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Americans Pretend to Be More Religious Than They Are

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.

Comments

  1. says

    I suspect a similar effect is at work in all those “creation vs. evolution” polls: we’re over-reporting our religiosity, and identifying ourselves as “believers” when in reality we either don’t care about our origins or quietly accept evolution.

  2. jaime says

    Interesting. The church I work for compiled a lot of similar studies awhile ago, and came to pretty much the same conclusion.

  3. harrysanborn says

    I’m not even sure they want to be part of the Christian tribe for it’s own sake. I don’t think they are seeking belonging, community, etc., but rather they want other people to identify them as “good”. I’ll go so far as to say many of these people have a cultural idea that one ought to go to church, and they feel like others may perceive them as bad for not doing what one ought. At the very least, it puts them beyond reproach. Here, it’s awfully safe to say you go to church. It’s a little more dicey otherwise.

  4. blf says

    (I haven’t read any of the links, so apologies if this is answered…)

    Does the effect depend on stated system of fairy tales?

    That is, are xians more prone to over-report fairytaleosity than, say, Jews? Buddhists? Muslims? …?

  5. naturalcynic says

    Dontcha’ know God’ll getcha’ if you’re lying? It seems that “functional atheist” may not be that far from the truth, since their actions speak louder than their words. They act as though it doesn’t matter if there is a little stretching to make once every three weeks into once every week. The neighbors will remember if they see you going to church at least some sundays, so that will meet with their approval, so that’s what really counts.

  6. says

    Interesting, but not very surprising. What else should you expect in a country that has for decades tried to make “patriot” and “Christian” synonymous?

  7. machintelligence says

    This is an example of what Daniel Dennett refers to as “belief in belief”. Although these people have no real belief in God, they think it is important to have belief in a supreme being, for other folks, if not for them. Note that the Boy Scouts do not officially believe in God (they don’t care which one you believe in) but rather require a belief in God(s). The problem is that it is usually impossible to tell which people really believe in God and which merely profess belief.

  8. slc1 says

    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.

    Actually, I think that cultural Christian is a more accurate description, even though MH vehemently rejects it.

  9. says

    @machintelligence in #9: I don’t think that this is necessarily an example of “belief in belief”. After all, professing a “belief in belief” doesn’t require you to go to church, and doesn’t require you to pretend to go to church more than you actually do. It seems more likely a result of a desire to conform to the norms of society, or to avoid ostracization.

    Besides, “belief in belief” is common in Europe too, and yet, according to the interview, church attendance isn’t over reported there. Any attempt at explaining why people in the US over report their attendance should take into account the big differences between the US and Europe in self-reporting church attendance.

    My personal guess is that this might be related to the fact that Europe never went through a Red Scare, McArthy-ist phase like the US did.

  10. Michael Heath says

    slc1 writes:

    Actually, I think that cultural Christian is a more accurate description, even though MH vehemently rejects it.

    slc1 does not accurately describe me or what I think. In this case his misrepresentation of me here is both the premises and the conclusions I’ve made in the past on this subject.

    I remain disappointed slc1 resorts to lying about others.

  11. matty1 says

    Just to be clear this doesn’t tell us anything about whether these people believe in God or not. They might be closet atheists but they might.

    – Think God doesn’t want them to go to church
    – Think God will forgive them for not going, so why worry
    – Think God only really cares if they go on special occasions
    – Feel guilty about not finding the time to go

    etc, etc.

    I agree the cultural difference is interesting. In America it sounds like the default is to identify as a church going Christian, by contrast in the UK the default is more along the lines of ‘There might be someone in charge who sent your gran to a nice place when she died but it’s weird to think too much about that stuff’

  12. machintelligence says

    Deen @ 14

    My personal guess is that this might be related to the fact that Europe never went through a Red Scare, McArthy-ist phase like the US did.

    I agree, and the events of 9/11 changed things significantly. No longer were the godless communists our arch-enemies, but rather the God besotted fundamental religionists. Suddenly being nonreligious was almost patriotic.

  13. Sastra says

    I think that the desire to be the kind of person who believes in God actually causes a lot of people to really believe in God — or, at least, sincerely believe they do. They choose a “side” and then rationalize their way into it, using imagination and motivation.

    Look at the popularity of arguments for God which either weigh heavily on the need to have a moral compass, or the desire to have an afterlife, or the longing to express appreciation, or other comforting benefits of belief. They don’t treat the existence of God like a conclusion — they treat concluding there is a God like a virtue. You want to be the kind of person who does that. It means you’re sensitive, trustworthy, and thoughtful. You want some of that.

    I don’t think most people are just pretending to be religious when they want to be like a religious person. I think they successfully blur the inner distinction between what sort of person believes and whether the belief is true. I mean, that’s practically a description of religious faith. You treat fact claims like meaning claims. If you want the meaning, then the fact follows along.

    That’s why new atheism is so intent on de-coupling identity from religious belief. It’s not only a matter of clarity and integrity in understanding and thought. It’s also that, no matter what the religion or spiritual path, the kind of person who “wants to be an atheist” is always an ugly sort of person. The only way to change that picture is to break the frame.

  14. machintelligence says

    They don’t treat the existence of God like a conclusion — they treat concluding there is a God like a virtue. You want to be the kind of person who does that.

    Exactly my point about the Boy Scouts. A Scout is reverent (among all the other virtues.)

  15. says

    A Scout is reverent (among all the other virtues.)

