Clergy Ratings Hit 30-Year Low, But… December 11, 2009

Clergy Ratings Hit 30-Year Low, But…

This makes me sick:

Americans’ views of the “honesty and ethics” of clergy have hit a 32-year low, with just half rating their moral caliber as high or very high, according to Gallup’s annual Honesty and Ethics Ratings of Professions survey.

Wait, that’s a good thing, right? Half the people don’t think Catholic Church clergy are honest or ethical — what’s wrong with that?

Only that half the people do see them as honest and ethical.

Let’s put this in contest:

Some priests raped children. Many churches covered it up for decades. And yet, more people see priests as ethical and moral… than would vote for an atheist in a presidential election.

Did we fail a PR campaign or is there just something wrong with our society? I’m inclined to say the latter.

Or maybe there’s something wrong with us. This finding from the survey is almost as disturbing as the previous one:

Ratings [for priests] dropped year-over-year among Catholics and Protestants, as well as among regular and occasional churchgoers. However, they rose in one category: among those professing “no religion.” Last year, 31% rated clergy honesty high or very high; in 2009, that figure inched up to 34%.

Among the nones, the honesty ratings for clergy rose?!

What. The. Hell.

Would anyone like to offer explanations for this?

(Thanks to Brian for the link)

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  • Maybe it was an experimental error, because 3% doesn’t seem like a significant growth to me (though it depends on how many people were responding). Also, it could just be a change in the demographics of the study.

    Perhaps this time around the “non-religious” were more humanist, compassionate and forgiving, where as last time the non-religious were more anti-religious. That’s the problem with such a vague term like non-religous.

  • Yes, I am seeing this surge of humanists that take the live and let live approach, and harbor no ill will against people that are not physically harming anyone. They probably see the clergy as misguided, but genuinely good people. I do not believe this. I think clergy are some of the most dangerous people in the world, as they are the ones who spread all the lies of the bible(or whatever holy book they hold dear), and propagate the mistreatment and persecution of millions of people.

  • Lurker

    There are lots of atheist priests out there, you know.

  • So small it could just be a quirk in the numbers.

  • The “no religion” category, I suspect, includes the New Age “spiritual but not religious” types. Which is one of the reasons I think its a useful thing to measure. It lumps too many disparate groups together to get meaningful data (as instances like this demonstrate).

  • The “no religion” category, I suspect, includes the New Age “spiritual but not religious” types. Which is one of the reasons I don’t think its a useful thing to measure. It lumps too many disparate groups together to get meaningful data (as instances like this demonstrate).

  • nomad

    Right. There are theists who don’t go to church and therefore think of themselves as “non-religious”, and atheists who don’t believe but nevertheless think religion is good for society and that priests are by nature good people. Think Karen Armstrong.

  • nomad

    Think Karen Armstrong.

  • Given the main thrust of this survey (that priests are increasingly thought of as not being trustworthy) it must be getting harder and harder for the theist to maintain the doctrine that morality comes from ‘God’ when God’s own representatives on earth aren’t even seen as moral. That must surely be a good thing.

    No explanation for the non-believers however.

  • gski

    I never trust poles about religion. The pressure in this country to be seen as religious is too great, so many of the nonreligious are hiding.

    It sounds like the pole was asking about the individual person, not the church as a whole. “Some priests raped children …” That’s true, but most did not, those that did not, may in fact be very honest and ethical. Those that lead the cover up rarely interact with the common folk so their stink does not taint the local priest.

    Church goers will see the clergy as being part of their own group/tribe and so are entitled to the benefit of doubt. Atheists are seen as being outside the group/tribe that is, ‘one of them’ so the mind set is that we are a monolithic opposition. It makes sense to vote for someone in my group that probably is honest as opposed to someone outside my group and so probably isn’t trusted.

    I agree that a change of 31% to 34% isn’t significant. Perhaps the greater ratings drop of Catholics and Protestants (the amount of drop isn’t stated) compared to the Nones is because the religious are expecting more from the clergy and so the disillusionment is greater.

  • nomad

    “a change of 31% to 34% isn’t significant.”

    And of course the poll does not take into account whether the change is due a ratio change re. atheist vs theist. Perhaps one or the other category has grown or diminished in the interval. That could account for the 3%.

  • J.F.Sebastian

    I totally agree with Modern Girl : there is a good chance that those 3% are within the margin of error, and are therefore not relevant.

  • Claudia

    If you go to the Gallup website for this poll you can see a few interesting things:

    – The margin of error is 4%, so the variability is within the margin of error.

    – Though I couldn’t find the original study, the report divides people into three categories:
    *Protestan/Other Christian
    * Catholic
    * No religion

    Yes that’s right, every single atheist and agnostic and Jew and Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu would be lumped into no religion according to this poll. This could have had the effect of artificially raising the ratings all along, given that people of other religions would likely be more inclined to give high ratings than people of no religion.

  • Chris

    Here’s my advice: don’t take any news item whose only source is a voluntary survey even the slight bit seriously.

