Exaggerating church attendance

Today is Sunday when good Christians should be going to church. But while many do, more of them say they will be going while choosing to stay at home. A new report issued by the Public Religion Research Institute confirms something that has long been suspected, that people in the US tend to inflate their religiosity, in particular their attendance in church on Sunday.


Self-reported worship attendance between 2003 and 2013 is remarkably stable. In 2003, 39% of Americans reported attending religious services at least once a week, a rate comparable to the 37% who reported weekly attendance in 2013.1 The rate of those who report seldom or never attending exhibited only a modest increase over the same time period (25% to 29%). In fact, previous work has shown that self-reported religious participation has been relatively unchanged at least as far back as the mid 1970s (Hout and Greeley 1987).

However, the high level of self-reported religious participation in public opinion surveys is in tension with the mounting evidence of declining religious vitality in the U.S. Previous work has demonstrated the long slow decline experienced by many mainline Protestant denominations (Roof and McKinney 1987), and more recently some evangelical Christian denominations began facing shrinking membership as well.

The preponderance of evidence suggests that traditional survey questions that measure religious service attendance produce inflated rates of religious participation.

The researchers surveyed people using different methods and found that the relatively more anonymous online surveys produced lower rates of church attendance than telephone surveys with a live interviewer. “Online survey respondents are nearly twice as likely to report never attending religious services as those interviewed on a telephone (21% vs. 12%) ”

The researchers attribute this over-reporting of both religious attendance and the salience of religion in people’s lives to ‘social desirability bias’, the tendency to tell other people that they conform to expected norms. What is interesting is that this bias exists even among those who identify themselves as unaffiliated.

PRRI survey

So even those who say they are unaffiliated with religion seem to succumb to the pressure of the social desirability bias.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    I’ve attended an exaggerating church, a few of them in fact.

    Dunno where you could find any other kind.

  2. Smokey says

    Aren’t most telephone surveys done through landline phones? You know, those old-fashioned tethered-to-the-wall things mostly used by the older generations.

    Online surveys depends on a familiarity with relatively new information and communications technology. A field where the younger generations excel.

    And aren’t older people more religious than younger people?

    I don’t think it’s about anonymity, I think it’s about age.

  3. Menyambal says

    Smokey @ 2. Good point. I know when I used to do phone surveys we almost always had landline numbers, and the folks who had cell phones were seldom cooperative.

  4. StonedRanger says

    @Smokey #2
    Im 61 and I have a landline phone. Ive been on the internet for 20 years now. I am an atheist for over 50 years. Thanks for your ageist stereotyping post. Most of the people I know anywhere around my age have also been on the internet for like amounts of time. I do not have a cell phone because I do not consider myself to be so important that I must be ‘on call’ all the time. My internet is provided by my home PC. To say that anything internet is not about anonymity is to deny the very nature of the internet.

  5. blf says

    Also — I have no idea — is there such as thing as an on-line poll which is not self-selecting? Is there any reason to think the reported data isn’t from self-selected respondents?

  6. Mano Singham says


    All polls are self-selected in that the respondents must choose to accept the offer to take part. But those where people are selected to be asked is different from those online polls where anyone can respond.

  7. Mano Singham says

    I think that the difference with landline phones is that the older ones did not have a caller ID and so people answered all the calls and thus could be reached by pollsters. Cell phones and even landline phones now have the caller ID feature. But for me I still had the habit of just picking up the call without looking. It seemed rude somehow not to answer, like ignoring someone who speaks to you. It took me a while to get into the habit of first looking at the number calling and then developing the will power to ignore any number that I did not recognize and let it roll over to the answering machine.

  8. Roj says

    Aren’t poll numbers a waste of time? If you compare these poll results with actual church attendance numbers, actual church attendance is only 50% of what people report (20% vs 40&). This applies in Canada as well, where 20% claim they attend church every week, but only 10% actually do.

  9. Holms says

    The researchers attribute this over-reporting of both religious attendance and the salience of religion in people’s lives to ‘social desirability bias’, the tendency to tell other people that they conform to expected norms. What is interesting is that this bias exists even among those who identify themselves as unaffiliated.

    Unsurprising; the unaffiliated still live in a nation steeped with the expectation that people be religious.

  10. Holms says

    It is not ageist nor stereotyping to note trends along demographic lines.

    Noting that landline use is dominated by older people (and mobile phone use is dominated by younger people) is not stereotyping, it is an observation. Stereotyping would be to assume that as an older person, you don’t have a mobile phone because you’re ‘too old’ to know how to use it.

    Noting that familiarity with the internet is more associated with younger people (and using this to infer that the age of respondants to an online survey skew similarly) is not stereotyping, it is an observation. Stereotyping would be to assume that as an older person, you’re too old to be familiar with the internet.

    [Repeat similarly for religiosity]

  11. lorn says

    Over-reporting of religiosity is certainly a possibility.

    Another is that poorer people, disproportionately religious, don’t spend much time on line. A rough estimate is that in the neighborhood more than half the people don’t have access to a computer. They might go on line with their smart phones, most have smart phones, but it is to deal with social service agencies or occasionally visit a specific site for a specific reason. They don’t do it often and they don’t spend much time doing it. They rarely really surf the web in a random and light-hearted way as many a dedicated computer user often does.

  12. Smokey says

    I’m 55, have a landline and mobile phone, and have been on the internet since before the WWW. The first game I played was Breakout on my Apple ][ in 1993. All of which is completely and utterly irrelevant to the matter at hand.

    From my admittedly incomplete and subjective observations, the “ageist” (is that some kind of reference to racism?) stereotype is firmly based in today’s reality. That will change in the future, but the stereotype will remain. That is the time to reject it. Generally, young people don’t know how to operate a dialing phone, and don’t even know where the expression “dial” comes from. And they wouldn’t recognize a fax machine if it bit them in the ass, just as I have never seen a Telex machine in the wild. Young children are surprised that pictures in paper-based magazines are not interactive, like on the iPads they are already familiar with. And yes, many old people use the internet, and many young people have landline phones. They are still in the minority.

    Undeniably, different generations have grown up with different technologies. I still prefer my stationary PC for all things internet, while the next generation prefer their mobile phones. The move from landline to mobile-only is a relatively slow process in my generation, while the next generation won’t even consider anything else than mobile phones. The people I know from the previous generation have no idea how to send text messages, and prefer the classic “Nokia-style” mobile phones to smartphones.

    The results will be skewed depending on how the survey is implemented, and different demographics will respond to different technologies, just as survey results will be different from state to state.

    The correlation between technology and religiosity in the survey is obvious, but there are several possible explanations for that. I question the focus on just one single explanation to the exclusion of any else.

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