After a couple of weeks talking about Isaac Asimov, and how cool he is, the hope and dangers of neuroscience, and the humanities (whew!), I’m back to statistics on religion. This time, I’m looking at the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), which is like a large warehouse full of information about religion. It’d take years to really explore this site. For example, they have stats on thirty different branches of the Pentecostal Church in the US, which is one of twenty Christian denominations in the US, which is one of 196 nations in the world. Like I said, it’d take a while to explore it all.
Perhaps the most fascinating stats come from the international profiles given on countries. Take Syria. Don’t worry – I’m not going to get political. But it’s worth looking at some demographics. We see that around 87% of the population is Muslim. Christians, the second largest group, make up about 10% of the almost 20 million in the country. But these broad strokes don’t tell us much about the complexity on the ground.
Of the Muslim population, around 85% are Sunnis, with Alawites, Ismailis, and Shi’a making up the other 15%. This means that almost 3 out of every 4 people in Syria are Sunni. But, of course, this isn’t a uniform group: they’re different ethnicities – Arab, Kurdish, and Turkoman – and different sects – Shafi’i madhhab being the primary one, but also Hanafi and Hanbali as well.
The small percentage of Christians in Syria is equally complex. The largest group is the Greek Orthodox Church, but the Uniate Churches and the independent Nestorian Church are also present in significant numbers. It’s worth noting, for those who aren’t familiar with any of these names, that many of these Eastern Churches are as old, if not arguably older than, the Roman Catholic Church.
While these numbers don’t go to explain the complex situation in Syria, the ARDA also collects data on religious freedom. Through some of these measures you can begin to put together a picture of religious life within the country.
Three indices, the Government Regulation of Religion, Social Regulation of Religion, and Government Favoritism of Religion, track questions like: “Is freedom of religion protected?” “Do established religions try to shut out new religions in any way?” “Does the government fund religious charities?” Syria comes out about the same as most countries in Western Asia on everything except Social Regulation of Religion. In Syria, religion is heavily regulated.
More dramatic differences emerge when you take these scores in as a full picture. On scales measuring civil liberties, freedom of expression, and organizational rights, Syria is ranked as incredibly restrictive: 0 out of 12 on organizational rights, and 2 out of 16 on freedom of expression.
None of these statistics alone explain the current situation in Syria. But they help paint a picture of the religious and social landscape on the ground. The ARDA has these sorts of stats on every country in the world, from contentious regions like the Middle East to more benign areas where you can just let your curiosity run: did you know 17% of Cubans are Spiritists? If it’s a warehouse full of information, it must be like that massive warehouse where they hide the ark at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Before ending, I’ve got to give my statistics caveat – these measures, and any of the statistics previously mentioned, are not philosophically neutral. While data have the façade of objectivity, what’s focused on and how it’s measured will always be shaped by the assumptions of those collecting the data. So always read with a critical eye.