Amer­i­cans tend to fib about church at­ten­dance, study shows

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY MERED­ITH SOMERS

Amer­i­can church­go­ers tend to fib about how of­ten they ac­tu­ally go to church, re­gard­less of their de­nom­i­na­tion, a re­cent study shows.

A sur­vey by the Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute shows that Amer­i­cans are more likely to over­es­ti­mate their at­ten­dance at re­li­gious ser­vices if they are asked about it by some­one on the phone, com­pared to an­swer­ing the ques­tion on­line.

The study found that 36 per­cent of people sur­veyed by phone said they at­tended a re­li­gious ser­vice “weekly or more,” com­pared to 31 per­cent who took the sur­vey on­line. Daniel Cox, the in­sti­tute’s re­search di­rec­tor, said the re­sults point to the phe­nom­e­non as just a nor­mal part of be­ing re­li­gious.

“That’s strongly felt across re­li­gious tra­di­tions,” Mr. Cox said. “Even among the un­af­fil­i­ated, the group that will tell the in­ter­view­ers they’re not any­thing in par­tic­u­lar, yet they don’t want to never ad­mit to go­ing to church or syn­a­gogue.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing, this sort of so­cial in­flu­ence that per­vades. It’s sort of ev­i­dent of the cul­tural im­por­tance that re­li­gion has and continues to have.”

About 33 per­cent of tele­phone re­spon­dents said they “oc­ca­sion­ally” at­tend re­li­gious ser­vices, com­pared to 25 per­cent on­line. And about 30 per­cent of tele­phone re­spon­dents said they sel­dom or never at­tend ser­vices, com­pared to 43 per­cent of on­line sur­vey tak­ers.

That pat­tern ap­plied for nearly all of the sur­veyed groups, which in­cluded white evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tants, black Protes­tants, white main­line Protes­tants, Catholics, and the “un­af­fil­i­ated.” (Fol­low­ers of other reli­gions such as Ju­daism and Is­lam were not suf­fi­ciently rep­re­sented in the ran­dom­sam­ple sur­vey for re­sults to be de­ter­mined.)

“Be­cause re­li­gious be­hav­iors such as re­li­gious ser­vice at­ten­dance are widely re­garded as pos­i­tive, self-re­ported be­hav­ior is sus­cep­ti­ble to ex­ag­ger­a­tion,” the study found. “The prob­lem of so­cial de­sir­abil­ity bias is most pro­nounced when re­spon­dents be­lieve they are shar­ing the in­for­ma­tion pub­licly, such as when ques­tions are posed di­rectly by an in­ter­viewer.”

The re­search in­sti­tute queried 2,002 adults by phone in July and 2,317 on­line in Septem­ber. The tele­phone sur­vey has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus-or-mi­nus 2.6 per­cent­age points, and the on­line sur­vey has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus-or-mi­nus 2.5 per­cent­age points.

Across the dif­fer­ent groups, the big­gest dif­fer­ences were seen in people ad­mit­ting they “sel­dom or never” at­tend a re­li­gious ser­vice.

Catholics: 33 per­cent of on­line sur­vey tak­ers and 15 per­cent of tele­phone re­spon­dents said they “sel­dom or never” at­tend Mass.

White main­line Protes­tants: 45 per­cent of on­line sur­vey tak­ers and 28 per­cent of tele­phone re­spon­dents said they “sel­dom or never” at­tend ser­vices.

White evan­gel­i­cals: 17 per­cent of on­line sur­vey tak­ers and 9 per­cent of tele­phone re­spon­dents said they “sel­dom or never” at­tend church.

Black Protes­tants: 24 per­cent of on­line sur­vey tak­ers and 14 per­cent of tele­phone re­spon­dents said they “sel­dom or never” at­tend ser­vices.

While people may be less likely to ad­mit they don’t at­tend ser­vices of­ten, the re­search in­sti­tute found that people tended to an­swer equally as truth­fully on the phone and on­line about their re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion and be­liefs.

“I think be­ing at­tached to an in­sti­tu­tion is less im­por­tant, it’s not viewed as neg­a­tively,” Mr. Cox said. “Sim­ply say­ing you’re not at­tached to the Catholic Church, I don’t think there’s the same kind of weight.”

Even be­ing la­beled an athe­ist, is “be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ac­cepted,” Mr. Cox said. “Com­pared to where the United States was in the 1950s, con­sid­er­ably more people are at least tol­er­ant.”

The re­searcher said he couldn’t pin­point “this sort of tip­ping point where it’s OK to say I don’t be­lieve in God, or re­li­gion is not that im­por­tant,” but added that the change is likely to start among younger gen­er­a­tions.

Nonethe­less, people in the 18-29 age bracket were more likely to over­re­port their at­ten­dance. De­spite the con­tra­dic­tion, the next gen­er­a­tion is “the most di­verse gen­er­a­tion we’ve ever had; re­li­giously, racially, eth­ni­cally, they’re ex­posed to dif­fer­ent ideas. If it’s go­ing hap­pen any­where, it’s go­ing to hap­pen there,” Mr. Cox said.

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