Pray tell: Americans stretching the truth about church attendance

December 1, 2010

A new University of Michigan study finds that Americans are much more likely to exaggerate their attendance at religious services than are people in many other countries.

"Americans have long been viewed as exceptionally religious compared to other nations in the developed world," said Philip Brenner, a research fellow at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and the author of the study. "But this study suggests that American may be exceptional not in terms of actual behavior, but rather in terms of identity.

"In the U.S., and to a lesser extent in Canada, the gap between what we say and what we do is substantial, and has been so for the last several decades."

The study appears in the forthcoming Public Opinion Quarterly.

For the study, Brenner analyzed two types of evdence about religiosity for each country: conventional survey questions asking respondents how often they attend , and time diary data recording Sunday activities. The data, covering a period from 1975 to 2008, came from a variety of time use studies and cross-cultural surveys, including the ISR World Values Surveys and the American National Election Studies.

In addition to the United States and Canada, the countries studied were the Netherlands, Germany, France, Norway, Finland, Slovenia, Spain, Austria, Italy, Great Britain and Ireland.

While conventional survey data show high and stable American church attendance rates of about 35 to 45 percent, the time diary data over the past decade reveal attendance rates of just 24 to 25 percent---a figure in line with a number of European countries.

America maintains a gap of 10 to 18 percentage points between what people say they do on survey questions, and what time diary data says they actually do, Brenner reports. The gaps in Canada resemble those in America, and in both countries, gaps are both statistically and substantively significant.

Outside of North America, the largest gaps are found in the Catholic countries of Europe, but even in high-attendance Ireland, the gap only ranges from about 4 to 8 points.

"The consistency and magnitude of the American gap in light of the multiple sources of conventional survey data suggests a substantive difference between North America and Europe in overreporting."

Given these findings, Brenner notes, any discussion of exceptional American religious practice should be cautious in using terms like outlier and in characterizing American self-reported attendance rates from conventional surveys as accurate reports of behavior. Rather, while still relatively high, American attendance looks more similar to a number of countries in Europe, after accounting for over-reporting.

"American religion may however, be considered exceptional in a new way in light of these findings: unlike the other countries examined, American behavior continues its consistent failure to match self-reported rates. American religiosity as an outlier is a concept that may be better applied to identity and self-concept rather than behavior," he said.

Explore further: Study: U.S. church attendance steady, but makeup of churchgoers changes

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3.8 / 5 (4) Dec 01, 2010
What a surprise... Another reported source of this discrepancy is the rate of attendance at churches, which is steadily falling, especially at "social" megachurches, which are reporting bankruptcies.

People do good because they're built that way, not because God says so.

Don't worry. If churches and gods go away, we'll still be nice.
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 01, 2010
I wonder how many of them are closet atheists who are afraid to speak up? Christians like to characterize atheists in the usa as both immoral and small in number. Neither is true. More people in this country need to reject the christ fairytale and actually speak their minds. I suspect improving the basic reasoning skills taught in our educational system would help us shed the useless baggage of religion more quickly. That is why theists are so determined to undermine the public schools and why we constantly see them throwing tantrums when ID/creationism isn't taught alongside evolution. A belief in science is corrosive to a belief in god, and they know it. Why give up all of that political clout and tax benefits just because your belief system is based on bronze age superstitions? That's the american way!
2.2 / 5 (5) Dec 02, 2010
Closet atheists my word. At schools kids are afraid to speak up and say they are christians. It is the athiests that are damaging basic reasoning skills at schools, dont dare question progressive and expecially athiest orthodoxy. Then there is the minority athiests that demand their way to get rid of Christmas and throw a tantrums when someone says Merry Christmas, or Christmas Tree.

As for the Social Megachurches failing, I wont shed a tear. They are more concerned with making people feel good, not about teaching good things.
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 02, 2010
Closet atheists....ROFLMFAO...that's a good one!

Thanks I needed a good laugh.
not rated yet Dec 02, 2010
This is christian skewed. Where are the results for all of the non-sunday religions?
3 / 5 (2) Dec 02, 2010
Closet atheists....ROFLMFAO...that's a good one!

Thanks I needed a good laugh.


Keep laughing. They exist.

At schools kids are afraid to speak up and say they are christians.
Unless they go to school in the Muslim district of Detroit, I highly doubt that.
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 03, 2010
SH, I think you should be renamed igorant skeptic.

Its safer being an progressive athiest secular humanist in school than a conservative christian. Most conservative parents are scared of the school system and with good reason and with many examples.

Even your example why should it matter if they go to a public school in the Muslim district of Detroit, or in the athiest center in Seattle or San Francisco.

You don't think a Conservative Christian Kid would be ridiculed if they stood up during sex ed class and said they believe sex should only be between husband and wife, that unborn babies have a right to life. Or what about in biology class, if they said they understand the theory of evolution but don't believe it because of xy and z. Or in History class a catholic student stand up and says contrary to what is being taught, the crusades were a reaction to muslim agression.

Come on SH, at least be truthful, you may not agree with what conservative christians believe
1 / 5 (2) Dec 03, 2010
but your ignorance of what is going on in schools is beyond belief. Denying the discrimination that conservatives and christians face in the public school system hurts even athiests, because some athiests have conservative beliefs, and if they go outside of the lockstep of progressive thought, they too will have trouble.
5 / 5 (2) Dec 04, 2010
Its safer being an progressive athiest secular humanist in school than a conservative christian. Most conservative parents are scared of the school system and with good reason and with many examples.
FOX news lies are not good reason. Again, Christians are the majority in the country, no one is persecuted out of school for their religion. You'll have to show a few cases where it has happened. I can show quite a few cases where gays and non-religious have been pushed out of the school system by Christians.
Come on SH, at least be truthful, you may not agree with what conservative christians believe
It's not my fault if you teach your child lies. If you taught your kid that the earth is flat and he took that to science class, I'd expect him to be laughed at. Enforced ignorance is scorned because it is scorn worthy. Don't blame the schools when you make your child stupid.
not rated yet Dec 05, 2010
This article's findings are to be expected in a country where you have to go to church to be elected to public office or have morals. Funny, seems to be an inherent conflict between those 2.

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