The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

The Religious in the United States… Aren’t So Religious, After All

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 4, 2011

To conclude my marathon posting of religious matters (see the first two posts here and here), I wanted to share with you something very revealing about religion in the United States.  By now, I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard that the U.S. is the most overtly religious country in all of the industrialized, Western nations.  You hear this claim repeated long & loud, on both the right and left; it is a constant drumbeat which goes on and on… except, as I have long suspected, it may not be true at all.

In a recent article on the Slate website, a detailed analysis of various polls & surveys on this question is broken down, and it makes a key distinction: what is it that people say they do/believe versus what is people’s actual behavior/beliefs?  The results are very revealing, and seem to indicate that the U.S. probably isn’t as overtly religious as previously thought…

Walking Santa, Talking Christ

Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?

By Shankar VedantamPosted Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010, at 5:13 PM ET

Two in five Americans say they regularly attend religious services. Upward of 90 percent of all Americans believe in God, pollsters report, and more than 70 percent have absolutely no doubt that God exists. The patron saint of Christmas, Americans insist, is the emaciated hero on the Cross, not the obese fellow in the overstuffed costume.

There is only one conclusion to draw from these numbers: Americans are significantly more religious than the citizens of other industrialized nations.

Except they are not.

Beyond the polls, social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses of religious behavior. Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are. …

The bottom line is that church attendance in the U.S. may be drastically over-reported, by as much as twice the actual attendance rate!  This basically means that while about 40% of people in the United States claim they attend church weekly, only about 20% actually do so…

… Hadaway and his colleagues compared actual attendance counts with church members’ reports about their attendance in 18 Catholic dioceses across the country and Protestants in a rural Ohio county.* They found that actual “church attendance rates for Protestants and Catholics are approximately one half” of what people reported.

A few years later, another study estimated how often Americans attended church by asking them to minutely document how they spent their time on Sundays. Without revealing that they were interested in religious practices, researchers Stanley Presser and Linda Stinson asked questions along these lines: “I would like to ask you about the things you did yesterday from midnight Saturday to midnight last night. Let’s start with midnight Saturday. What were you doing? What time did you finish? Where were you? What did you do next?”

This neutral interviewing method produced far fewer professions of church attendance. Compared to the “time-use” technique, Presser and Stinson found that nearly 50 percent more people claimed they attended services when asked the type of question that pollsters ask: “Did you attend religious services in the last week?”

In a more recent study, Hadaway estimated that if the number of Americans who told Gallup pollsters that they attended church in the last week were accurate, about 118 million Americans would be at houses of worship each week. By calculating the number of congregations (including non-Christian congregations) and their average attendance, Hadaway estimated that in reality about 21 percent of Americans attended religious services weekly—exactly half the number who told pollsters they did. …

So, to the confirmation of many a non-believer (such as myself), it seems that there are a LOT of people out there who – for some reason – want to have people believe they are more religious than they really are, despite their actual beliefs (or non-belief).  This seems to indicate that the level of religiosity in the U.S. which has been so widely reported in the past is likely a convenient fiction, which activists of all stripes like to use to whip people up into a frenzy regarding issues of faith & politics.

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2 Responses to “The Religious in the United States… Aren’t So Religious, After All”

  1. Andrea said

    Have they done the same time-use study in other countries? Maybe they are all overreporting church attendance as well.

    • mattusmaximus said

      Yes, they did. If you read the original Slate article, it states:

      … Finally, in a brand new paper, Philip Brenner at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research compared self-reported attendance at religious services with “time-use” interviews in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Norway, Finland, Slovenia, Italy, Spain, Austria, Ireland, and Great Britain. Brenner looked at nearly 500 studies over four decades, involving nearly a million respondents.

      Brenner found that the United States and Canada were outliers—not in religious attendance, but in overreporting religious attendance. Americans attended services about as often as Italians and Slovenians and slightly more than Brits and Germans. The significant difference between the two North American countries and other industrialized nations was the enormous gap between poll responses and time-use studies in those two countries. …

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