    Skip to the last line, which says “The survey was based on telephone interviews with 1,017 adults nationwide…”, and ask yourself this: do I believe that 1000 people willing to take unsolicited phone surveys fairly represent my and the other 300 million American’s opinions?

    These are likely the same kinds of people who click on that e-mail message from Mr. Nigel Soladu who needs your help to get his billion dollars out of Nigeria… his also has penis enlargement pills.

  • Frank

    At the bottom of the article it says that the margin of error is 4%, and the change for nones was only 3%, so this is probably just statistical error. However, the hypothesis about the younger new-age/pagan/spiritual types is interesting.

  • Personally, I am always suspect immediately when I hear that someone is clergy. I watch my children very closely around them and never never buy a used car from one.

    I don’t have a margin of error of 4% when it comes to my kids.

  • I know its on Fox and most readers here foam at the mouth at the mention, but did anyone hear Glenn Beck’s claims that the separation of church and state is an unconstitutional fabrication from leftists and needs to be torn down. Sounds like a call for theocracy to me. I suppose he trusts the clergy.

    None for me thanks. Build that wall high and strong and preferably with the clergy on the other side.

  • Sackbut

    Gallup is a reputable survey organization. I think their methodology is likely to be correct. The problem is that it is difficult for people to understand statistical data. I would caution against either dismissing the information (“don’t take it seriously”) or being alarmed by it. It’s information; some of it is curious and invites further investigation.

    The “margin of error” is, as I understand it, to a 95% confidence interval. That is, the sample size is sufficient that they are 95% confident the results are within four percentage points of the actual values in the total population. This is via making reasonable assumptions and with appropriate care taken in obtaining a random sample. As I said before, Gallup is reputable, they know how to do this stuff. Don’t jump on the sample size; the math is valid.

    It’s not clear that the margin of error for the “nones” is the same, because that’s a different sample size. It’s also obvious, but glossed over in the article, that the “nones” are a different-sized group of people in each year, so comparing is difficult. We’ve all read, I’m sure, that there has been a noticeable increase in the percentage of “nones” over the years. And, as was noted, “nones” means simply those people who are not affiliated with a religion, so includes unaffiliated theists as well as atheists.

    So, all in all, I’d look at that 31% to 34% change among the “nones” and say it is curious, but not jump to any conclusions about it.

    We’re supposed to be able to answer “I don’t know” to questions, right? Not “I can’t figure out one or two important things from this information, so I’m just going to call the people who collected it morons and dismiss all of their work outright”?

  • Sakbut,

    Good point…
    I wonder what a poll would look like on how honest people think pollsters are? 🙂

  • Robert Byrch

    Nil desperandum! I would hazard a guess that a survey of honesty and ethics limited to friends, family and business associates would also produce an average of less than 50%!

  • Illic est usquequaque cella pro despero

  • Claudia

    @Sackbut, maybe it was an oversight on the part of Gallup, but I find the divisions of affiliation into Protestant/Other Christian, Catholc and No religion to be questionable. Maybe it’s an oversimplification in the article and in the actual study (which I can’t find on the page) they have more divisions. They also don’t mention if they allow for self-identification or if you had to choose from a “menu”. If people who are actually religious were placed in “No religion” because of limited options, that would possibly alter the results.

    However, given that people who are not religious far outnumber even the combined total of non-Christian religious in the US, the numbers are still pretty high.

  • It’s annoying when people cite polls without the citing the statistical error associated with the poll. Going from 31% to 34% with a statistical of +/- 4%, means absolutely nothing. There is no change. If we were able to ask everyone, so that there was no error with the poll, there could have been an increase from 31% to 34% percent, or there could have be a decrease from 33% to 31%, or it could have held constant at 30%. An increase, a steady state and a decrease are all possible give the data presented in the poll.

  • So far, this thread has had three explanations for the apparent increase among nones. Let me offer a fourth:

    An increase might be expected as more religios individuals become nones. Most people who leave will likely have some degree of nostalgic feelings or such for religion. So as more people give up religion, one might see the fraction of peope identifying as not religious who have a high opinion of clergy to go up.

  • Dave B.

    As to why clergy are still more trusted then atheists; Maybe we atheists just aren’t raping enough children. It may be the secret to their power.

  • curran

    In regards to the OP, I wouldn’t be too troubled over a reported 3%. I also don’t see why it’s so surprising that nearly 1/2 the population still sees the clergy as ethical. It’s reasonable to suggest that these abuse scandals comprise a very small fraction of total clergy & that other catholics see these as isolated incidents. Many, if not most clergy, probably are ethical people according to religious standards. If a few bad-apple atheists were caught up in scandals, would you want people judging you and all other atheists according to them?

    When the religious judge atheists negatively, they are not factoring in the small % of bad clergy.

  • Chris

    Well Sackbut, if the assumptions are so reasonable, I’m sure you wouldn’t have trouble stating them for us.

    Moreover, I can guarantee you that the selection process was not “random” and was generated by an entirely deterministic computer algorithm.

    Lies, damned lies and statistics… Pollsters can tell you anything they want you to hear and you’ll believe it because the “math is valid”.

