Wednesday, September 15, 2010

2009/2010 Texas Death Row Religious Landscape Survey

(Admin note: This entry has been delayed for several weeks due to "technical difficulties". I apologise for the delay)

Unlike nearly every other entry on this website, today’s offering is not my fault. Well, mostly not my fault. Like the vast majority of mankind’s triumphs and train wrecks, the blame for this rests solely on the shoulders of a woman. A little over a year ago, I was having a very pleasant visit with a lady friend. The topics of conversation ranged from the mundane to the esoteric, and since my friend is a highly religious individual (Tina – I know, I know, sorry; read “person of deep faith”), the topic of religious beliefs eventually came up. She was a bit horrified to learn that – unlike the prisons she has ministered to back East – Texas Death Row inmates are allowed no access to religious services, and rarely, (if ever) see a chaplain. In frustration, she finally belted out, “Well, then, what do the men believe in?” I gave her a fairly general response, based on pieces of overheard conversations or personal testimonies: mostly Protestants, with some smattering of Catholics and Muslims; varying strengths of conviction, depending upon how close each man was to being exterminated by the State; selective amnesia over most portions of their holy documents, save for the portions which release them from fear or help them deal with life in this carceral nightmare, etc, etc. The visit soon ended, but the question stuck with me, because, in truth, my answer was little better than a cheap approximation or cynical quip. True, some men here do wear their team’s colors on their sleeves, proclaiming at high volume the rightness of their ideological selections (we have more than a handful of “touched by the spirit” day-room ministers here, let me tell you). We all know the type, and I suspect that the percentage of such people in my world is roughly equivalent to that of your own (except here, you cant change the channel). But even if I appreciated the cheap pathos of such displays (I do not), it hardly seems fair that I hyper-generalized everyone here into categories consisting of religious sheep calmly baa-ing their way into oblivion, or dogmatic wolves honing their credibility enhancing displays. In short, I had given a stupid and flippant response to a genuine question and I regretted it. I didn’t have an accurate answer, so, like I said, the question stuck with me.

So, how to answer it? It can be a somewhat delicate operation, asking personal questions in prison. Some are merely suspicious; some take it as an invasion of their privacy. Still, it seemed to me at the time that if I went about it in the right way, certain questions could be asked which would not result in me getting speared, an experience I could rather do without, thank you. I admit, the more I thought about it, the more the little OCD gremlins in my head got worked up into a lather. The summa of about a week of planning was my “2009 Death Row Religious Landscape Survey”, version 1.0, which I began to inflict upon my neighbors over several days in May of 2009, to much fanfare and brief applause.

Ok, no applause, because version 1.0 was an abysmal failure. The reasons for this were entirely my own: I had never undertaken the development of a survey before, and my enthusiasm far outpaced my knowledge and abilities. I stopped administering version 1.0 after only five men, far short of the thirty I had initially set as my goal. Without wasting too much time on unnecessary details, several of the key fatal errors included: giving the survey at high volume while standing on the DAYROOMS to men in nearby cells (a failure not only based on the difficulty of properly communicating the questions and responses, but also dealing with the refusal of some of the men to answer truthfully to questions which might affect their tough-guy images), a great deal of unintentional ambiguity in the questions themselves (which, I later learned after doing some research, was giving my personal, scornful views of some faiths an opportunity to affect the responses, a concept known as “fluidity”, which even works on a sub or unconscious level in the mind of the pollster), and, worst of all, no way to compare the responses of the men with similar answers to people in the freeworld. Without this comparison, my poll lacked a means for any of you to approach it, or to give the answers some context. As I said, version 1.0 was an unmitigated mess.

At least failures have the good grace to show us the path forward. I quickly set out to make version 2.0 both interesting and methodologically correct. To start with, I consulted one of the largest and most respected polling organizations in the country, the Pew Research Center. My friend Eric was able to download and then mail me the results of a massive religion study completed in 2008, called the “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” You can see the original Pew survey HERE.

Here, I had a much more developed framework for reformulating my own survey. Many of my original sixteen questions (twelve, to be specific) were already included in the Pew study, in some form or fashion. I studied this survey extensively, and then used what I had learned to create a final list of fifty-three questions which I felt would go a long way towards illustrating exactly what the condemned think, apropos the god hypothesis. I decided to make many of my own questions mirror very closely those in the Pew study, so that I could then compare and contrast the views. (There are obvious reasons for wanting to see what similarities and disparities exist between these two groups, but I also had another hypothesis I wanted to test, which I will go into later). Some questions, however, are unique to my survey, especially those pertaining to shifting theological and ontological beliefs as one’s execution date draws near. As you can probably imagine, many of the original Pew questions simple do not apply to individuals living under isolation conditions, and these questions were discarded. (For example, questions revolving around church attendance or the state of our purchasing power have no importance in this context.) In any case, had I made the survey any longer, I doubt I could have forced anyone to participate. All in all, I think I reached a happy Goldilocks medium which is both elucidative and concise.

In the Pew study, there is a nifty little section on methodology, which I read with great gusto, but which turned out to be basically worthless to me. Weighty terms like “Deming algorithms” sound kind of cool (if you are a dork), but are rather worthless when I am having to smuggle my survey from my cell to the dayrooms. What I mean to say is, there is the perfect way of doing something, and then the best way presently available, and I think it would be obvious which direction I was forced to go most of the time. In the end, I decided not to poll anyone from the internal dayrooms; instead, I conducted the entire survey one-on-one in the OUTSIDE REC CAGES which we have access to twice a week. This is the only time in our lives when we are allowed any sort of opportunity to socialize. You are still separated from the other inmate by iron bars and steel mesh, but at least you don’t have to shout at each other to be heard, and there is some small sense of privacy. Getting the guys alone vastly improved the quality of the responses. In the dayrooms, the men had given me fairly boilerplate answers, but outside, they were very enthusiastic about the survey. Like most people, these convicts most want to be heard when they are afraid or confused. I was, and am, impressed with the candor of many, and humbled by the willingness of everyone to participate.

One methodological error that I was never able to correct, however, was a lack of “random” polling. I only had access to the men on A-Pod for this study, so I was limited to roughly 60 individuals. In the end, after refusals, I was able to poll exactly fifty men. I had hoped to reach one hundred, but a long expected cell-migration never materialized, and it simply became too difficult to reach more men than I had already spoken to. Indeed, it took me just over nine months to get that many, and the guards were clearly on to me. Still, fifty represents about one sixth the current Texas Death Row population, so it is a significant sample, by any measure. Honestly, I don’t think a lack of random polling really matters that much, because this is a targeted survey of Death Row inmates, but I wanted to be clear about how I organized this. I was very fortunate to be able to reach the men on Death Watch, with execution dates imminent. To my knowledge, there is absolutely nothing comparable to my survey in existence anywhere, so, errors aside, I think some of you will find it interesting.

As to how well I covered up my own opinions about organized religion, I definitely focused on my poker face during version 2.0. I do not feel that the men felt pressured to answer one way or another. Though I am not shy about commenting about such things online, few people here are aware of my skeptical views, and, as I said, I was always very cognizant of asking the questions free of inflection or emotion. I also asked some final questions about the actual survey itself (which are not included) to test this, and I think I can say with a strong degree of certainty that nearly all of these men would be immensely surprised to learn of my agnostic-deist-Buddhist-secular humanist tendencies. (…WTF do you call that, anyways? Until I can invent a better term, just add me officially to the roles of the CHURCH OF THE FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER.) In short, I truly believe that the responses are close or exact barometers to what these men really believe. (Or, rather, what they believe they believe…)

Two more short points before I give you the link to the survey: first, I want to thank Kent and Tanya Whitaker for taking the raw data and digitizing it. If the final product impresses you for its aesthetic qualities, it is they who deserve the praise for this, not me. My survey was a rat’s nest of graph paper, and they turned it into something damned impressive. Thanks for humoring me on this, and on all of my other silly little projects.

Secondly, the price: unlike all of my other writings, I am charging USD$5.00 for a digital download of my survey. My reasons are varied: first of all, I spent over two hundred hours on this project, and while I am firmly in the camp who casts a disapproving eye on inmates attempting to make a buck, I don’t think my earning 2 cents an hour is really going to bother anyone. Second, I have been trying to collect funds for my next semester of college correspondence courses for a while now, with only minor success. My goals are very modest in this respect: if I can sell two hundred copies, I will be able to afford another six hours of courses. While I am perfectly aware of how simple it would be to hack me on this, I am hoping you will be honest, and help me pursue the noble goal of educating myself. If you want multiple copies, well, just pay for them and skip your Starbucks tomorrow, please. I also intend to take Kent and Tanya out to dinner for the work they did, and I probably owe the guys at the Apple store’s Genius Bar in Sugarland a round of drinks, too.

