World Religion Database: Impressive-But Improvable

By Woodberry, Robert D. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, January 2010 | Go to article overview

World Religion Database: Impressive-But Improvable


Woodberry, Robert D., International Bulletin of Mission Research


The World Religion Database (WRD) is part of a most impressive data-collection project, requiring an extraordinary number of hours to create. The WRD can and will be improved over time, but we can only thank the editors now for their extremely valuable service, including their work of overseeing hundreds of people behind the scenes gathering the data. Although based on the World Christian Encyclopedia (WCE, 1982; 2d ed., 2001), WRD goes beyond it in several important ways.

First, for those interested in statistical research, WRD data are downloadable as Excel[R] files. Second, for many countries in the data set, WRD lists censuses and surveys that give alternate estimates of religious distribution. This is extremely helpful, since it allows scholars to compare WRD estimates with those of others and to evaluate the quality of data used to estimate religious distribution in particular countries. Third, WRD provides data on more countries, regions, and time periods than does any other source. Fourth, WRD provides incredibly detailed data. Previous versions had data at the national level, but WRD presents it by province and by people group. The amount of information is mind-boggling!

That said, we should note some weaknesses with the database. First, the Web site is difficult to navigate. Although a huge number of variables are available at the national, provincial, and people-group levels, it takes a lot of clicking around the site to find them all. The easiest way to use the Web site is to have a copy of the WCE (2d ed.) or the Atlas of Global Christianity and then look until you find the variables from these sources you are interested in. Ideally, the Web site would have one place to select four pieces of information: (1) the level of analysis (countries, provinces, people groups, people groups by country, or people groups by province), (2) the year(s) covered, (3) the variables you want displayed, and (4) whether you want the data formatted as a downloadable dataset or in the current format (which looks like a book but is very difficult to use statistically). (1) Once users create these data files, there should also be a way to move quickly to particular countries or people groups without having to click through pages and pages of an alphabetical list.

Second, the editors seem to have constructed their estimates of religious distribution primarily from surveys of denominations and missionaries, not from censuses or representative surveys of individuals. Denominations, however, typically overestimate the number of members they have, and liturgical (and state-sponsored) denominations generally count anyone who has ever been baptized as a member--even infant baptisms of people who no longer claim Christian identity or attend church. Although the editors may have also used survey and census estimates to moderate denominational reports in countries where such data exist, it is not clear whether or how they did so. The WRD thus seems to consistently have higher estimates of the percentage of Christians and lower estimates of the percentage of nonreligious than survey- and census-based estimates.

In places like Europe, this methodology may mask the degree of secularization. For example, Scandinavia is listed as one of the most Christian places on the planet. It may also distort the growth of Christianity in some parts of the Global South. For example, the World Values Survey estimates China was 3.3 percent Christian in 2001, but the WRD estimates China had twice as many Christians (6.41 percent in 2000 and 7.76 percent in 2005). While some people in China may hide their Christianity in surveys, and while survey sampling in China is not ideal, (2) congregations may also exaggerate the number of adherents they have (there is substantial evidence of this type of behavior elsewhere). All extant survey-based evidence and the most careful China experts suggest percentages closer to the World Values Survey than those in the WRD. …

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