  • Most likely explanation is sampling variation.

    First thing to note is that the 4% sampling variation figure that Gallup give only applies to the overall figures, NOT to percentages of subgroups – there it’s bigger.

    There were about a thousand interviewed. The proportion that are willing to give “no religion” for their religion on a phone interview varies a bit, generally around 10-15%. Let’s be generous and say 15%.

    That’s around 150 with no religion. The sampling variation for that subgroup is more than 2.5 times as big as it is for the original sample (sqrt(1/.15) = 2.58),
    or roughly 10% by Gallup’s reckoning of 4% for the original survey (the 4% is very rough so I am not worrying about being too precise).

    Now, when you compare TWO surveys (31% vs 34%), the margin of error is bigger – you actually use good old Mr Pythagoras’ theorem; now the margin of error on the change is around 14%.

    So we have an increase of 3% give or take 14%.

    No need to assume anything happened at all.

    For all we know, the population percentage could actually have dropped by 10%, even though the sample percentage went up 3%.

    It was irresponsible of Gallup not to point out that the comparison they made there ( had such a high margin of error, the comparison meaningless.

    (Actually, I rounded down twice. 4% x sqrt(2/.15) is closer to 15%, but it doesn’t matter; indeed, there are a bunch of other approximations going both directions in there; 14% will do.)

  • (UNless, of course, the 4% was meant to include the comparison effect, in which case, “give or take 10%” will be about right, rather than 14%.

    Still, sampling error; most likely no religion just moved with the rest of the population.

  • Miko

    Any result within the margin of error is not a result at all. It’s completely and utterly meaningless and should not even be reported.

    Well Sackbut, if the assumptions are so reasonable, I’m sure you wouldn’t have trouble stating them for us.

    Anyone who’s taken Stats 101 could easily do so.

    1) Public perception of the ethics of clergy will form a normal distribution.
    2) Binning data into categories (very high, high, etc.) will not distort the overall form of the distribution.
    3) Participation bias in the form of some people refusing to take the survey did not skew the results in a consistent direction.
    4) The sample size was sufficient for obtaining a stratified sample.

    In this case, no reasonable person would dispute (1) or (2), it’d be hard to make a case against (3), and (4) is pretty much false for the “nones” subgroup.

    Moreover, I can guarantee you that the selection process was not “random” and was generated by an entirely deterministic computer algorithm.

    So what? The computer was using a statistical distribution that generates random results. I fail to see how not basing it on the decay of radioactive isotopes is a problem. Most likely the computer program was seeded with an initial pseudorandom value (the precise millisecond at which it began execution), so unless you think Gallup was trying to game things by predicting at exactly which millisecond beginning the survey would give them a sample that would respond in a certain way, it’s random enough.

    Lies, damned lies and statistics… Pollsters can tell you anything they want you to hear and you’ll believe it because the “math is valid”.

    It’s not the math’s fault if you don’t understand what it’s telling you. It’s certainly possible to create polls that give invalid results, but this is almost always due to participation or sample bias, or a bias in the wording of the question and (almost) never due to a problem with the mathematics. Furthermore, the sociology/psychology of these other forms of bias are well understood and reputable pollsters like Gallup take special care to minimize their effects on the results.

  • Joffan

    Not wanting to pile on too much, Chris, but:

    Lies, damned lies and statistics…

    is a phrase that carries the danger of ignoring reality. Real statistics assessed by honest people are a major tool of scientific investigation. Partially-quoted and cherry-picked numbers are indeed among the tools of liars – but such people have plenty of other lying techniques, and to dismiss all statistics is to lay yourself open to your own cognitive bias.

  • Chakolate

    As the number of nones goes up, there are more and more people who are fairly new to being nones. Among them, the respect for clergy may still be quite high.

    In other words, it’s 31% of 2008’s numbers and 34% of 2009’s numbers.

  • Hitek

    So…that little white collar gives you immunity, like on Survivor, right? That’s what I’m getting here. Maybe we all need to change how we dress.

  • Johagen

    Obviously, the fact that the survey asks people to define themselves as ‘none’ instead of atheist/freethinker or new age/spiritual is significant, but I’m a true atheist, and I don’t necessarily distrust clergy members. I often assume fanatical homophobes are simply in the closet, and I wonder what psychological factors lead young men into a life of celibacy. But I assume similar things about people who major in business in college and then devote their lives to finance or want to become soldiers and cops.

    That said, some good videos are “Deliver us from Evil” with some staggering statistics about pedophilia in the priesthood and “Letting go of God” by Julia Sweeney who was raised Catholic but is now an Atheist. Her description of her childhood suggests to me that she would think of priests as ethical/trustworthy.

  • llewelly

    It’s not clear that the margin of error for the “nones” is the same, because that’s a different sample size.

    Actually, it’s certain the margin of error for the “nones” is larger, because that sample is a subset of the sample used for the total population. For example, suppose those with “no religion” are 15% of the sample of 1,017. That’s a sample size of about 153 – useful, but not nearly as reliable as a sample size of 1,017.

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