Field of Science

Americans: not as religious as they think they are

We're used to hearing that America is an exceptional nation when it comes to religion. Certainly, the hold that religion has over public life is unparalleled among wealthy nations, and most Americans readily tell pollsters that they are dutifully religious.

But it seems that American religiosity might also be exceptional for quite another reason. It turns out that the gap between what they tell pollsters and what they actually do is bigger than for any other nation.

We've known for a long time that, when asked, people report going to Church more than they actually do. That's not too surprising. It's well known that, when you ask questions that relate to personal esteem, people will tend to tell you what they wish was true, rather than what actually is true.

They tell you what they want to believe.

Philip Brenner, at the University of Michigan, set out to see if this gap, between reports and reality, was the same in all countries. He used data from a variety of surveys, and compared it to so-called "time use" studies. These studies ask participants to write down each day what they have been doing.

He found that Americans say they go to Church about twice as often as they actually do. That's pretty similar to what has been found in other studies.

In other countries, however, the gap was much smaller - in fact, for many of them, it was non-existent (the bar chart only shows the worst offenders). It's not a recent phenomenon either. Brenner plots graphs for each of the 14 countries he studied. The graph for the USA shows a pretty consistent gap for the past 40 years (the paper isn't yet published, but I'll put the graphs up when it is).

Compare that with the Netherlands, where Church attendance has gradually declined, with polling surveys and time-use reports pretty much matched all the way.

Broadly speaking, there were three kinds of countries. Those where Church attendance is steadily falling (Netherlands, West Germany, France Slovenia, Spain, Austria, Ireland), those where Church Attendance has always been low (East Germany, Norway, Finland, Britain), and one (Italy) with a more complex picture.

But only the USA and Canada showed a marked gap between reported Church attendance and reality. Why should that be? According to Brenner:
When you ask people if they attended church, they hear that question pragmatically. They reflect on their identity as a religious person and they want to honestly report their identity as a religious person.
So I think they are being honest with how they understand the question: ‘Are you the sort of person who attends religious services?’ is what they think they hear and they say yes.

So could it really be that could be that religion is an important part of identity in these countries but not in Europe? Possibly, but I don't really think that's the case in Canada. Certainly not when compared to Ireland and Italy!

So there must be something else in North American culture that prompts people to say they are more dutifully religious than they really are. It beats me what that could be - but, perhaps, whatever it is is the same factor that make religion so resilient in those countries?

ResearchBlogging.orgBrenner, Philip S. (2011). Exceptional behavior or exceptional identity? Overreporting of church attendance in the US Public Opinion Quarterly: In press

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. As you probably know, Tom, this is just the latest in a long string of papers that began with Hadaway, C. Kirk, Penny Long Marler, and Mark Chaves. 1993. “What the Polls Don't Show: A Closer Look At U.S. Church Attendance.” American Sociological Review 58: 741–752.

    In their pioneering paper, Hadaway et al. compared survey reports (where people had told an interviewer how often they go to church) with hard physical data about where people actually were. In one study, they picked a county in Ohio and physically counted the people actually sitting in the pews in all the Catholic churches in the county on a given Sunday. Half as many people could be found in church as had reported "always" going to Sunday services. A series of other studies yielded the same estimate. Protestant and Catholic churches were only half as full as would be predicted from the surveys.

    The authors concluded (p. 751): "Perhaps there should be a moratorium on claims about the singularity of the United States in terms of church attendance."

    Verification of this result became a small industry, and there is a marvelous string of papers all supporting it. You can find them by looking for papers that cite this first one.

    Let me note in closing that none of these researchers had a bone to pick with religion. They are the backbone of the sociology-of-religion community. They like religion. Most of their salaries are funded by religious institutions. They want all these churches they are studying to succeed. So let no one accuse them of bias against the church-attending population. If they have any bias, it is in favor of religion and churches and people who go to church.

  2. Church isn't that much of a religion thing in Ireland so much as it is a traditional and social thing. The church on Sunday, have a chat outside when its done and then to the pub with family and friends. Its a social gathering more than a loyalty to faith. There are people who do go for the whole God thing though... :)

  3. Fun. I wonder if that insight will change polling techniques so they get the correct answer the first time. Can you ask leading questions that help the person say "YES, I am religious" and then, after they have affirmed the important issue for them, ask them, "As a deeply religious person, how often to you attend church". Or some better question.

  4. There's a good piece on all of the other studies showing similar things - in the US - at Slate.

  5. The theory that the respondents are interpreting an attendance question as an identity question doesn't really hold up. It's plausible when the question is a general "Do you attend church services?".

    But when they lie when asked specifically "Did you attend this week?", it seems more likely they don't want the questioner to know they didn't.

    IOW, they are misrepresenting their dedication and/or strength of commitment to their religion, in a way that makes them appear "better" (as measured by social expectations).

  6. Fascinating - and well said!

    But saying that they're less religious than they say they are is a bit of a stretch. The one thing Christianity affords its followers is absolution from the sin of lying about it...

    They can still claim religious rights and persecute non-believers without going to church.

    The one positive thing we can glean from this is that they won't be donating as much to the coffers of the church.


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