by Rick Satterthwaite
After looking through a September 1998 survey conducted by the Center for Sociological Research, I was intrigued and began wondering, Who should we be spending time with as evangelists?
CAN A GOVERNMENT-SPONSORED SURVEY shed any light on deep spiritual trends a nation is experiencing? Perhaps so; at least this author is a believer After looking through a September 1998 survey conducted by the Center for Sociological Research, I was intrigued and began wondering, Who should we be spending time with as evangelists?
It may not be obvious. As my friend and former coworker, Larry DeArmey, has observed, there are those who seem open but are not, and missionaries often spend a lot of time with people who are simply interested in a friendship. Meanwhile, we may be ignoring the hidden seekers.
Old, but Useful, Data
Spain has changed a lot since 1998, the year this data was taken, especially with regard to foreigners. It is estimated that there are nearly one million Ecuadorian immigrants in Spain, plus other Latin Americans, Eastern Europeans, and North Africans. This 1998 study predates much of this influx, which means we will be measuring a primarily non-immigrant population.
A large percentage of South American immigrants are “evangelicals” at least in name. Simply judging by attendance at evangelical churches, it is clear that the percentage of evangelicals in Spain has grown rapidly, but that doesn’t mean either Spaniards or immigrants are converting—much of this attendance boom is due to immigrants looking for a church home. So since this 1998 data excludes the immigrant boom, a large portion of whom are evangelicals, we have an opportunity to look almost exclusively at what everyone in Spain says is the most gospel-resistant part of the population: Spanish nationals.
The survey consisted of 2,488 Spaniards age 18-99 answering 57 questions, many of which had multiple parts. Quotas imposed on the data set force the net weight of male/female, age, and region of Spain to reflect the relative population of each of those subgroups.
In this article, I will look at what I consider the two most insightful questions, touching on belief in God and a change-of-belief with respect to God.
Question 1: “Could you indicate for me, please, which of the following best reflects your feelings with respect to your belief in God?”
Possible answers were:
1. I don’t believe in God.
2. I don’t know if God exists and I don’t believe there is a way to know that.
3. I do not believe in a “personal” God, but yes, in a superior power of some kind.
4. I find myself believing in God at times, but not at other times.
5. Although I have doubts, I feel that I believe in God.
6. I know that God truly exists and I have no doubt about it.
7. No answer.
Chart 1 below details respondent answers.
|Answer||Number of Respondents||Percentage of Respondents|
|I don’t believe in God.||206||8.74%|
|I don’t know if God exists and I don’t believe there is a way to know that.||167||7.08%|
|I do not believe in a “personal” God, but yes, in a superior power of some kind.||302||12.81%|
|I find myself believing in God at times, but not at other times||179||7.59%|
|Although I have doubts, I feel that I believe in God.||453||19.21%|
|I know that God truly exists and I have no doubt about it.||1031||43.72%|
Since the largest sector is those who believe in God and have no doubts (43.7%), I have plotted that answer first and then will work backwards through the information from the most relevant responses.1
For women, firm belief bottoms out at 35% for the younger women and tops out at 75% for the older women. For men, the bottom is 25% and the peak is 50%. Belief is at rock bottom for both men and women at about age 25. This curve (figure 1) represents the spiritually confident part of a largely Roman Catholic population.
With regard to the “slightly doubting” crowd (figure 2), 20% of the population overall, the younger set has a bit more doubt.
The next optional response raises the doubt up a notch: only 7.6% of the population is flopping between “believe in God” and “not believe in God (figure 3). The curve fit is similar to the other doubting category, but with the data more scattered due to the lower number of respondents to this option. The most flip-flopping group are the youth—and they represent 10% of their peer age group. Those who are older are more decisive, with only 5% believing sometimes, and other times not.
Next, we track the agnostics who are a smallish group representing 7.1% of the population (figure 4). Again, men are the less believing. The surprise here is the low rate of young, female agnostics. Eighteen to 23-three-year-old men are four times as likely to be agnostic as their female peers. This difference is repeated for an older group as well: a 63-73-year-old male is about four times more likely to be agnostic than his female peers.
Last, we have the atheists, 8.7% of the population (figure 5). Youth dominate the atheist group, and except for the very old, men are three times as likely to be atheists as women.
