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Metaphors Can Interfere with Understanding Survey Items and Results

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“If Jesus is God, how could he create the world if he wasn’t born yet.”

                     —Girl, age 7

It will be a while until this 7-year-old passes through the stage of concrete operations and begins to pull apart various mental constructs in a serious fashion. Along the way she’ll pick up many metaphors, including those that unravel men’s thinking about God hundreds of years ago. And all sorts of other metaphors.

Americans are known for being religious and in particular, for being Christian; however, as is commonly said, the devil is in the details.

In this post, I look at religious survey items to make a point about being careful when writing and interpreting survey items containing concepts with a range of meaning.


God- Who is God?

Gallup keeps tabs on Americans’ views on God. In an interesting article, Hrynowski (2019) reveals a different response rate for beliefs in God depending on how the question is asked. Specifically, they asked the question about belief in God three ways.

1. The simple question, “Do you believe in God?” gets the highest response—86 to 89% in recent years.

2. When given a few options the percentage of belief drops to 79% in recent polling.

3. When asked if they are convinced that God exists and given other options, the percentage of believers in God falls to 64%

Jesus—Who is Jesus?

Centuries after Jesus life on earth ended, religious leaders argued about his nature and formulated statements essentially saying Jesus is both God and man. For Christians, the widely accepted doctrine of the trinity declares God to be “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

In 2020, the State of Theology survey asked Americans about Jesus by presenting a statement: “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” Survey participants could select five options representing levels of agreement. Only 28% strongly agreed. Another 23% chose the “agree” option. So if you combine the two levels of agreement, you get 52% and if you add the opposite two choices of strongly disagree (27%) and somewhat disagree (10%) you obtain a level of disagreement of 36%.

What about evangelicals? Despite the difficulty in defining who is and who isn’t an evangelical, the researchers analysed the results to see how those participants who identified as evangelical answered the question. It turns out, 30% agreed.

The Bible—What is Truth?

When it comes to Christians’ ideas about God and Jesus, it’s reasonable to turn to the source material. Thus, the researchers asked participants their beliefs about the Bible. As with all surveys, how the question is asked can make a difference. Here’s the Statement of Theology survey statement:

“The Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.”

As with other items, participants selected from the range of strongly disagree to strongly agree. The strongly agree level for the US population is 20%.

The statement suggests a dichotomy that ignores an understanding of truth revealed in metaphors. Can you rewrite the statement?


Writers like Marcus Borg (1995) attempt to help Christians deal with various conundrums by pointing out the biblical metaphors about Jesus. So, some writers refer to Jesus as the Son of God. But Jesus is also presented as a lamb and the word.

There are many words in the Bible about God. A dominant presentation is that God is a male figure. Sometimes God is presented as a husband (e.g., Isaiah 54:5)—even a jealous one—and sometimes God is presented as a Father (e.g., Matthew 6: 9-13). But the Bible also refers to God as a Spirit (John 4:24). And in Christian teaching, people lose their distinctiveness as male or female (Galatians 3:28).

So, the point is, are these descriptions of God just reflections of men using metaphors that made sense to people living in male dominated cultures thousands of years ago or must we view God as a man to have a correct understanding? Surely, if Christians do not think metaphorically, the idea that God is like a man is rather limiting.

Of course, there are many religions besides Christianity in the world and those religious people understand God or gods in ways that are different from the diverse views of Christians about the God of the Bible.

Survey Limitations

1. Survey results are interesting but I hope these examples show that people appear to have different perspectives on the central person in their faith.

2. When researchers expand the wording of survey items, the investigators may obtain  more nuanced responses.

3. In some cases, giving participants the opportunity to add a text response to a survey item can help clarify nuances of meaning.

4. In some cases, metaphors make a difference in interpreting the results of a survey. The familiarity of the survey writer and participant with relevant metaphors can enhance or obscure the meaning of the results.

5. When a survey does not consistently tap the same domain of knowledge, reliability is negatively affected to an unknown degree.

6. I once examined the relationship between the intelligence of graduate students to the results obtained when they administered and scored intelligence tests. I never published those data. But I am left with a hypothesis related to this topic— the intelligence of survey writers can affect not only the wording of the items but the interpretation of the results as well. And of course, there is the unknown factor of the intelligence of the people responding to a survey.

Creating Surveys on AMAZON    or   GOOGLE  Worldwide

Final Note

If a 7-year-old girl can ask a thoughtful question about biblical literalism, imagine the difficulty in ascertaining what thoughtful adults really think about a survey topic.


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