A Review of
20 Myths About Religion and Politics in America
Ryan P. Burge
Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
An increasing number of Americans over the past few years may have had a similar thought: we can debate opinions, but how can we even have a conversation if we don’t agree on the same facts? As our civil discourse has become less civil, we’ll need to find clarity amid the misconceptions, confusions, and outright lies that we absorb through mass and social media. Sorting out the truths about our society from which we can develop cogent positions takes more than simply scanning headlines. It requires actually looking at the concrete information and making that data usable. It’s not a task that most of us have either the time or – fantasy baseball results aside – the skill to do.
Political scientist and pastor Ryan Burge compares the problem to a builder making a bridge out of bricks who doesn’t inspect his building material. With enough flawed bricks in the structure, the bridge would ultimately collapse. So too, do we construct worldviews of flimsy material if we don’t actually seek truth (4). To get the facts as accurately as possible requires careful use of quality data, doing examination of evidence without emotional interference, to develop the most empirical outlook possible. Burge has gained a following for his ability to sort through the noise and provide relevant useful analysis of the intersection between politics and religion. His 2021 book The Nones provided a detailed look at the increased number of Americans who identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated. With his new book 20 Myths About Religion and Politics in America, he examines exactly what the title suggests, to develop common ground from which we can examine our society and our own worldviews. To Burge, a humble willingness to change our minds when presented with new information remains an important character trait (and one, it seems, useful in democratic society), and his findings throughout this book should lead us to do just that.
Burge breaks his book into 20 discrete chapters that can be read in any order (though each are fascinating and not worth skipping). He typically sets up the myth in question, explains why we think the way we do on the subject, and then breaks down extensive data that refutes the myth. At his best, he also takes the time to explain a little about why the disconnect between reality and perception occurs. For instance, he briefly explains the idea of survivorship bias when discussing whether or not people return to religion late in their lives. He then gives a brief conclusion, summarizing the point and suggesting what is likely actually going on. Finally he gives us a few sources to use to further explore the question.
His regular and comprehensive approach to each myth works well. Burge writes with necessary clarity – statistics can feel almost inherently muddy – but he also delivers enough personality to keep his prose flowing. His mix of casual talk and academic knowledge enables him to cover much ground easily while keeping the book always readable. Every chapter includes charts and graphs that can be understood by laypeople (of statistical analysis or of religion). The data comes almost entirely from large, publicly available studies, primarily the Cooperative Election Study and the General Social Survey. Some material comes from proprietary surveys, which Burge explains. The combination of quality data, useful visual aids, and lucid argumentation makes 20 Myths highly accessible and convincing.
These traits matter, because most of these chapters are surprising (almost inherently, or else they wouldn’t have been written). One of the more challenging chapters of the book focuses on the myth “The growth of the nones is largely from people leaving church” (165). Dealing with that myth proves to be a complicated task. Burge uncovers quite a bit of nuance in the discussion and discovers a variety of factors at play. The changing retention rate of various religious traditions (including unaffiliated) holds the primary key to his thought here. It’s a complicated pattern in itself, which Burge carefully lays out (and this chapter might be worth a second read). His answers in this chapter raise more questions, and he says that the “answers to these questions will be incredibly consequential for the trajectory of American religion” (173). This sort of study quickly gets to the idea of why data analysis to uncover a more accurate view of our society has become essential.
Most of the book’s chapters can be read in isolation, but reading the “nones” chapter and the one that follows makes for a nice sequence. Here Burge looks at the idea that “America is much less religious today than a few decades ago” (175). This topic ties into his look at the nones (and to his book on that demographic) and it proves to be equally complex. To oversimplify, Burge finds that “American religion has become smaller but much more potent” (183). Putting these two chapters together helps explain the state of the US religious landscape in ways that headlines and anecdotes can’t.
Each chapter, while discrete, builds an accumulating vision of contemporary religion and politics in the US. Any or all of the book should give careful readers a clearer picture of the country right now, but the chapters also open up their own sorts of inquiries. On an individual level, it’s a reminder of our shared need to be humble. Burge closes the book by thinking about the importance of recognizing that we might be wrong, and admits to the number of myths he wanted to include in the book before he looked into them and discovered that it was he who was wrong. The book may provide information to build a worldview or data to bring to a sincere discussion (and Burge reminds us that those don’t typically exist on social media). Ultimately, it’s a reminder of the importance of remaining curious, asking questions, and changing our minds as we learn.
Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.