Combining the men and women from the two doubting groups (figures 2 & 3) into the “St Thomas Memorial Doubter’s Club,” we have a rather linear doubt relationship with respect to age (figure 6). The Doubter’s Club forms about 30% of the population, where one-third of the youth and one-quarter of those who are older are in a doubtful state.
If doubters are more open to coming to belief, then the youth are more open. But for postmodern Europe, doubt is “in” and perpetual doubt is considered by many the only intellectually honest option. So, the question remains, who around here is willing to change their belief?
Question 2: “Of the following phrases, which best describes your belief in God?”
Possible answers were:
1. I have never believed in God.
2. I don’t believe in God now, but I did believe before.
3. I believe in God now, but I did not believe before.
4. I have always believed in God.
5. Don’t know.
6. No answer.
Chart 2 below details respondent answers.
|I have never believed in God.||206||8.7%|
|I don’t believe in God now, but before I did believe.||205||8.7%|
|I believe in God now, but before I did not believe.||40||1.7%|
|I have always believed in God.||1762||74.7%|
|I don’t know||108||4.6%|
What a useful question One could suppose that those who are open to coming to God are those who answer 3. And yet, only 40 people chose this option—1.7% of the whole sample. So our conclusions about this group of 40 will have a much greater error than what we can know about the 1,100 people who answered, “I have always believed in God.” The conversion group is small because the number of atheists from which to convert to theism is already smallish, 246, or one-tenth of the whole sample of 2,360.
The conversion rates (by “conversion,” I simply mean a declared change of belief) for the whole sample show that among the 1,967 theists, the loss to atheism was 205, or 10.4%. On the other hand, among the 246 atheists, 16.2% were lost to theism. It looks like the theists will “win the race” should this rate hold in the future. If so, then the long-term steady-state result would yield a total population of 36% atheists and 56.1% theists, with 7.9% of the population being agnostics or those who gave “no answer” to this question.
Let’s consider the nature of those who are converting in one direction or the other. Figure 7 shows the age and gender spread of those coming to a theistic belief. Clearly, the younger generation is more apt to come to belief. Interestingly, the men outpace the women slightly in converting to theism. But the difference is slight, and the sample is relatively small, so the safest conclusion is that there isn’t all that much difference between men and women. The small data set also explains the scattering of the data.
Then there are those who are losing their theistic belief (see figure 8). Oops The same younger set that is most likely to come to belief in God is also most likely to abandon belief.
Figure 9 shows the two conversion rates for men and women together. Both conversion rates approach zero for those who are very old. These amazingly parallel rates of conversion increase linearly as we scan from older to younger. The data is clear: youth are much more likely to convert to theism than those who are older, but they are also more likely to lose their faith. The stronger rate is towards theism, but because there are relatively few atheists, we cannot say this with much confidence. What we can say is that the change-of-belief battle is almost perfectly linear with respect to age: the younger the person, the more likely to have changed his or her faith.
The number of conversions to theism, 40, is so low that our data can reveal only a moderately accurate guess regarding trends in conversion to theism. What we do know with more reliability are the losses of theism. We can also say with 100% confidence that we do not know what God will do. One good spiritual awakening would reverse this whole trend in no time (think Nineveh).
Also, God seems to be bringing many thousands of South American believers into Spain. These people were not part of the survey, because in 1998 they were just beginning to arrive and because they were (and still are) “laying low.” What influence will these believers have on the native Spanish population?
While they are not technically integrated into mainstream culture, they are providing many services: cleaning homes, taking care of grandma, watching the young children, carrying the heavy loads, and painting the walls. Their potential testimony from within Spanish homes is very great. They are also having more children and having them sooner than the host Spanish culture. All these things will have a positive influence for people coming to Christ and the percentage of committed Christians in the populace.
Who Are the Atheist Converts?
There are only 40 among the approximately 2,500 total sample who have “converted” from atheism to theism. We will now look at several demographic characteristics of these converts to see with whom we should be hanging around.
