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The Religious Uses of Quantification

Discussions of religion and statistics in the social sciences have chiefly concentrated on how to apply quantitative methods to religion as an object of study. However, researchers are not the only ones who produce or discuss quantitative data. This special issue of Archives de sciences sociales des religions aims at exploring how religious organizations, faith-based media, and religious people engage with “numbers.” Religious actors are not only objects, but producers or co-producers of quantification–whether they deplore the absence of trustworthy statistics regarding their religion, estimate the size of their constituency (Rabin, 2017; Zurlo, 2017), oppose including religion in census questionnaires, count anti-religious acts of discrimination, or initiate opinion polls on their members’ values, or quantitative surveys on their clergy or places of worship...

This shift in perspective—from quantification as a scientific method to quantification as a practice and subject of study— originates in present developments in the history and sociology of quantification. Going beyond an analysis of the construction of statistical categories, works in the history of statistics have also explored the social conditions for the “statistical thinking” (Porter, 1986; Gigerenzer, Swijtink, Porter, Daston, 1990; Desrosières, 1998; Prévost, Beaud, 2000), and its connection to transformations in modes of government and daily life. In France, the pioneering work of Alain Desrosières has opened up a whole new field of study on the social uses of statistics, at the intersection of politics and knowledge () on the social use of statistics (Diaz-Bone, Didier, 2016): ethnographers in particular have described in detail the uses of statistics and numbers by public administrations and governments (Penissat, 2007; Bruno, Jany-Catrice, Touchelay, 2016), as well as by unions and social movements (Penissat, 2009; Mathieu, 2012). In this perspective, quantification is analyzed as a set of social practices that may affect the construction of collective (Urla, 1993; Schor, 2005) as well as individual selves identities, based on practices of the “quantified self” or “self-measure” (Pharabod, Nikolski, Granjon, 2013; Lupton, 2016).

Because religion is very often missing in this picture, this interdisciplinary call aims at eliciting contributions on the religious uses of quantification. We hope for as much variety as possible in terms of historical, religious and geographical contexts. While the focus of this special issue is on statistics, broader approaches of quantification (measurements, accounting…) are also welcome.

What is or isn’t counted in religious contexts? How do religious institutions use, comment on or contest “numbers”? Are there specifically religious ways of counting and of resisting quantification? When religious institutions and believers start quantifying wthat they do, should this be interpreted as a form of internal secularization, or as the result of intrareligious dynamics?

Suggested lines of research may include the following:

1) Techniques of quantification and the governing of religious institutions

Articles may focus on religious authorities, following works that envision statistics as a mode of governmentality. Case studies may include institutions or religious organizations which order studies by researchers or pollsters, or which collect data on their membership or on their staff through a statistical unit. How do such religious uses of statistics fit into broader religious politics and policies (e.g. with regard to proselytizing, religious reform, human resource management, risk prevention, repression of clergy deviance…)? Within religious institutions, who are the actors who request, or contest, that the institution “keeps count”? How and when do religious organizations use statistical tools to analyze their own records (e.g. rites of passage such as weddings and funerals, or pilgrimage sites)? Quantification practices may thus shed light on whether and howreligious organizations function differently from other organizations (Demerath, Hall, Schmitt, Williams, 1998).

2) Religious activism with or against numbers

The notion of “statactivism” was recently forged to describe using numbers in activist struggles or “fighting with numbers” (Bruno, Didier, Vitale 2014). Contributions might include cases where numbers are used to defend a religious group in public debates, whether it is by counting members to demonstrate political might, by showing how a given population adheres to religious values, or by fighting against the stereotyping of a religious minority (Hart, 2000; Soffer, 2004). Articles may also analyze the positions held by religious actors in public debates regarding the inclusion or exclusion of questions about religion in census data and other public statistics (Good, 1959; Weller, 2004; Howard, Hopkins, 2005).

Articles can also focus on the use of statistical studies in internal debates within religious organizations, or between religious currents, denominations or branches. In the case of Judaism in the United States, statistical data on the rate of “mixed marriages” significantly fed debate on the respective value of different branches within Judaism for contributing to or stemming the demographic decline (Berman, 2008).

