Monday, June 02, 2008

Lies, damned lies and statistics

I rang the R.B. this morning to explain the problems we have putting a reasonable population estimate down on the required annual return forms. I asked gently for what the purpose the statistic was required - did anything important depend upon its accuracy? I received a slightly disconcerted response. "It's to complete the return." I was told. For no other purpose? Who ever uses these statistics? I wondered. There was no point in arguing. I gave my guesstimate (2000 people in 2006-7, 2,500 in 2007-8), and warned that the figure might only be 50% accurate, because of the characteristics of the area, but I could tell that my inquisitor had already switched off, having filled the required blank on the computer database.

I've long been interested in why God should have punished King David's people with plague after he had taken a census of the people. Well, David wanted data which he could use for military and economic assessment of his citizens. Knowledge is power. He wanted to know as much about his subjects as God knew, vain and sinful as the pretensions of the men of Babel. The more you know, the more power you have the more you're faced with the complexities of handling what you know. In Hebrew story telling God is cause and effect of everything.

So, when there' s a plague, it's an unwelcome 'god-send', pereceived by David has being less of a risky option than three years of famine or a season in flight from his enemies. One way or another David regards his fate as punishment for his pride. It is also punishing to him in another way, since once he had exact population numbers, it meant he'd be in a position to know the death-toll, and the damage that would do to his military and economic pretensions. Sometimes it's better not to know how weak you really are, else you lose heart altogether.

Life was cheap enough in those days, considering the numbers expended in battle. As long as more enemies died than one's own kin, and power was retained, there was victory. In an epidemic there are no victors only survivors, and the chastening knowledge of one's vulnerability re-sizing ambitions. David had once more to re-learn how utterly dependent he was, both as a man and king, upon God.

Nowadays the church imitates society in its preoccupation with numbers. Laws that govern the way we organise ourselves charitably make exacting and costly demands on our 'accountability' in every sense. It means that the fluctuating fortunes of the church are rather too closely documented and pored over for trends and meanings that really don't tell us much about what's going on in people's hearts or relationships.

It seems people aren't disinterested in religion nor in things spiritual. What they're not interested in is sustained commitment and support for religious organisations, as expressions of community. That's something one doesn't need statistics to demonstrate. Active expressions of faith, personal or share, are as difficult to chart as city centre population statistics. Numbers, as David discovered carry with them their own woes. The real life and blessing consists in those human stories of which numbers are an abstraction bearing little meaning in the real world.

No comments: