Commentary: Did Pew’s analysis of the Adventist Church get it right?
Sometimes, but the findings seem to understate the percentage of members who believe according to Adventist orthodoxy.
November 09, 2015
Silver Spring, Maryland, United States
David Trim, director of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (courtesy of Adventist Review)
Growing public interest about the Seventh-day Adventist Church in light of the presidential ambitions of Ben Carson, a retired Adventist neurosurgeon, prompted a respected Washington think tank to release an analysis of the church.
Pew Research Center’s findings, titled “Seventh-day Adventists: A Small and Diverse Faith,” yield some interesting data about the makeup of the church in the United States.
Pew correctly says Adventists account for 0.5 percent of the U.S. adult population, a minuscule uptick from 0.4 percent in 2007.
“That stability stands in contrast to U.S. Christians overall, whose share of the population has dropped by nearly 8 percentage points (from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent) over that same period,” it says.
Pew also mentions a report that it released last summer that found Adventists are the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the United States.
But do the finer points of the new analysis, which is drawn from Pew’s comprehensive 2014 Religious Landscape Study of the United States, accurately portray the church?
The first thing that caught my attention — and raised a red flag — is Pew’s sample. The Religious Landscape Study is based on interviews with more than 35,000 people, giving a margin of error of only 0.6 percentage points. But the sample of Adventists was only 165, which means the margin of error is 9.2 percentage points, which is very large in polling terms.
Here are some places where the Adventist Church has data and Pew has data, allowing a side-by-side comparison:
Demographics. We have actual membership data to go on rather than surveys, but the North American Division’s eAdventist software doesn’t track ethnicity, so we can’t comment on that. On the other hand, Pew doesn’t give a gender breakdown based on its sample, but we have this information. Regarding the geographic breakdown of Adventists in the United States, we know that the percentage of members living in the West is actually 28 percent rather than the suggested 31 percent and the South is 34 percent or less, depending on how Pew defines “the South.” Church membership reaches the maximum 34 percent in the South if the Southwestern Union is included in the count. Either way, that is a big difference from the 40 percent cited by Pew — but within Pew’s huge margin of error. It’s difficult to judge the accuracy of the Midwest figure because it is unclear how it’s defined. The Lake Union accounts for only 8 percent of U.S. membership, but one would need to add in some states not in the union, so Pew’s 10 percent figure seems credible.
Beliefs and practices. Here we have survey data on church members in the United States to match Pew’s survey data. The Adventist Church survey was of 1,495 members in 2013 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
“Seventh-day Adventists are extremely devout by traditional measures of religious observance,” Pew said in its report.
Pew reports 89 percent who are “absolutely certain” about belief in God, whereas our survey had 97 percent “strongly agreeing” they believed in God.
Pew put weekly church attendance at 67 percent, but our results showed a figure of 76 percent.
Interestingly, Pew quotes 86 percent as saying they pray daily, whereas in our survey, the response was 55 percent. This is the only metric where Pew’s survey got what Adventists would see as a “better” response.
Pew’s survey gives 89 percent as saying the Bible is the word of God, and our survey had 90 percent, so here the two surveys exactly coincide.
Particularly interesting is the 52 percent of U.S. Adventists who Pew says believe in hell. Now, Pew contrasts this with the 82 percent of evangelical Protestants who believe in hell. But Pew doesn’t seem to grasp the real significance of this finding.
Either this question was taken in another way by respondents than intended by the questioners, or the Adventist Church has a major problem.
Adventist Church leaders and laypeople attending the 2013 Annual Council were disturbed at the results of a larger, Adventist-conducted survey that found a notable percentage of church members globally were uncertain about the church’s view on the state of the dead. The thesis statement in that survey’s question was: “When a person dies their body remains in the grave, their soul sleeps until the resurrection.” On a four-point scale, 79 percent of members gave “strong agreement” to the statement — which is a lot. But the outcome was troubling considering the fact that respondents’ “strong agreement” about other core Adventist doctrines such as their belief in God and belief that God created the world was in the 90th percentile and above. Thus, 79 percent strong agreement is a marked contrast. Furthermore, 10 percent “strongly disagreed” with the church’s view on the state of the dead, a result that is downright disquieting.
But in the United States, church members offered much more certainty about the state of the dead, with 86 percent strongly agreeing with the Adventist viewpoint. Those who disagreed and strongly disagreed amounted to a combined 5 percent. So there was not even a hint that half of Adventist members in the United States believe in hell.
Now the church’s survey did over-represent whites, and perhaps uncertainty about the Adventist’s conditionalist/annihilationist position is greater among church members of racial and ethnic groups who have come out of Roman Catholic backgrounds. But the discrepancy with Pew’s data can’t be that great. Even when taking into account Pew’s margin of error of nearly 10 percentage points, it’s impossible to account for the 52 percent who believe in hell unless some of Pew’s Adventist respondents took “hell” to mean the lake of fire in which the wicked will be destroyed at the end of time.
Social and political views. Pew says 35 percent of U.S. Adventists are Republicans, while 45 percent identify or lean toward the Democratic Party. Nineteen percent identify as political independents or do not lean toward either party, it says.
The Adventist Church takes a politically neutral stance and is not interested in support for political parties, so we did not ask questions about this in our survey. Neither did we ask questions about abortion or homosexuality. (It is worth noting, though, that a different study, which surveyed 20-somethings who graduated from U.S. Adventist colleges indicates only 49 percent of them opposed the marriage of same-sex couples. One can’t extrapolate from this for the church membership at large, however, because people in their 20s are in a minority in the church’s North American Division.)
What the church does have is data on evolution. We found that 97 percent of U.S. members strongly agree with the statement “I believe God created the world” whereas 69 percent strongly agreed that “I believe God created the world in seven days in the relatively recent past.” Sixteen percent disagreed, 7 percent strongly disagree, and 9 percent “disagreed more than agreed.”
But this finding does allow a point of comparison with Pew’s research, which reports “Fully two-thirds of seventh-day Adventists (67 percent) reject evolution.” Our survey shows that at least 69 percent in the Adventist survey reject evolution, but actually the figure is probably higher, depending on what the 14 percent of U.S. Adventists who “agreed more than disagreed” thought about human evolution.
Overall, Pew’s figures look broadly accurate in the few places where we can crosscheck with our data. But its findings at many datapoints seem to understate the percentage of members who believe and practice according to Adventist orthodoxy or orthopraxy. The notable exception was on daily prayer, where Pew shows a much larger percentage praying than our data. But on hell, there seems to be a very major discrepancy, so much so that either Pew is completely off base or, as I speculate, respondents understood the question, and answered it, in a distinctively Adventist way.