In the last couple of days I’ve been chewing over some poll data published by YouGov, commissioned by Lancaster University and linked to the Westminster Faith Debates initiative, which popped on to my radar through a link to this article in the Tablet written by Linda Woodhead, who uses the data to makes claims about what most Catholics think ‘about sex, the family and ethical matters surrounding it.’
From the outset, it should be said Catholics and those who care about the Church should welcome studies like this, engaging with the information they reveal about our Church and our people. Whilst we might, with the help of a certain Roman Prefect of Judaea, point out that Truth is not a thing determined by the numbers of those who assent to it, that doctrine is not developed or revised on the transient whims of plebiscites, nonetheless there are valuable lessons to be learned, be it for the catechist, or or the parish priest, or the church hierarchy generally. Numbers can, when reliable, add specific texture to what might otherwise remain a hunch – anything that might add substance to the usual cliché of ‘nobody believes x anymore’ ought to raise an eyebrow of interest.
And so we come to the polls, reported on by Professor Linda Woodhead, fast becoming the public authority on the country’s religious habits. The written report is detailed and fairly extensive, and generally confirms those societal trends and changes in attitudes about which we are regularly told, and of which most of us could acknowledge as probably broadly true.
So far, so uncontroversial.
And yet, on reading the article, one cannot help but feel that between the numbers and the conclusions drawn there exists an epistemic gap bridged with an interpretative vigour lacking in the sobriety one might expect to find in such a high profile piece of research. To declare an interest, I am a Roman Catholic: maybe it is the recusant DNA, but I’ve long been wary of accepting at face value any official information about who Catholics are and what they believe. Yet in this report, non-sequiturs and questionable inferences seem to jump out of the page quite apart from whether one is predisposed to look for them.
One holds back, of course, from accusing Woodhead of intentional bias, since there is no reason to doubt her integrity in these matters (though I’m inclined to think the Tablet would welcome such findings with analysis-free glee) – still, the eyes through which one looks will indubitably mould the way something looks. And if the overarching analysis of socio-religious climate is one of culture clash between the religiously orthodox and everyone else, then perhaps we ought to be sensitive to the possibility that such conclusions might just find themselves as the tease and temptress of the data analyst charged with interpreting the mass of numbers on a screen before them.
And so, to choose just a couple of examples, we read that, on the basis of the fact that almost three-quarters of British Catholics think sex is important for a fulfilled life, therefore ‘traditional teachings about the value of celibacy have largely been abandoned’. Really? Can that interpretation reasonably be drawn? Or again, ‘Marriage has ceased to be an essential element of the family in most Catholic minds, with only a quarter disapproving of unmarried couples raising children.’ Such a conclusion strikes one as being so obviously flawed that one wonders how it was able to be drawn in the first place. And there are numerous other examples where an interpretation might fit snugly into pre-existing assumption (‘ordinary Catholics ignore church teachings’), but cannot reasonably be drawn from the data presented in the article. It must be acknowledged, of course, that Woodhead is trying to distil large chunks of data into a small article, and so broad brush strokes are to an extent inevitable – but such statements are at least enough to encourage one to probe further rather than take such statements at face value.
At which point, other issues begin to appear. For example, we are told that ‘Catholics also depart from church teaching when it comes to contraception: only 9 per cent say they would feel guilty using it, and 12 per cent of weekly churchgoers.’ That sounds fairly conclusive, fairly authoritative. But looking at the three polls commissioned, the only reference I can see to the issue of contraception is the first poll commissioned, of 4437 adults, of whom just 354 self-identified as Catholics. Of this 354, which was weighted up to 391, only 125 (of the weighted number) said they ‘currently engage in religious or spiritual practices with other people’ (which might not include Mass) and of whom 65 (weighted number) said they do this at least once a week (again, which might not include Mass).
Thus, use of the phrase of ‘weekly churchgoers’ is already a doubtful one, whilst the broader claim being made is substantiated by the responses of just 57 people.
One need not be a looking for mischief, or even questioning the truth of the broader argument (that most Catholics do not follow church teachings on contraception), to point out that as far as evidential basis goes that really is wafer thin.
