Coming from a business background in technology and data systems (and with no real knowledge of theology) I approached the challenge rather methodically. I thought if I was going to interview people it would be more interesting to get an accurate statistical sample of a whole population. This had a bunch of advantages:
- It protected me from just getting an echo chamber of my own white middle-class circle.
- Made me be more disciplined in the process
- The result is more relevant to a reader as they get a unique snapshot of where we all are as a population today
No good existing data
I thought I’d start with a breakdown of the religious background of the city as my starting point. I was surprised starting out to find how poor the data on faith in the city really is. All quantitative data is largely self-reported by the different religions, and besides only reports what group people culturally self-identify with, not what they really believe, the two often being far apart. (For instance it will not surprise anyone to hear that many of the people who would tick the “catholic” box if asked their religion, would not be considered catholic by any objective measure based on their actual beliefs)
So I ignored that and just took the census data and picked my interviews based on a representative distribution of Ethnicity, Age, Gender and Location. (I didn’t include children, so adjusted the sample set accordingly). I made a point of getting a representative socio-economic mix but not reporting their income or financial status. Unfortunately too often I find myself unwittingly giving greater respect to the more “successful” people around me and I wanted to avoid that prejudice in presenting the stories.
I set out to do 200 interviews. 200 was enough to be a statistically representative sample of the city (giving me a greater than 95% goodness to fit) and small enough to be manageable. I wanted to do them all face-to-face, personally by me, all with the same open ended conversation and all in the same period of time. (The data-geek part of me wanted consistency). This was the interview question.
Not the weird
Consequently it is not the wacky outliers, it’s the everyday opinions and consequently is probably the most accurate snapshot of what “we” believe right now as a whole. You will not find the weird and wonderful. If I had wanted to paint fantastic pictures of strange cults I am sure I could have dug around and found plenty of them in NYC. But these are the average and normal people, not the professionals; no rabbis, priests or imams. They are less ‘interesting’ individually but more real, representative and consequently more relevant to me.
New York City
New York is not the most average city in the world, but as an example of where the modern multi-cultural world is probably going, it might be the best location. It is also the most famous city on earth so it’s interesting to many people outside the city as well. That’s just luck, not design. I happen to live in (and love) New York City and it was easier for me to do this project here than anywhere else.