14 July 2009

Negotiating Christianity with other religions (RDS)

Religious Diversity in Singapore is a collection of research papers originally presented in a series of workshops between 2004 and 2006 by the Institute of Policy Studies.

Negotiating Christianity with other religions: The view of Christian clergymen in Singapore, by Mathew Mathews

Mathews's paper presents the results of a survey and a series of in-depth interviews conducted by the author. The year the survey and interviews were conducted are not stated in the paper, although Mathews mentions the surveys were sent out during the period of Father Joachim Kang's trial.

We will not present interesting quotes from Mathews's paper. While Mathews's paper was entertaining, we do not place much emphasis or authority on this than we would do for the other 2 papers from RDS featured here earlier, due to a list of very major flaws.

Representativeness of data

The survey was sent to a random list of Protestant clergymen on the NCCS church directory and the Roman Catholic parish priest listing on the Catholic Church website for Singapore.

1. Issue of denominations

While Mathews mentions some beliefs and statements made in the interviews as being related to Charismatic and evangelical branches, his sampling does not provide for representing various denominations - whereas he ought to know that beliefs and statements be allied across certain denominations. The data presented in the paper's tables only correlate attitudes of clegymen to either their Protestant or Roman Catholic allegiance.

While Mathews mentions that denomination was a variable in his study, it appears he presents no findings that would make denomination an issue. This is surprising given the fact that various quotes, reported attitudes in his paper are prevalent and strong in certain denominations of Protestantism while holding no cachet in other denominations. A representative sample would need to be constructed by taking into account the actual percentage of denominational strength...

There is nothing in the appendix on the raw data collected that would allow us to reconstruct other tables based on denominations, or to see if his sample had overrepresented certain far-right denominations in Singapore, such as the Anglicans and the Methodists.

2. Construction of interview population: major caveats

A total of 57 in-depth interviews were conducted. It is unclear to us what Mathews was striving for here: clergy from mainline Protestant denominations and Roman Catholic priests were "at times... furnished by their respective denominations, though some denominations allowed the random selection of clergymen." On the other hand, "a snowballing technique was used to speak to a variety of... independent church ministers".

There is just a few ways you can conduct interviews and then claim that these represent the average view of the population at large. You can conduct a random sample. You could select a randomised sample - oversampling for variables like denomination and so on. You cannot construct a sample out of three or more different ways and then still claim the sample to be representative.

You could even attempt, like Mathews did, to "obtain clergymen who represented different age cohorts and had differing theological positions", but this method like snowballing, does not lead to a representative sample, it only gives you a sample from which to construct various communities of similar viewpoints and beliefs.

This point is important, especially when Mathews seems to have a penchant for slipping up and talking about "the majority of responses" from his in-depth interviews.

This point is most important, especially when Mathews makes claims about the overwhelming theological conservativism of Protestant clergy. We need only remember that snowball sampling means this: you introduce yourself to 1 or 2 key interview subjects who introduce a few more to you after their interviews, who in turn introduce yet a few more to you. It is quite odd to see Mathews talk about representativeness in the same breath as snowballing.

This point is most ultimately important, especially for those who attempt to correlate the tables provided by Mathews, to study how the 'moderate'-looking bell curves in the tables can translate to the deluge of overwhelmingly far-right, ultra-conservative quotes from his army of unnamed pastors whom he claims to represent viewpoints of the rest of the interview correspondents.

In this case, we cannot even say that the survey responses will be representative of the population, while his reported interview responses definitely cannot not be regarded as representative of the population of Protestant and RC clergy at large.

3. What were the interviews about?

In the appendix to his paper, Mathews provides the questionnaire and the scoring and computation method for his survey portion of the study. There is no mention of what questions or what general interview topic strategy was used for the in-depth interview portion of his survey.

4. Sloppy labelling

Mathhews calls "theological orthodoxy" in his footnotes as "agreement to the inerrancy of the Bible, the authority of the Bible in all aspects of life, the veracity of the miracles in the Bible and the belief that the Pentateuch was written by Moses and not by a later author". Yet in his appendix, these same items are called "Conservative theological beliefs (also known as a fundamentalist Christian position)". We are not sure how fundamentalism has now become an orthodox theological stand, but for this not to have gone unchallenged and corrected by Mathews's correspondents, does show the type of biased sample population he ended up constructing.


Where are clergy trained in Singapore that makes them, as Mathews claims (but I do not believe), creates an overwhelmingly conservative environment for Protestantism? From a production of culture point of view, environments do not spontaneously come into being: they are nurtured by institutions - say theological colleges; groups of censors - say the opinion leaders and drivers of various denominations; gatekeepers - qualified clergymen still need to be appointed to parishes by higher boards in mainline denominations...

Which denominations did the more conservative, exclusivist, far right clergy come from?

Out of his sample size of 57 in-depth interviewees - ignoring the quotes that were obviously cherrypicked for the paper - objectively and statistically speaking what were the proportion of positive statements against negative statements on inter-religious efforts?

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