In First Things, Robert Wuthnow takes a critical but thoughtful look at the rise of religious polling, its merits, and its pitfalls: “In Polls We Trust.” We all love a clean chart or colorful infographic – but what do lose if we force everything into that mold?

Religion poses a more fundamental question anyway. Is polling even a good way to think about it? To be sure, religious organizations collected statistics long before polling was invented. Denominations kept track of membership rates and baptisms and conversions. Bible societies canvassed communities to see how many families owned Bibles. Never, however, was religion viewed as an “opinion” that could be tapped with simple “yes” or “no” questions. But that is how religious pollsters have proceeded from the very beginning.

Wuthnow notes how in the digital age polls have come to characterize public perception of religion, though that wasn’t always the case. Finally, he offers this warning: “Polling has taught us to think about religion in certain ways that happen to be convenient for conducting polls.” How have polls changed your perception of religion? It’s a question worth asking.