How do we measure religiosity?

by Andreas Baumann

I’ve recently been thinking about how to accurately measure religiosity. Of course, this depends heavily on what your idea about religiosity is (what “religiosity” really means in your theoretical framework).

Say religion is a good, and religiosity is a measure of preference for spending ressources – time, money, devotion (an intensely scarce good) – on this good versus other goods or services. This is consistent with some of the common items used to measure religiosity, such as church attendance or incidence of prayer. This works both for an exogenous and endogenous conceptions of religiosity.

Your problem then lies in defining spending on religious goods and services. Is yoga religion? Is astrology? Imagine a situation where you want to measure consumption of soft drinks. “Soft drink” is a pretty stable and uncontested concept, so you don’t really have a problem in defining this. Measuring religiosity by measuring participation in traditional church activities correspondends to measuring soft drink consumption by Coke sales, because you miss a lot of substitution effects (what if people start drinking 7-Up instead of Coke?).

Another way to do it is to ask respondents to rate themselves on, say, a ten-point scale. This leads to two problems:

  • People might rate themselves compared to their friends, not the population as a whole. This is a problem exactly because people select into social groups consisting of people like themselves. If you’re very religious, it is much more likely that you’ll have a friend that is even more religious than you than it is to know such a person if you’re practically areligious.
  • Religion is a contested contest. When studying religion, you very often run into groups who claim not to be religious, but clearly seem to be religion in some sense. Maybe this problem can be alleviated by terming it “spirituality”.

Yet another way of thinking about measuring it is in terms of cognitive activation. One should expect that very religious persons activate the cognitive religion domain more often, and that it is more salient in their world-interpretation. One would have to measure this in asking questions the explore, say, the religious connotations of ill health or related measures.