Just a short post as I’m planning a longer post on this topic at T&S next week. A few people were mentioning Jana Riess’ talk at the UVU Mormon Studies conference last week. She posted a bit on it at her blog.
While I don’t really disagree with most she says, I do want to raise an important point. We have to be careful comparing statistics from different surveys. Typically they are apples to oranges comparisons with different methodologies – especially in terms of how they decide how to deal with getting diversity into their polls. So, for instance, a poll of 20,000 Mormons might seem like a huge sample size, it wouldn’t be terribly representative of American Mormons if it mainly consisted of people from Rexsburg and Provo. Getting both a representative sample and and sufficiently large sample size is difficult.
This is partially why when you consider the three main polls on Mormon US population size you get such radically different answers. ARIS, my favorite poll, gives the Mormon population at 1.4% of the US population. Pew gives 1.6%, a fairly different figure. Gallup, with by far the largest sample size, gives 2%. However Gallup wasn’t really aiming at discovering Mormons but just reflects how many Mormons were in it’s various other polls over the year. Which one is correct?
It’s really hard to say. Given the differences, comparing retention statistics from ARIS and Pew is probably a bit misleading except in a general qualitative fashion.
The problems go a little beyond this though. Jana mentions retention figures from the book Souls in Transition covering I think the late 90’s.1 She then compares this to the Pew figures. However not only is there the problem of comparing two different polls. There’s the problem that they significantly differ in how they define retention.
Pew’s notion of retention is just what faith you were in when young (under 18) with what you are now.2 Thus they’re comparing retention from youth for the entire over 18 population. That’ll include Millennials, Gen-X, Baby Booms and “Greatest Generation.” Souls in Transition on the other hand is comparing retention among 18-23 year olds based upon their religious tradition from 13-17. So it’s a very different thing being measured. At a minimum we’d expect retention to go down as age goes up. (Just think of how many people you know of who left the Church in their late 20’s or 30’s rather than early 20’s) While we can’t draw too many inferences from their data, one would assume the retention figure would be lower with more older people included.3
The only retention figures I’d compare are between ARIS studies or between Pew studies beyond qualitative figures. There Pew has us dropping from 70% to 64% although it’s hard to know what to make of that given some issues with Pew data. In any case as I’ve mentioned before, among religions without some sort of ethnic identity component (which would boost retention reports since there’s a reason to stay beyond the religious) Mormons and Evangelicals have the highest rate (65% and 64% which is pretty indistinguishable). Among Christians only traditionally black churches do better with 70% retention.
- Jana says the early 2000’s. I skimmed in the book but didn’t have time to check carefully. When I’d written about that book before relative to youth retention I’d said late 90’s. ↩
- I presume the person responding gets to pick what religion they were raised in if they were, like Marco Rubio, raised in multiple different ones. ↩
- That’s not necessarily the case of course. It might be that older generations had significantly higher retention so even as the rate drops it’s still much higher than younger generations. However I’m skeptical retention has ever been significantly above 70%. ↩