In the wake of the recent Pew survey that found about 20% of Americans to be “nones” and about 5% who are atheists or agnostics, NPR has an interesting story that suggests that many people exaggerate the extent of their religiosity on such surveys.
About 50% say they attend church every week, but that almost certainly is not true. NPR talked to a sociologist named Phillip Brenner, who said that if you ask people if they attend church regularly the answer will usually be yes — but that yes may be to a different question:
PHILIP BRENNER: The question that asks how often do you attend becomes a question like: Are the sort of person who attends? The respondent hears the question how often do you attend and interprets the question to be: Are you the sort of person who attends?
INSKEEP: What you’re really finding out here is I think I’m the sort of person who should attend church and I don’t want to admit otherwise, so I might tell you I go, whether I do or not.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. So the question is about your behavior. What is it you’re doing? The answer might be about people’s identity. Am I the kind of person who attends church?
And if you actually chart what people do rather than ask them an open question like that, the results are different:
VEDANTAM: Yeah. So Brenner has been playing with this idea called the Time Diary Method, and he’s been following studies that have used this Time Diary Method. And let me tell you what that is.
So, rather than tell people you’re asking about their church attendance, what you do is you march people through their week and have them describe to you exactly what they’re doing at any given moment. So you say: What were you doing at four o’clock in the morning on Sunday? And most people will say: I was asleep. And then you ask them: What did you do next? Who were you with? Where did you go?
And when you march people through the week in this manner, it turns out only about 24 percent of Americans actually report attending religious services in the past week. And Brenner told me there’s two things that’s very interesting about this. What this suggests is that in actual religious practice, Americans might not be that different from people in Western Europe when it comes to what they do, but they might be very different for people in Western Europe when it comes to reporting what they do.
BRENNER: Americans significantly over-report their church attendance, and have consistently done that since the 1970s. But we don’t see substantive over-reporting in Western Europe.
I suspect this is all accurate. I think a lot of Americans claim to be Christians because Christianity is a cultural assumption. It’s more a question of tribal identity than actual belief. Richard Dawkins often refers to these people as “functional atheists,” which I think goes too far, but I do think there are a lot of people out there who claim to be Christian only because they think being a Christian makes them a member of the tribe they want to be a part of. And this is another reason why being out as an atheist is important, because it leads to people not treating religious belief as such a strong tribal marker.