Ok, without further ado, HERE you can purchase my study. It will be in PDF format. My intention is to touch on a few of these graphs now, and then slowly talk more about all of them in the future. I also would like to hear your comments/thoughts on why some trends seem to be taking place. Each graph contains quite a bit of information, which should provide some fodder for some good discussions.

So, lets dive right in: below, you will find four sample questions, viewable in PDF format.

GRAPH 1 What was your religious affiliation at the time of your conviction?

GRAPH 2 What is your present religious affiliation if any?

GRAPH 7 Should churches and other houses of worship keep out of political matters or should they express their views on day-to-day social and political questions?

GRAPH 8 Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on Earth….

What was your religious affiliation at the time of your conviction? - Graph 1

The first and second graphs actually go together, and are amongst the most simple of all the questions. They are important, however, as they lay a framework for understanding all that follows. In the first, we are given a positioning of belief at the time of conviction, i.e., just before the men arrived on Death Row. You will notice a heavy tilting towards Protestant Christianity, particularly of the Baptist variety (this is Texas, after all). Catholics make a strong showing, primarily amongst the Latinos. (A later question explores the relationship of race to religious preference.) This question can be compared to Q16 in the Pew Survey, to see how representative Death Row is as a microcosm of the U.S. The numbers for Protestants in the U.S., for example, hovers around 51.3%, while in my survey they check in at 56%. Catholics polled at 24% in both surveys, so we can see that - at least in some categories – the religious beliefs of Texas Death Row inmates closely mirror those of the general public. (Note: when reading all the graphs, statistics for main categories are pushed to left side of the columns, such as for Mormons or Muslims. If a category has many subgroups, the figures for these subgroups are pushed to the right side of each column, as in for the Methodists or Agnostics. Keep in mind that these subgroups statistics are a part of the main category's numbers.)

What is your present religious affiliation, if any? – Graph 2

Graph 2 presents the religious preferences of the men at the time of the survey, and the disparities between the first and second graphs clearly show the effects of a death sentence on religious faith. As you can see, a series of massive shifts has taken place. Faced with the ultimate punishment, and forced to live under atrocious LIVING CONDITIONS, standard religious positions seem to fare very poorly. Mortal dancer seems to breed introspection, which in turn causes more rigidly dogmatic positions to crumble. As you can see, Protestant Christianity, in particular, suffers from a mass exodus, a trend which is mirrored in the country at large, but clearly accelerated in my study. It would seem that the road to Damascus is, indeed, a two-way street. Certain denominations (such as the Church of Christ, Episcopalians, and the Lutherans) disappear completely from the poll, and these fields are removed from future graphs. Baptist Christianity suffers a major decline, and the reasons for this probably need some special explanation. I suspect that the SBC’s continued (and very vocal) support for state-sanctioned murder has some effect here, as local churches refuse to stand up for the interests of inmate believers. The fact that every single hate letter I have ever heard of was written by a self-professed evangelical certainly influences the beliefs of some of the men in a negative way. Finally all of the chaplains here seem to be Baptists, and - even though I've not even seen one in 18 months – I remember that the last time one came to my cell, it was only to scream about redemption and hellfire, which is enough to make anyone start asking about the Buddha.

To prove that external support/fellowship does have an effect on the men, I give you the case of the Quakers. There were no Quakers in the first graph, but we see that field added in Graph 2, running at 4%. This is due to the fact that the Quakers actively assist several men here, and often come up to the unit to minister to more. People respond to kindness in my world, too, and this effect is quantitatively expressed here.

By and large, these cast-offs from the isles of Christ seem not to have turned their backs on God. You can see how the ranks of certain other faiths were strengthened, such as the Orthodox Christians (two of which were Greek Orthodox, one Eastern Orthodox) and the Buddhists (one of whom seemed to follow some mixture of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism; the two others subscribed to Theravada Buddhism). The Muslims also increased, due in part to a strong African American movement present in most prisons. All of the Muslims in this poll were followers of the Nation of Islam.

Several less conventional faiths also did very well, such as the Wiccans and those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”. These are listed together under the main category of “Other Faiths”, and I do not mean to marginalize them by calling them “Other”; I simply did not know how to classify their very diverse beliefs. There is a Pagan in this group as well, and his responses were particularly interesting, as I was pretty ignorant of the “activities” of the Norse pantheon, pre-survey. That said, his responses were devilishly difficult to fit into my categories; in fact, I had to make some additional column choices, just for him.

