I’ve got an awesome example of how stats can be misused today!
And why it’s important when we hear someone who isn’t trained in statistics using studies to “prove” their point, when the point sounds like a stretch, to actually check their sources.
In February, Dallas SBC megachurch pastor Josh Howerton published a viral twitter thread claiming that conservative Christians were doing better than the world on a variety of measures, including sex and abuse.
The thread went huge; Matt Chandler, pastor at The Village Church and head of the Acts 29 movement retweeted it, as did many others; Howerton eventually turned it into an article for The Gospel Coalition.
The only problem? The sources that he used didn’t say what he thought they did.
We already talked about Josh Howerton and stats on a podcast, but we really wanted to turn it into an article so that it could get wider exposure, and thankfully The Baptist News picked it up yesterday.
A quick synopsis of the problems that Josh Howerton had with the stats
He conflates “conservative Christians” with “highly religious”
In the report Howerton used for his claims, conservative evangelicals who believe in male hierarchy are a small subset of the highly religious, and we don’t know whether they’re bringing the average up or bringing the average down.
He only uses subjective measures of women’s sexual satisfaction
They never asked about orgasm rates or rates of sexual pain, but simply if you’re satisfied with your sex life. This made us think of a new stat for Joanna to run, and we found that women who believe marriage should have a hierarchy are more likely to report being satisfied with the amount they orgasm when they never orgasm. They’re also more likely to have sex more than once a week even if they have sexual pain. So women who believe that marriage is a hierarchy, exactly the theology that Josh is praising, are more likely to consider their own experience irrelevant.
He ignores what the report says about abuse
He claims that conservative Christians have less abuse specifically because of their theology, but then ignores what the report actually says about abuse–which shows that religion doesn’t protect against abuse, and there’s a trend that his theology makes abuse worse.
We spent a lot of time writing this article last week, and as usual, most of the awesome sentences are Rebecca’s. Joanna ran new stats, and I figured out how to put this all together. Please read it! It’s awesome. And share it far and wide.
I actually do believe that followers of Jesus have better sex and less abuse.
And I think the report’s findings, along with ours, bear this out. The problem is that we know certain interpretations of Bible passages that prioritize men over women make marriage and sex worse. And Howerton belongs to a denomination that largely preaches that, as he appears to in his own church.
Again, as we talked about last week, the head of an SBC seminary said that 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 was a command to women to be sexually available for their husbands–a gross misuse of that passage which is completely mutual.
As we showed in The Great Sex Rescue, Jesus helps. But when you add toxic teaching to the mix, things get really ugly.
Here’s our conclusion in the article:
Evangelical culture has told women sex is about satisfying a man’s needs so he won’t stray. We’ve made sex a male entitlement and a female obligation, turning it from a knowing into an owing. Should we be surprised when women downplay our own needs?
Yes, religiosity tends to bring better sex and marriage. But that does not mean evangelicals who believe in male hierarchy do better. In fact, they consistently have been shown to do worse on many measures than other Christians who attend church frequently, especially if you look at objective measures rather than just subjective ones.
Maybe instead of standing in public and declaring, “Thank God I am better than those people over there,” we should, in all humility, sit down and listen to the pain of the people in our own pews. It’s time to take the plank out of our own eye.
Now for some extra commentary that didn’t make it into the article!
Does Josh Howerton think women shouldn’t work outside the home?
Okay, this is just something that I find funny, but here’s what I think Howerton likely did to write his thread: He got a hold of the IFS report and glanced through it, trying to find charts that he liked that could prove his point, and then used those charts. But I wonder if he ever actually read the report? Because he certainly ignored their conclusions.
But even more than that, I wonder if he read the definitions of the categories? For instance, this is the chart where Howerton says his theology brings about the best outcomes for marriage, associating himself with the “traditional” rather than “egalitarian.”
He may have looked at that chart and thought, “I’m gender traditional not gender progressive!”, thinking that the definition referred to sexuality. But the definition that the IFS used in their report was whether or not you believed women should work outside the home. I wonder if Howerton realized that he was agreeing that women shouldn’t work outside the home?
(And just FYI–there is no statistical difference between gender progressive and gender traditional highly religious in this chart).
Let’s talk about the difficulty in measuring the effects of complementarianism
One other thought that we wanted to put in the article but we just didn’t have word count.
We explained how it’s helpful to use both objective and subjective measures of satisfaction–like orgasm rates and rates of sexual pain (which are objective) alongside rates of self-reported satisfaction (which is subjective) because it gives us a clearer picture. Sometimes people rate themselves as really happy, even when objectively they don’t have much to be happy about. Doesn’t mean they’re not really happy; it just tells us more.
But this is a really confusing thing in studies, because those who believe in hierarchy, or complementarianism, often show up as really happy on surveys, and often do have amazing satisfaction rates. Yet at the same time, objective measures show things are worse–abuse, orgasm rates, etc.
What’s going on?
Well, here’s another factor: most people who say they believe in hierarchy actually practice equality. I’ve talked about this at length, but our study for The Great Sex Rescue found that believing in hierarchy doesn’t hurt you; acting it out, however, does. When we looked at who actually made decisions in the family, when the husband makes the final decision, even if he consults with his wife first, divorce rates skyrocket, orgasm plummets, and lots of terrible things happen.
That’s why I’ve told pastors to start preaching what they practice. Most pastors practice egalitarian decision making, but preach that the man should make the final decision. And when they preach that, we now know it’s going to significantly hurt 20% of their congregants. Because only about 20% of people who believe it actually practice it.
That’s also why in surveys I’d like people to stop merely measuring beliefs (subjective) and seeing how beliefs correlate to outcomes, and start measuring what people actually practice (objective). Then I think we’d get a much clearer picture!
Final thoughts on Josh Howerton and our article
You have no idea how satisfying it was to write that article! It’s been something we’ve wanted to do for a few months, but our book edits were consuming us.
I’ve been thinking, though, about this tendency among evangelicals to try to prove an agenda rather than having a good-faith attempt to look at what the data actually shows. I talked about Josh Howerton a few months ago, too, with how he was trying to figure out how to plagiarize people in sermons, because he wanted to know how to quote someone who said something smart that you disagree with, without naming them. And it’s like–dude, you can’t do that. That’s unethical. (And he’s not the only SBC pastor who won’t cite people he disagrees with, even when using their work).
When we’re trying to build an army for our side, and we see everything as a big war where we can’t concede an inch, we’re never going to find God and we won’t find truth because we’re not open to being challenged.
But we don’t need to be scared. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We can look at stats full on the face and we don’t need to think it’s going to undermine our belief in God. It may undermine our interpretation of some things, but that’s a good thing! That’s what Jesus told us to do! He said that a bad tree can’t bear good fruit, and a good tree can’t bear bad fruit. We’re allowed to ask questions!
Finally, I find it very ironic to see so many Baptist megachurch pastors almost giddy about Howerton’s claims that Christian women have less abuse and better sex.
(Even though the report he cites doesn’t say that those who believe in gender hierarchy experience that).
To see Matt Chandler happy about it; Howerton happy about it; The Gospel Coalition, which is mostly men in power, happy about it; well, it’s off-putting.
How about we listen to 20,000 evangelical women instead?
What if you’re NOT the problem with your sex life?
What if the messages that you’ve been taught have messed things up–and what if there’s a way to escape these toxic teachings?
It’s time for a Great Sex Rescue.
What do you think? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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