Articles may also investigate how some religious actors engage in and contribute tostruggles against quantification.

3) Religious reception of quantitative studies

In keeping with the methodological aims of the journal, and in light of contemporary debates on the ethics and politics of relationship between researchers and the subjects of their studies, contributions might also propose a reflexive approach on how sociological and demographical studies are discussed, and sometimes challenged, by the religious actors they study.

Articles may thus on the one hand explore the reception of statistics after their publication: in the press, particularly the faith-based media, but also in other arenas (social networks, public debates), “numbers” can be strategically used or challenged in debates about or within religion. Contributions may also explore the prior stage of data collection: for instance in cases where researchers access their sample with the help of a religious organization; or in cases where a religious organization solicits the expertise of researchers to generate or analyze study data.

4) Religion in the circulation of statistical knowledge and techniques

Contributions may also explore the comparison and circulation of quantification techniques between religious institutions and other institutions. For instance, have religious institutions more than other institutions preferred administrative records (church registers, membership listings…) over sample surveys (Desrosières, 2007)? Traditions in statistics being highly variable in different countries, are there variations according to national contexts within the same religion? Contributions may address the existence of chronologies or logics that distinctly differ from what has been documented elsewhere, for example, concerning the adoption of “statistical thinking” through the use of samples (i.e., the gap between the late arrival of the “probability revolution” in France compared to England), or the advent of the widespread use of polling surveys (Blondiaux, 1998). Articles may for instance revisit the role of Christian actors in the tradition of social surveys (for the Protestant traditions see Bulmer, Bales, Sklar, 1991; Bateman, 2001; in French Catholicism see: Cuchet 2013; Chatelan, Pelletier, Warren, 2017), by exploring their location within the history of churches, and not only in the history of the social sciences.

5) Counting piety

Finally, contributions may contributed debates on “quantified selves” by addressing counting and quantifying practices in daily religious practice and in the formation of religious subjectivities. The expansion of daily practices of quantification (notably via mobile telephone applications) is sometimes seen as a new mode of self-improvement which might take the place of religious norms. Yet one can also wonder to what degree religious practices, such as the examination of one’s conscience before confession (counting one’s sins) in Catholicism, or the compensation of non-fasting days in Islamic practice, have foreshadowed or favored a taste for standardized and quantified practices of self-measurement.

Proposal submission procedure

Please send your one to two-page proposals (specifying the empirical material used) before 23 january 2020 at Accepted proposals will be presented in a workshop in 2020 to be held (tentatively) in Paris, before publication of this special issue of the journal in 2021.

The preliminary selection of proposals is not a definitive acceptance as articles submitted will be evaluated according the journal’s usual peer review process.

The journal welcomes articles in French, English or Spanish, with a maximum of 55,000 signs (spaces included).


Bateman Bradley W., 2001, « Make a Righteous Number: Social surveys, the men and religion forward movement, and quantification in American economics », History of political economy, 33, 5, p. 57–85.

Bagby Ihsan, 2001, The Mosque in America: A National Portrait, a report from the Mosque Study Project, Washington, D.C., Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Berman Lila Corwin, 2008, « Sociology, Jews, and Intermarriage in Twentieth-Century America », Jewish Social Studies, 14, 2, p. 3260.

Blondiaux Loïc, 1998, La fabrique de l’opinion : une histoire sociale des sondages, Paris, Éditions du Seuil.

Bruno Isabelle, Didier Emmanuel, 2015, Benchmarking : l’État sous pression statistique, Zones.

Bruno Isabelle, Didier Emmanuel, Prévieux Julien, 2015, Statactivisme : Comment lutter avec des nombres, Zones.

Bulmer Martin, Bales Kevin, Sklar Kathryn Kish, 1991, The Social Survey in Historical Perspective, 1880-1940, Cambridge University Press.

Chatelan Olivier, Pelletier Denis, Warren Jean-Philippe (dir.), 2017, « Sociologies catholiques », Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 179, octobre-décembre, p. 15-191.