Keep in mind we don´t know the order of events in these people´s lives. Did a conversion to theism then result in the differences with the general population we are about to see? Or are those who converted coming out of these sectors? Considering that the converts are younger in general, it is likely what we are mostly seeing is the latter. Youth are not necessarily changing towns or their political leaning, for example, due to their change in belief.
1. The political leaning of converted atheists is even more “left” than the general population (see figure 10).
2. The self-declared social class of converts and the general population is very similar, with an overrepresentation of lower-middle class.
3. Converts from atheism are overrepresented in the middle-income bracket—the rich are highly underrepresented. The poor are somewhat underrepresented.
4. Towns of 10,000 or less have half the convert percentage of the national average, whereas there are twice the national percentage of converts in towns of 400,000-1,000,000.
5. Converts have more schooling than the general population. But there are fewer converts among those with the highest levels of education, at the masters or doctorate levels.
6. Converts coming from atheism are from the part of the population that is doing volunteer work. Including all levels of volunteerism, it is 50% more likely to meet a convert from atheism in a volunteer group compared to the general population. But among volunteers who are very active (24 volunteer activities per year or more), the level of those who convert from atheism to theism is 250% higher than the general population.
7. Figure 11 shows the job types represented among the converts. The “overrepresented” professions are to the left of the plot and the “underrepresented” to the right. For example, converts have 80% more “teachers, accountants, artists” than the general population. The most underrepresented are bosses and assembly line workers.
What Can We Conclude?
The younger a person, the more likely he or she is to change belief. Conversions are going both ways, toward and away from God. Since the Spanish population is very largely Catholic—and much of that is nominal, the losses from belief to atheism are mostly from Catholic ranks (and those numbers were large in 1998). This data shows that converts from atheism to theism outpace losses for theists, but we cannot say this with much confidence due to the very small sample of atheists.
The statistically most important fact for Christian workers is this: Volunteers who are active at least once every two weeks are 2.5 times more likely to convert to theism out of atheism than the general population. Almost as important, teachers/accountants/artists are about twice as likely to convert to theism as the general population. If you move from a town of 5,000 to a town of 500,000 your new neighbors are four times more likely to have converted from atheism than your former ones.
Youth workers may be tempted to conclude, as did a friend of mine who at that time was the head of a national evangelistic youth ministry in Spain, that, “Youth here are not as open to coming to Christ as everyone wants to believe.”
Thankfully, he was fooled by his experience on campus. It is true that youth are abandoning belief in God, and if you are in and among them, it sounds like a large stampede. In nominally Catholic Spain, there is a growing pool of youth who find themselves in the “atheist” camp or with nagging doubts, and thus they have now come one very important step closer to true belief in Christ. But from the “ground level,” the conversions to Christ seem very few. What is helpful to know is that the youth are those most likely to change belief. So despite the seemingly low numbers of converts to Christ, this shift towards atheism, unbelief, and doubt may well result at a later time in a swell of true converts to Christ.
Only when men and women realize they are blind do they call out for Jesus to heal them and thus become truly seeing. Spanish youth from 18 to 35-years-old are admitting blindness at an amazing rate. This is good news.
What’s the Bottom Line?
In sum, what do we learn from the survey? First, the Spaniard most likely to convert to theism, and perhaps to Christ, is someone 18 or under, who lives in a town of 400,000-1,000,000, who has or will obtain a high school education, who is from a middle-income family, who volunteers at least twice a month, who leans to the political left, and who works or will find work as a teacher/accountant/artist.
Second, an evangelist should hang with youth, join active volunteer movements, volunteer in school environments, take education classes, hire an accountant to do his or her taxes, meet artists and musicians, move to a large city (or at least stay away from living in a small town), love socialists, and avoid associating the political right with Christianity.
Finally, despite appearances, we must always allow God to lead us to whomever he is calling to salvation. Only he knows what is really going on.
1. On the plots, R2 indicates how well the data points fit the proposed curve. If the curve passes through every data point perfectly, then R2 would be 1. R2 approaches zero for more and more highly scattered data.
Rick Satterthwaite served ten years with Cru in evangelistic bands, then twenty years with Encompass World Partners in Spain as a church planter in Valencia, Zaragoza and Madrid. Currently, he is the tech guy at Woodlands Church in Plover, Wisconsin.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 434-435. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.