    And is kicked out for being a non-believer (among other reasons for being kicked out). However, Sastra makes an important point in #15 that I failed to make in #11: it’s not so much a matter of people making a calculated decision to feign belief to follow the norms of society, but rather of people internalizing those norms. Of course, the fact that these norms can and do get strictly policed in society does contribute to the pressure to want to find the necessary rationalizations in the first place.

  16. machintelligence says

    And is kicked out for being a non-believer (among other reasons for being kicked out)

    I actually had a plan for that in case it came up while my son was in Scouts. (He dropped out before it became an issue.) He would profess a belief in Thor and use his “hammer mjollnir” to squash a bug every Thursday (Thor’s day) to give him a blood sacrifice. I’m sure that they would realize that they were being gamed, but how could they prove it? If asked if he believed Thor was real, he could answer “as real as any other God” and be telling the truth.
    I was a little disappointed he never got to claim that he liked that old time religion.

  17. reedcartwright says

    I had jury duty once for a civil case in which several local churches had gotten involved. (It had to do with residents of a trailer park getting scammed and evicted when ownership changed.) Therefore, one of the questions ask was whether we attended church regularly or were active in any similar organization. Only about 20% of the jury pool said they were, and most of them were older African Americans.

  18. wscott says

    @ harrysanborn 4 and Sastra 15: Exactly. Conventional Wisdom equates religious (or at least spiritual) with good/moral, and godless with immoral. So it’s no surprise that people want to think of themselves as religious/spiritual even if it has no significant role in their lives. That’s why I think the “You Can Be Good Without God” message is so important.

    @ Deen 11: Well, Europe has had their anti-communist scares too, but more in the first half of the 20th century. Never mind the long history of pogroms, witch hunts, and other scares going back thousands of years. The fact that these “_____ Scares” are further in Europe’s past may be a contributing factor, but I think it’s an oversimplification to say that they never went through such phases.

    Ignoring the obviously inflated self-reporting numbers, estimates on actual church attendance in the US is around 20-26% (depending on what studies you read). Which is still roughly twice what it is in Europe. So “belief in belief” isn’t the only factor here, but it’s obviously a significant one.

  19. machintelligence says

    He’s quite right, Sastra. Also it was a pleasure to meet you at the American Atheists convention in Denver.

  20. geocatherder says

    My mother was a very devout Catholic, who escaped going to church whenever she could, because the ritual never meant much to her. She’d be unlikely to miss a neighborhood Wednesday evening Rosary meeting, though, because praying that sequence of prayers, especially in a group, was very important to her.

    My parents-in-law are strong Christians, who hold with some evangelical ideas and some more progressive ones. They see churches as man-made organizations that judge people based on non-biblical principles, and are full of cliques and gossiping. Except for weddings and funerals, they haven’t darkened the door of a church in years. My sibs-in-law run the gamut from staunch churchgoers to progressive Christian non-goers.

    My closest U.S. cousins profess to be spiritual but not religious; of the extended family in the U.S., only husband and I, and his nephew and girlfriend, are admitted atheists. (The Norwegian side of the family are all Humanists.)

    But I am/was related to a lot of non-church-going people who are definitely Christians. OTOH, I can’t see any of these people lying about how often they go to church. They’re too down on churches.

  21. Rip Steakface says

    @18

    I remember looking through the Scout Handbook when I was still in there about 7 years ago and seeing that Asatru, the modern name for the ancient Norse religion, is officially sanctioned. I instantly thought “if it ever comes up, I’ll just say I’m a Viking.”

  22. mildlymagnificent says

    And there’d be a significant number, make your own guess, who say they go to church weekly, and mean it.

    Unfortunately, someone has to take sonny to swimming-athletics-drama classes, grandma likes us to arrive early when she cooks a family Sunday lunch, the children’s friends often have Saturday night sleepovers or Sunday birthday parties, one of us has to work sometimes on Sundays, and a hundred other things. Next thing you know you’ve got people who think of themselves as going to church every-Sunday-except-when…. missing 6 or 8 weeks straight without even noticing.

    Which does show that their commitment to regular worship is not very committed.

  23. dingojack says

    Here‘s another theory of why people go to to church, temple, synagogue, mosque or whatever. It’s about family.
    (Note the comparison to Australia).
    Dingo

  24. John Phillips, FCD says

    dingojack, there was an interesting program on the beeb last week, still available on iPlayer until this Sat (Nov 3) for those in the UK or those not in the UK but who can use a proxy of some kind, it’s also on NGs. It’s called Family Guys? What Sitcoms Say About America Now. Ironically, made by a Brit living partly in the US, which while about the US family in general as seen through sitcoms, made that very point about religion ‘glueing’ the American family together.

  25. John Phillips, FCD says

    oops, hit submit before ready. Last sentence should have read

    Ironically, made by a Brit living partly in the US, which while about the US family in general as seen through sitcoms, made that very point about religion ‘glueing’ the American family together and one of the reasons it remained so important, compared to the rest of the West.

  26. says

    “My personal guess is that this might be related to the fact that Europe never went through a Red Scare, McArthy-ist phase like the US did.”

    numerous dead trade unionists, killed during periods of labor unrest in western europe, between the late 1800’s and the mid-40’s might disagree.

  27. says

    My personal guess is that this might be related to the fact that Europe never went through a Red Scare, McArthy-ist phase like the US did.

    Come to think of it, they DID have their “McCarthyist” witch-hunts — the absolute worst of these being in Germany between 1933 and 1945.

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