Cuchet Guillaume, 2013, « Le dernier problème de Fernand Boulard : la rupture de pente religieuse de 1965 », Faire de l’histoire religieuse dans une société sortie de la religion, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, p. 103-139.

Demerath N. J., Hall Peter Dobkin, Schmitt Terry, Williams Rhys H. (eds.), 1998, Sacred Companies: Organizational Aspects of Religion and Religious Aspects of Organizations, New York, Oxford University Press.

Desrosières Alain, 1993, La politique des grands nombres, Paris, La Découverte.

Desrosières Alain, 2005, « Décrire l’État ou explorer la société : les deux sources de la statistique publique », Genèses, 58, 1, p. 4-27.

Gigerenzer Gerd, Swijtink Zeno, Porter Theodore, Daston Lorraine, 1990, The Empire of Chance: How Probability Changed Science and Everyday Life, Cambridge University Press.

Good Dorothy, 1959, « Questions on Religion in the United States Census », Population Index, 25, 1, p. 316.

Hart Mitchell Bryan, 2000, Social science and the politics of modern Jewish identity, Stanford University Press.

Howard David, Hopkins Peter E., 2005, « Editorial: race, religion and the census », Population, space and place, 11, 2, p. 69-74.

Lupton Deborah, 2016, The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-tracking, Cambridge, UK, Polity Press.

Malzac Marie, 2018, « Les commissions d’enquête ont révélé l’ampleur des abus sexuels », La Croix, 3 octobre.

Mathieu Lilian, 2012, « De l’objectivation à l’émotion. La mobilisation des chiffres dans le mouvement abolitionniste contemporain », Mots. Les langages du politique, 100, p. 173-185.

Penissat Etienne, 2007, « Entre science, administration et politique : produire des statistiques au sein d’un ministère », Socio-logos. Revue de l’association française de sociologie, 2.

Penissat Étienne, 2009, « Mesure des conflits, conflits de mesure. Retour sur l’histoire des outils de quantification des grèves », Politix, 86, p. 51-72.

Pharabod Anne-Sylvie, Nikolski Véra, Granjon Fabien, 2013, « La mise en chiffres de soi », Réseaux, 177, p. 97‑129.

Porter Theodore M., 1986, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900, Princeton University Press.

Prévost Jean-Guy, Beaud Jean-Pierre, 2000, L’ère du chiffre / The Age of Numbers: Systèmes statistiques et traditions nationales/Statistical Systems and National Traditions, Sainte-Foy, Québec, Presses universitaires du Québec.

Rabin Shari, 2017, « “Let Us Endeavor to Count Them Up”: The Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Jewish Demography », American Jewish History, 101, 4, p. 419440.

Schor Paul, 2005, « Des mobilisations de pur prestige ? La contestation des classifications ethniques du recensement fédéral aux États-Unis (1850-1940) », Revue internationale des sciences sociales, 183, p. 97‑109.

Soffer Oren, 2004, « Antisemitism, Statistics, and the Scientization of Hebrew Political Discourse: The Case Study of Ha-tsefirah », Jewish Social Studies, 10, 2, p. 55-79.

« Une statistique du culte israélite en France », 1913, L’Univers israélite. Journal des principes conservateurs du judaïsme, 50, p. 557561.

Urla J., 1993, « Cultural politics in an age of statistics: Numbers, nations, and the making of Basque identity », American Ethnologist, 20, 4, p. 818–843.

Weller Paul, 2004, « Identity, politics, and the future(s) of religion in the UK: the case of the religion questions in the 2001 decennial census », Journal of Contemporary Religion, 19, 1, p. 321.

Zumsteeg Stéphane, Gallard Mathieu, 2017, Enquête auprès des protestants. Préparée pour Réforme et la Fédération protestante de France, IPSOS.

Zurlo Gina, 2017, “A miracle from Nairobi”: David B. Barrett and the quantification of world Christianity, 1957–1982, thèse de doctorat, Boston, Boston University.

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