Turning Numbers against Themselves: Religion, Statistics, and Political Distance in Romania

Mihnea Vasilescu

PhD Thesis 2004

Scientific discoveries are probably one of the most significant achievements of humankind. Scientific language, models and applications have impacted and changed most of the aspects or our lives, the way we define ourselves, and the way we relate to nature and universe. We have become so accustomed to them that numbers, quantities, proportions, physical laws or statistical descriptions are part of our everyday communication. We all know what it means when it is reported that a certain percentage of people voted for this party, or that the average income for this group is significantly less than for the other one.

The fact that science is based on observations, experiments, and measurements, and the findings are expressed in laws, regularities, and numbers which could, at least in principle, be tested and re-tested, has created a very compelling discourse. It has become so compelling that we tend to forget how many assumptions, approximations, or arbitrary conventions are behind that appearance of exactness. Moreover, social "soft" sciences, as opposed to natural "hard" sciences, pay more tribute to arbitrariness and approximation simply because social life is not governed by laws but by regularities, at best, and peoples' behavior is not determined by causal factors but only influenced by them, at best. Rarely do the tables, pie charts, or regression models that offer us a particular representation or explanation of social phenomena make ordinary people question the way that data was gathered and its later analysis. Many times, a closer inspection of the numbers and the quantifying procedures that produced them reveals the politics behind them.

The target of my analysis and critique in this paper is the scientific inquiry into religious life in Romania. What we know about the general picture of the Romanian religious landscape is based on statistical investigations and how the collected data are reported by the research agencies. The questions and religious categories used in surveys do not seem to be problematic in any way for the majority of Romanians, but when looked at from "outside" they reveal their bias or ambiguity. My argument is that in matters pertaining to religious beliefs and religious institutions Romanian opinion surveys are designed and reported in such a way that the dominant Orthodox Church will benefit from them, at the expense of the competing churches.

My critique is based on constructivist approach to social life which also draws on cognitive psychology and discourse theory. The structure of my argument is that following. In the first part of the paper I lay down the philosophical assumptions on which I construct the rest of my argument. (Each approach has certain basic assumptions about human behavior and the nature of society.) Once these assumptions are disclosed, I explain how I understand the social construction of reality. Using ethnographic and sociological literature I then show how statistics, in general, is used not only to reflect but also to create "reality". In the second part of the paper I turn to the case of Romania. I try to prove that political rather than scientific criteria are involved in the creation of religious categories in surveys. The way the results are reported in some cases show the existing support (either not conscious or purposeful) for the dominant church at the expense of other churches. In my conclusions I argue that 'political distance' between churches, i.e. how strong the conflict is between churches and how "far" the churches are from each other, can better explain the particular choice of categories in surveys. These categories seem to be supported by the Romanian population at large and are reinforced and legitimated by the statistical measurements and representations.