Inside the Big Tent: How members of various theological groups view controversial issues

I’m rather fond of the World Values Survey, a global survey of what human beings think about life, work, culture and society. There’s a wealth of data available for free through their online data analysis tool. There are even more gems to be found if you’re able to use their free SPSS data files. It provides plenty of fodder for blog posts.

Part of the World Values Survey deals with religion. As you might expect, respondents are asked to specify their religious affiliation. Elsewhere, they are asked to rate how justifiable several types of activity are, based on a scale of ‘1’ to ’10’, where a ‘1’ means that engaging in that activity is never justifiable, and a ’10’ means it’s always justifiable.

I looked at how people from various theological perspectives rated their views on several ‘hot button’ issues: abortion, divorce, euthanasia and homosexuality. I also looked at how they positioned themselves on the political spectrum.

It quickly became clear that some groups have different prevailing views than others. At the same time, there was evidence of divergent viewpoints within the major theological groups.

Take abortion, for example. As you can see below, this is something that Evangelicals (average rating: 1.97) and Muslims (average rating: 2.00) are often very strongly opposed to. A fairly low standard deviation suggests that they are strongly united among themselves on this subject.

"Please tell me for each of the following statements whether you think it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between, using this card: Abortion"

"Please tell me for each of the following statements whether you think it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between, using this card: Abortion"

Most other faiths rate this somewhere between 2.87 and 4.25 on the 10-point scale, suggesting that there might be a little more wiggle room, or perhaps some internal debate. Jewish and agnostic/atheist respondents provided the highest average ratings, though a high standard deviation* (a measure of how responses are scattered across the 10-point scale) suggests a wide range of opinions within those groups.

When it came to divorce, average ratings on the 10-point justifiability scale moved closer to the middle. Divorce still tends to be frowned upon within Evangelical (average rating: 3.24 out of 10), Muslim (3.31) and Hindu circles (3.53). Most other groups on the theological spectrum tend to accept divorce as more of an unpleasant reality that is at least sometimes justified, as shown below.

""Please tell me for each of the following statements whether you think it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between, using this card: Divorce"

""Please tell me for each of the following statements whether you think it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between, using this card: Divorce"

There are some notable differences between groups when it comes to euthanasia. This is again something that many Muslims (1.84), Evangelicals (2.44) and Hindus (3.21) take strong exception to, while other groups tend to hold more mixed feelings judging by their higher average scores and fairly high standard deviations. There is also a significant difference between agnostics/atheists and the rest of the theological spectrum on this matter.

"Please tell me for each of the following statements whether you think it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between, using this card: Euthanasia"

"Please tell me for each of the following statements whether you think it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between, using this card: Euthanasia"

A substantial divergence of views can be seen on the subject of homosexuality. This is a major taboo for many Muslims, with a low average rating (1.28) and a low standard deviation (1.11) suggesting a high level of unity within their ranks on this matter. Evangelicals (2.32) and members of the Orthodox (2.52), Buddhist (2.91) and Hindu faiths (2.94) also tended to disapprove of homosexuality in large numbers. Other groups on the theological spectrum gave higher average ratings accompanied by higher standard deviations. This suggests that Catholics, non-denominationals, Protestants, agnostics/atheists and Jews are more polarized.

"Please tell me for each of the following statements whether you think it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between, using this card: Homosexuality"

"Please tell me for each of the following statements whether you think it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between, using this card: Homosexuality"

And now we turn to politics. Politics and theology are related in the sense that our views on both are shaped by our values and our experiences in life. The World Values Survey asked respondents to rate where they stand on the political spectrum, with a ‘1’ meaning that they’re on the far left, and a ’10’ meaning they’re on the far right.

(If you’re not familiar with the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’, here’s a quick primer. The ‘left’ tends to refer to the NDP in Canada, the ‘Michael Moore wing’ of the Democratic Party in the U.S. and the trade unionist and environmental factions of the Labour Party in the U.K. The ‘right’ tends to refer to the Conservative Party in Canada and the U.K. and the ‘Rush Limbaugh wing’ of the Republican Party in the U.S.)

As seen in the following graph, members of each theological group tended (on average) to gravitate toward the centre of the political spectrum, with Jewish voters tending to lean a little more to the left on average, and Muslim and Buddhist voters trending a little toward the right.

"In political matters, people talk of 'the left' and 'the right.' How would you place your views on this scale, generally speaking?" (1 - Far Left, 10 - Far Right)

"In political matters, people talk of 'the left' and 'the right.' How would you place your views on this scale, generally speaking?" (1 - Far Left, 10 - Far Right)

What did I learn from all of this? Most of all, that there is a great deal of risk in making assumptions about how people think about controversial issues based on their religious identity. Human beings are complicated creatures, whose views on these issues are shaped by their experiences throughout life; and they cannot be pigeon-holed so easily.

On a positive note, a divergence of views within each group is often a beneficial thing. Exposure to different points of view is beneficial to humans’ intellectual and emotional development.

It also reassures people who have dealt with these controversial issues in their own lives that, within each of the major groups on the theological spectrum, they can find people who will be empathetic to their plight.

* – When looking at average scores, it’s often helpful to look at the standard deviation as well — a measure of how close most respondents are to the mean. For instance, a movie might get an average rating of “5 out of 10” by moviegoers. A low standard deviation of 1.0 would suggest that most of those who saw the movie gave it ratings of 4, 5 or 6, suggesting that there was broad agreement that it was a mediocre movie. A high standard deviation of 4.0, however, would suggest that most responses ranged from “1 out of 10” to “9 out of 10”, suggesting the audience was split between those who loved the movie and those who hated it.Source: World Values Survey interviews conducted mostly between 1999 and 2001 (their last big flurry of polling) with respondents in 72 countries. These included 851 Buddhists, 538 Evangelicals, 592 members of non-denominational churches, 764 Hindus, 1,007 Jews, 12,577 Muslims, 6,175 Orthodox, 7,316 Protestants, 19,440 Catholics and 8,371 people who say they don’t believe in God.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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