VENTURA, Calif. — Women are not going to church as much as they used to, according to a new study.

The Barna Group, a research company located in Ventura, Calif., released part of their annual "State of the Church" survey this week and compared those findings to a similar survey taken 20 years ago. The results seem to indicate church activity has dropped for women.

Maybe. Maybe not. While many news outlets are reporting the numbers, at least one religious polling expert is skeptical.

Religion News Service covered the poll this way: "Women, long considered the dominant pew dwellers in the nation's churches, have shown a dramatic drop in attendance in the last two decades, a new survey shows. Since 1991, the percentage of women attending church during a typical week has decreased by 11 percentage points to 44 percent ... ."

The Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., likewise described the dismal news: "(P)ollster George Barna says women attend church and Sunday school less since 1991. They also read the Bible less and regard it as less reliable, and consider their faith less important in their lives. Over the last two decades, women have also become less likely to hold orthodox views of God as the all-knowing creator and ruler of the universe. And they're less likely to see the devil as a real person, considering him more a 'symbol of evil.'

Rodney Stark, a professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, doesn't buy it. At least not yet. "There are all kinds of polls asking about religious stuff. There is the General Social Survey which has been asking religious questions every year since 1972. Why not go in there and see if you can replicate the findings?" Stark said. "We haven't had time to do that yet, but we will. And I would just be absolutely shocked if Barna's findings held up."

Stark suspects Barna's results could be an accidental difference — mere random variation. "When you are dealing with surveys you are dealing with probabilities of the statistic moving no more than four or five points up and down — but sometimes it does. And if you keep looking around you will find sometimes that two surveys show quite a big difference," Stark said. "And then you run to the press."

Stark also said he would like to see Barna's data trends charted over a series of years — not just a 20-year difference.

The Barna Group posted the full results of the survey on its website, The results are varied. For example, women's Bible reading "plummeted" from 50 percent to 40 percent over 20 years. During the same time period, the survey found that men's Bible reading has increased from 40 percent in 1991 to 41 — men are no less likely to read from the Bible these days than they were 20 years ago.

But again, Stark is hesitant to accept the results.

"Things like this don't really happen," Stark said. "The fact that the men didn't change but the women did: Nonsense."

Barna, however, wrote on his blog that "women have been more radically redefining their faith contours than men in the past two decades. While the genders are far from a state of convergence, the frightening reality for churches is that the people they have relied upon as the backbone of the church can no longer be assumed to be available and willing when needed, as they were in days past."

Other reactions are not as skeptical — but are still surprised.

For example, Greg Kandra, a Roman Catholic deacon serving the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, wrote on, "This is something to make you put down your morning coffee and say 'Huh?'"

Comments on the Huffington Post were similar to "pattileigh's" contention, "Well since you can no longer be burned at the stake, tortured and imprisoned for not attending church, people are finally gaining their freedom from religious oppression — at least in the U.S."

On his blog, Barna wrote that, "Looking at the trends over the past twenty years, and especially those related to the beliefs and behavior of women, you might conclude that things are not going well for conventional Christian churches."

Stark, however, isn't worried.

Church attendance among women

1991 55 percent

2011 44 percent

Bible reading among women

1991 50 percent

2011 40 percent

Source: Barna Group

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