Of course, such claims might be given the weight of other studies, and indeed of generally accepted social norms, enough to allow a certain amount of confidence in reporting them in such robust terms. But that in itself can lead one to question the moderation of the reporting. And if a suspicion exists of a certain exuberance in dealing with the numbers and what they tell us, then it is only heightened when one notes some of the language used: we read, for example, that differences on sexual ethics is a ‘rift runs right through the Catholic population in Britain, isolating a minority who hold fast to the current official teaching from a majority who do not. [my emphasis]’
Setting aside the already questionable phrase ‘current official teaching’, and letting slide the fairly provocative description of those who remain orthodox Catholics, it must be noted that any talk of a rift, age-correlated or otherwise, is more of an insight into the one reading the numbers than anything else – to make such a causal link is entirely unwarranted. Indeed, perhaps it is the use of that word, ‘rift’, which best encapsulates the question of whether Woodhead’s interpretations come from the prior acceptance of a culture war narrative – it evokes an image of people in the pews being engaged in personal conflict with one another about the truth and observance of fundamental church doctrines, with all the younger liberal folk on one side, and older conservatives on the other. In my experience at least, this is simply not true (the only ever issue on which I have experienced anything even remotely similar is the issue of liturgy).
Most people in most pews simply don’t know what most other people in most pews believe about most things. To say there is a rift is to either misuse the word, with its related connotations, or to submit lived reality to the expectations of a macro-level sociocultural analysis. And all that on the basis of some pretty feeble numbers (the questions that make up the sexual ethics category largely appear in the two general polls, which have small Catholic numbers, and even smaller active Catholic numbers, and are largely absent, curiously, from the poll aimed specifically at Catholics.)
One can speculate as to why that might be, but for those slowly inclining toward suspicions of bias, unwitting or otherwise, then the wording of some of the questions asked is unlikely to disabuse the cynic of such a notion. For example, in the third poll aimed specifically at Catholics, two of the questions which might conceivably, though tangentially, be linked to any category on sexual ethics (Catholic adoption agencies and the Peter Hazelmary Bull B&B case), are so appallingly worded (and factually inaccurate)and so obviously weighted toward a particular response that they should be classed as junk, with no conclusions to be drawn from them (*see below). Indeed, when a question is so hostile to a presumed target, one really cannot but help question either the motives, or the unwitting but thorough bias, of those asking the question. Peter Hitchens once said that polls were often used to drive public opinion, not inform people about what it is. I suspect that this data is a case in point.
And so, whilst the polls make interesting reading, they must also be approached with an element of caution – one would surely be foolish to draw too many concrete conclusions from them, despite the authority one might expect of data coming from a well-funded and high profile organisation, publishing their research in mainstream media. When probed, the data can tell different stories, stories which will, of course, never be told. We also see, for example, that those who identify as humanist/secularist are more likely to feel bad about contraception, support gender segregation in worship and education, and feel guilty about premarital sex than Christians are. We see that Labour voters are more like than any else to look for support or guidance from God or a higher power when making crucial decisions, and we see that euroscepticism seems to be the preserve of the less well qualified in educational terms. Lastly, we see that only Londoners think society has got better since 1945, whilst most of the rest of us think it has got worse.
All of which I’ll take with a pinch of salt. Except for the last one, which pretty much confirms my pre-existing biases. And if I was so inclined, I might even jump on it to substantiate those pre-existing biases, using it to reinforce a narrative I have long cultivated, about London getting all the best of everything whilst the rest of us get shafted. ‘See!’, I’d say, ‘I bloody told you southerners were spoiled – this proves they’re smug about it too. I was right all along. We need to abolish London.’ But then, that would be a questionable conclusion. Drawn from a questionable interpretation. Drawn from a distinctly squiffy evidence base.
*Q1 – Do you think that bed-and-breakfast (B&B) owners should or should not be allowed to refuse accommodation to people based on their sexuality?
Q2 – In 2008, a gay couple were refused entry to a bed-and-breakfast on grounds of their sexuality based on the Christian beliefs of the owners. The bed-and-breakfast owners have since been ordered by the courts to pay damages of £3,600 to the couple. Do you think it was right or wrong that the bed-and-breakfast owners were ordered to pay damages to the couple?