiosity is complex and difficult to measure comprehensively

Written by Jessie Saeli, edited by Nicole R. Smith and Rachel J. Bacon

Photo by Lampos Aritonang on Unsplash

What does it mean to be religious?

Is someone religious because they go to Mass every week or because they pray facing Mecca five times a day? Is it because they eat a vegetarian diet or because they have a strong inner conviction about a supernatural worldview? What if they follow religious rules and attend religious ceremonies but don’t really believe in the supernatural? What about those who believe in a higher power and consider themselves very “spiritual”, but reject all organized religion and traditional practices?

Many scholars and researchers want to see how religiosity has changed across different populations over time. But how can they measure these varieties of religiousness objectively enough to accomplish this? Once we examine the complex reality of human religious practices and beliefs, it becomes obvious that religion (and nonreligion) cannot be easily defined. Religiosity is a multi-dimensional phenomenon.

Religiosity matters

Despite its indefinite nature, (non)religion has a powerful practical impact on how communities and populations of people behave. Such beliefs determine personal investment of energy and money, moral orientations to a host of politically and socially charged issues, and vital civic considerations such as marriage formation, raising children, pursuing education, and overall well-being.

Civic planners must take account of religion to meet the rapidly evolving needs of the population while minimizing hardship and conflict and maximizing social harmony and individual well-being. That’s where demographers come in, gathering data on (non)religion (among many other things) and creating population forecasts to inform civic planners.

When demographic surveys and forecasts focus on small, homogeneous populations, the problem of defining religion is partially mitigated. However, if we consider multiple cultures with different religions across time periods of radical change, things become much more complicated. If we have Catholic service attendance data from the US in the 1970s and descriptions of religious dietary habits of Indian Hindus and Jains in the 1990s, how can we measure their respective religiosity in a meaningful, shared frame of reference?

Measuring religion across cultures and over time

The Modeling Religious Change (MRC) project is using non-traditional, multidisciplinary methods to address these problems, beginning with novel datasets and ending with computational simulations that model religious change in large populations.

Creating the databases necessary for our demographic computational modeling requires synthesizing vastly different sources of information such as ethnographic data, census counts of religious groups, and surveys of religious or spiritual identity, beliefs, and practices. The databases we create allow us to observe and measure different forms of religious change (such as secularization, conversion to religion, and switching between religions) while taking account of numerous dimensions of religiosity in widely varying cultural settings from as early as 1900 forwards. We avoid relying on a single definition of religiosity, and this frees us to re-organize data on multiple dimensions of religion and analyze the change in all of those dimensions simultaneously.

The dimensions of religiosity we consider are diverse and help us take into account different cultures, as well as social and economic change over time. On the other hand, these dimensions are rooted in the cognitive and emotional functions of human beings, allowing us to create a data-grounded, multidisciplinary, cross-cultural theory of religious change that is applicable to the times, places, and cultures included in our study. We are gathering data for the United States, Norway, India, Argentina, New Zealand, Nigeria, and China.

Dimensions of Religiosity

Traditional demographic projection methods use, at minimum, measures on geographic region, time, sex, and age. These are necessary to identify population cohorts living in a specific place over time, and whether they migrate, have children, and eventually die.

In addition to these traditional measurements, we have developed five dimensions to measure religiosity:

  • Religious self-identification
  • Public religious practice
  • Private religious practices
  • Supernatural worldviews
  • Subjective importance of religion

As we consider these factors in detail for each region we are studying, we must contend with the challenge of limited data available for each region. For example, the US has many surveys and polls that have questions about religious service attendance from the early 20th century, while our data on India blends ethnographic recordings and survey data.

Let’s take a closer look at these dimensions of religiosity.

Religious self-identification

Self-designated religious affiliation may seem the most obvious way to measure religiosity. Simply check the box on this survey and we’ll know which religion you adhere to, or whether you don’t adhere to any religion. Self-designated affiliation data are also commonly available in most countries and demographers often rely on affiliation to create projections of religious change.

However, self-designated affiliation has several problems, not least of which is the difficulty some survey respondents face in answering the question. What if their particular religion is not listed, or they are on the fence about whether they identify as religious or non-religious? This effectively erases (non)religious identifications that could be salient in a particular region or culture.

Many nonreligious people are hesitant to identify as an “atheist” due to the connotations of that label. Indigenous people who also identify with a large world religion often do not mention their indigenous religious identification.

These are the kinds of intricate challenges that our team has been facing since the early phases of data collection.

Public religious practice

Public religious practice refers to how regularly individuals engage with a religious community and its rituals. Religious service attendance is the paradigmatic example of public religious practices and, like affiliation, is commonly asked about in surveys and polls.

However, focusing only on public participation in religious practices can be misleading. A nonreligious person might attend with a religious friend or partner while never changing their own beliefs or self-identification. Many people continue to attend religious services to foster community or out of a sense of duty, even after their private religious beliefs have changed.

