Social pressure to appear religious

It turns out that when people are asked by phone about the regularity of their attendance at religious services, they report higher figures than when they are asked on the internet. It is speculated that the internet with its anonymity creates a greater willingness to tell the truth. According to the survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute:

The research shows that every subgroup of Americans inflates their levels of religious participation, with young adults, Catholics and white mainline Protestants particularly likely to inflate the frequency of their attendance at religious services.

In their report titled I Know What You Did Last Sunday: Measuring Social Desirability Bias in Self‐Reported Religious Behavior, Belief, and Identity, the authors suggest reasons for this discrepancy, such as ‘social desirability bias’. In the US religion is associated with morality and pro-social behavior, and respondents may interpret the question as being a proxy for “Am I a good Christian” and answer aspirationally rather than realistically. They think that eliminating the presence of the interviewer, as online surveys do, takes away that pressure.

What I did find particularly interesting is Table 2 that looks at just the religiously unaffiliated. There have been studies that suggest that many in this group hold somewhat traditional religious beliefs and some have referred to them as ‘unchurched believers’ rather than nonbelievers. This study says that this too might be an artifact of the way those interviews were done because compared to the telephone interviews, there was a large increase in the online numbers who said that ‘Religion is not important’ (73% vs. 49%) and those who never attend religious services (68% vs. 36%).


  1. Trebuchet says

    I suspect that no matter how hard you try, you’re going to get a significantly different sample on the phone than on the internet. Older, for one thing. More conservative. Vast numbers of young people don’t have land-line phones but are on the internet constantly.

  2. Lithified Detritus says

    Trebuchet @ 1

    Very true, and this older, not conservative guy will not show up on the phone poll either. I have a land line, but screen all calls. Polls, politicians, solicitors, and salespeople will not be answered.

  3. Mano Singham says

    On page 6 of the report, the authors say that young people also significantly over-report on church attendance in the telephone survey. 31% say they seldom or never go to church compared to 49% on the online survey.

  4. countryboy says

    I wonder why people who don’t really believe claim to do so. I’ve been clear that I’m an unbeliever since I was 20, that’s 44 years now, with no problems of any kind.

  5. Lithified Detritus says

    Mano Singham @ 3

    Interesting. I wonder if young people who still have land lines also tend to be more conservative/old fashioned in other ways. Just speculating…

  6. Scr... Archivist says

    As for the over-reporting, we have seen this before when comparing standard telephone surveys against time diaries. When people report what they do each day, fewer of them report church attendance than you might expect from what people tell interviewers on the phone.

    As for telephone polling in the 2010’s, don’t the pollsters account for age and device?

    Just last week I received a survey call (mostly about Washington politics), and in the demographic portion at the end I said I am an atheist. I knew I had to represent. But from what I read in this comment thread, I guess I am just being a contrarian to have reported this through a real telephone and not one of those tinny little radio phones. At least the pollster and I could actually hear each other without having to yell.

  7. Trebuchet says

    One other problem with telephone surveys is that on the rare occasion I agree take one, I make it a point of lying in about half the answers. I’ll even tell the survey taker I’m going to and they go ahead anyway. I bet I’m not the only one.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    Off-topic, mostly:
    I went to see Million Dollar Arm. It is very formulaic. Not one scene in the entire movie will surprise you. The story centers on an American sports agent whose business is not doing well, so as a last resort he sets out on a tour of India to search for athletes who could be converted into baseball players. Cue culture clash humor. Cue romance with the “right” woman, who is not as good looking as the models he usually dates. As the movie progresses, the agent becomes more thougtful and caring.
    In one very shallow scene of special interest to freethinkers, the Indian ballplayers get the American agent to pray with them. This is supposed to signal that he is becoming more caring and community-oriented. Not once is the fact mentioned that he and they would not be praying to the same gods. Bleep you, Disney.

  9. Mano Singham says


    I read a review of that film that said pretty much the same things you did, other than the praying bit. It looks like something I will skip, despite the cricket angle.

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    One subtle joke of the film is that all of the potential athletes they find in India do not play cricket, so there’s not much cricket at all in the film.

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