How Religious are Americans? Not as Much as You Think.

Americans are famously religious compared to other countries in the West.  But new studies have peeked behind the curtain to determine how religious Americans really are.

Turns out: not so much.

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 question “How often do you go to church?” confronts Americans in ways that it doesn’t elsewhere in the West.  They see it as a question with a correct answer, and this has skewed poll results.

What else does this need to give the “correct” answer hide?  If Americans fib when reporting their church attendance, might they be doing the same when answering questions about their own belief?  Perhaps this explains the dramatic rise in the number of “Nones” (those who check “None of the Above” on religious surveys).  We may not be seeing a loss of faith but an increase in honesty.

Clues to this mismatch between poll results and reality have been glaring for a while.

Even as pundits theorized about why Americans were so much more religious than Europeans, quiet voices on the ground asked how, if so many Americans were attending services, the pews of so many churches could be deserted.

In fact, actual church attendance is about half what people report.

We may have been asking the wrong question.  Instead of, “Why are Americans so much more religious?” the more pointed question may be, “Why are Americans so much more compelled to portray themselves as religious?”  If we can tear down some of the barriers to honesty, helping them feel comfortable being open about their disbelief, religious Americans might be able to be open about their true beliefs.  Or lack thereof.

Photo credit: Mark Bridge

Related articles:

  • Shankar Vedantam, “Walking Santa, Talking Christ,” Slate, 12/22/10.

10 thoughts on “How Religious are Americans? Not as Much as You Think.

  1. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has eyes. This exactly confirms what I have been saying for years; that polls are not measurements of what people believe, but rather what they want the pollsters to THINK that they believe.
    Naturally, the reliance on unreliable sources like polls is heavily supported by religious groups, as it falsely inflates their membership figures to give the impression that America is more religious than, say, Europe.
    This simply illustrates that it is vital to look at what people DO, and not merely at what they SAY.
    Most surveys and studies, (attested to, unfortunately, by our political establishment) fail to grasp this essential difference between words and deeds.

  2. It begs the question: “How many people are on the fence or close to it?” If those numbers were a part of the poll it would be even more interesting. If there was a sizable chunk… all the more reason to raise the visibility of the movement.

  3. Pingback: What do Churches Have to Hide? | Galileo Unchained

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