For example, according to surveys conducted by Pew in 2015–2017, 40% of adults in Poland are “highly religious.” Pew breaks down this measure into four similar components: importance of religion, monthly worship attendance, prayer, and belief in God. A different picture emerges as 61% of Polish adults say they attend worship services monthly, but only 27% pray daily.

40% of adults are “highly religious” according to Pew’s 2018 data. However, the religious profile is more complex. 61% of adults surveyed attend worship services monthly, but only 45% believe in God. In even starker contrast, only 29% of adults say religion is important in their lives and 27% pray daily.
SourcePew Research Center Surveys conducted 2015–2017 in 34 countries.

Additionally, survey respondents and religious organizations often over- or under-report their attendance, especially if they feel that there are advantages or disadvantages associated with reporting religious attendance. Finally, some highly religious people may become less able to attend services with age or other issues (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic).

Despite these complexities of interpretation, public participation is one of the most widely available demographic measures in the regions MRC is studying. In the United States, weekly attendance data stretch as far back as 1900 if retrospective questions about the respondent’s parents’ religious attendance are used. The historical ethnographic data in India, which the Center for the Study of Global Christianity team is analyzing, describes public religious celebrations and participation across the people groups of India from the 1980s onward, and often looking backwards for several decades.

Private religious practices

Private religious practices can indicate a genuine engagement with religion that goes unnoticed when we focus on public practice alone. Unfortunately, there isn’t as much data available about them. The private nature of these religious practices — praying, meditating, reading religious materials, making offerings, observing particular diets, or maintaining a personal shrine — makes them more difficult to observe, and survey questions about private religious practices are uncommon.

Nevertheless, private religious practices are extremely important. Even when public religious expression wanes in secular regions, people’s private religious habits may continue to indicate their religion is personally meaningful.

One subtlety about this dimension of religiosity is that polls often do not differentiate whether an action is done in private or public or whether that activity has a religious meaning for the individual. For example, prayer is a practice that can be very private and personally meaningful, but praying with others at a place of worship is also common in many religions. If the survey question does not specify where the prayer occurs, then it remains unclear whether the respondent prays only when under social pressure.

Supernatural worldviews

Measuring supernatural worldviews is a unique feature of MRC’s research. Supernatural worldview does not refer to a specific system of religious beliefs but to any belief in invisible religious beings such as angels, demons, gods, or ghosts, as well as belief in afterlives of all sorts. This dimension is key because many people who wouldn’t identify as religious or practice any religion publicly or privately may still hold a supernatural worldview. Not all non-religious people are ‘atheists’ or even ‘agnostic’. Non-religion is a diverse category.

The main difficulty in assembling data on supernatural worldviews is that surveys are very inconsistent in the kinds of questions they ask and how the questions are worded. Questions about belief in God and an afterlife are common, but the wording often limits responses to a Christian or Monotheistic belief system. Survey questions about supernatural worldviews often have to be tailored to a country and perhaps even to each religious group, since supernatural worldviews are articulated through local religious cultures.

Measuring supernatural worldviews promises to shed new light on the phenomena of secularization in many Western countries and to provide more nuance and understanding of religious decline.

Our FOReST computational model, whose causal architecture synthesizes several different theories of religious change, focuses on change from supernatural religious to post-supernatural secular beliefs, and vice-versa. Researchers in the cognitive science of religion suggest supernatural worldviews are maturationally natural for the developing human mind. Because of this, supernatural beliefs will be slow to change, even if other aspects of religiosity are chipped away by changing social structures.

Subjective importance of religion

Finally, subjective religious importance refers to the holistic feeling a person has that their religion or spirituality matters to them personally, and plays an important role in their daily life. For several decades, surveys have asked people how religious they are or how important religion is in their life, and the possibility of being “spiritual, but not religious” has only been assessed more recently. The addition of spirituality is important in countries where many people abandon religious institutions and adopt their own way of being religious or spiritual.

It is arguable that religion is no longer pervasive in the lives of contemporary people when compared to medieval or earlier time periods. In centuries past, religion was embedded in daily life to the point of being taken for granted. Prior to modern medical triumphs that doubled lifespans, religion was a matter of life and death, the source of support in face of disaster and life’s uncertainties.

The individual nature of subjective religious importance presents a challenge in how we conceptualize and measure religiosity along this dimension. Today, modern technologies have transformed lifestyles to such a degree that people increasingly rely on secular institutions for survival and improving their well-being. Perhaps, then, subjective religious importance has changed more than any other dimension of religiosity, at the population level.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

A comprehensive understanding of religion may help us predict the future

The data that feeds our computational model of religious change need to be as complex and comprehensive as the populations we are projecting. Our researchers have identified several complex dimensions of religiosity to supplement standard demographic measures. Measuring each of these dimensions comes with its own challenges, but all of the dimensions work together to provide a rich picture of religious change.

This allows our models to capture the nuance provided by the different dimensions of religiosity while also retaining a solid basis in measurable and available data on religiosity. MRC is focused on capturing the rates at which dimensions of religiosity have changed over the past century so that we can predict how they will continue to change in the future.

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