By far, however, the category which benefited the most from Christianity's decline was the one I have labeled as the “Unaffiliated”. This trend was mirrored in the Pew Study as well as the “Rise of the Nones”, which was an oft-discussed and debated and fretted over phenomenon in certain circles. This category includes atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, Deists, pantheists (of most stripes but particularly of the Spinoza type), and, most of all, those who simply prefer not to be associated with titles or churches. It would be a mistake to think of the “Nones” as being largely godless, however. Most of them do have faith in something; some of them have systems of belief just as well-developed as the most devout Muslim or Evangelical. They do seem to be more accepting of the beliefs of others, more open to free inquiry, and they all maintained a healthy dislike for religious authority, believing that the clearest way to the Numinous runs not through Mecca, Rome or Pat Robertson, but through themselves. Note that this group almost always polls on the opposing end of the spectrum from the Baptists and Muslims, giving one a snapshot of America in forty years or so.

Should churches and other houses of worship keep out of political matters or should they express their views on day-to-day social and political questions? – Graph 7

This question goes to the heart of just how active churches ought to be in American society. Amongst the Protestants you will detect a trend that seems to run through most of the questions, namely that the Methodists and the Quakers seem to poll in similar ways. Their responses seem to fall under the heading of “liberal” Christianity, and these groups often find themselves in the company of the Buddhists, the “Others”, and the “Nones”. Typically, the Baptists, Pentecostals, and Non-Denominationalists flocked together, especially on social-issues questions. They usually polled in similar fashion to the Muslims and the Mormons. All of these trends are in line with the Pew poll. I did have fewer “Don’t Know” responses in my study, and I am not exactly sure how to explain this. Maybe it is easier to admit ignorance to someone over the phone than in person; perhaps the presence of immediate death forces the men to focus more on some issues; or maybe convicts are just more opinionated than your average citizen (that last one gets my vote). I’d be interested in any theories any of you have on this point.

Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on Earth… - Graph 8

I particularly enjoyed watching the men mull over the importance of the word “best” in this question. Frankly, I was way off in my expectations on this one. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I am a huge proponent of evolutionary theory. Note, I didn’t say I “believed” in it. Rather, I have studied the evidence, which is incontrovertible, and this is a very different process than simply putting one’s faith in something. If you don’t quite know what you think on this issue, I highly recommend Richard Dawkin’s book “The Greatest Show on Earth” or “Climbing Mount Improbable”.) I really thought I was going to be drowning in a lot of creationist mumbo-jumbo on this one, but I didn’t even need to bring a life preserver. I was really proud of the guys for having done some study on this subject. This one definitely required me to keep my opinions to myself, but I pulled it off. As you can see, a majority of the men preferred the theory of evolution to its alternatives. Compared to the equivalent question in the Pew Study (Q10c), the trends also hew closely to the national model. Evangelical churches, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims tended to fall on the disagree end of the spectrum, while mainline Protestants, Buddhists, the “Others”, and the “Nones” tended to agree. Catholics were all over the map on both surveys, but in the Pew Study the majority leaned in favor of evolution, while in my study, they leaned the other way. I believe the explanation for this is mostly cultural: many of the Catholics in my study were born in countries where the Catholic Church is still very powerful, and where the education systems do not teach Darwin’s theory. This is an interesting question to compare to graph number 24: “Do you think angels and demons are active in the world?” I will touch on this comparison in a later post.

Well let me know what you think of all of this. I know I’m just a loser convict, but I put a lot of work into this project, and I think it answers some questions that nobody has ever even bothered to ask before. I’m actually fairly proud of the final version. Now that I am off Level and back on a regular pod, I have a whole new crop of victims, er, “participants” to pester, so I might try to expand beyond my original fifty responses later this year. It is probably obvious that my main focus here is on how these conditions affect the spiritual lives on the condemned, and what it would mean for a punishment to kill both body and soul (use whatever definition for soul which best floats your boat). My take is, nobody, nobody has the right to make a human being live in such a way that they lose all contact with a god that they have believed in all their lives. Is that happening here? Analyze the results for yourself, and decide.

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well...are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?" He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?" He said, "Baptist!" I said, "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?" He said, "Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are you reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off.

- Emo Phillips

© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

1 comment:

Chris said...

Excellent work on this! As a former (Interfaith) Chaplain who is appalled by the kind of sectarian chaplaincies that gain access to prisons, jails, hospitals, hospice, shelters, etc, I appreciate that it takes someone who identifies as Other/Unaffiliated (or ADBSH: agnostic-deist-Buddhist-secular humanist) to actually listen to the unheard voices. We could only hope that many Chaplains and others in wall-minded faith circles, take this important study to heart. All the best with your peaceful personal journey and your education on behalf of many others.