Many Americans Exaggerate How Often They Attend Church

Atheism may be on the rise, but few Americans want to admit it.

American flag and old church steeple reflect separation of church and state
Photo Credit: Bobkeenan Photography

Atheism and non-belief are growing rapidly in America, however, it is still considered one of the most religious countries in the world. Yet, saying you’re religious and being religious are two separate things and a recent study by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) suggests that many Americans greatly exaggerate how often they attend religious services.

PRRI conducted two surveys, structured to be as identical as possible, using similarly sized, nationally representative samplings. 2,002 participants were asked the same questions, one group, via the phone, and another via an online survey.

36 percent of Americans who took the survey over the phone said they attend religious services weekly or more. Only 31 percent said the same when answering the question online. In contrast, 30 percent asked over the phone said they seldom or never go to a weekly service. Online, that percentage jumped up to 43.


“The existence of religious participation inflation demonstrates that church attendance remains a strong social norm in the U.S.’,” said Robert P. Jones, co-author of the study and CEO of the institute. “The impact of these norms – what social scientists call ‘social desirability bias’ – is that respondents talking to live interviewers on the telephone are less willing to admit lower levels of participation in an activity deemed to be socially good. Respondents completing the survey privately online are less apt to feel this pressure.”

What stands out the most in the study is just who are the ones exaggerating their attendance the most. White mainline Protestants, Catholics and adults between 18 and 29-years-old.

28 percent of white mainline Protestants said over the phone that they “seldom or never” go to church, and 45 percent said the same online. Catholics saw a doubling of those who said “seldom to never” when answered online.

Researchers believe the difference comes from using phone versus online polling. People, in person, are more likely to exaggerate their religious beliefs and participation and feel more comfortable being honest online. Researchers believe using the phone versus online model is scientifically sound, and while it’s impossible to track actual religious participation in church, this study lends a great deal of evidence to previous studies, done in the 1990’s that found similar results.


Dan Arel is the author of Parenting Without God and blogs at Danthropology. Follow him on Twitter @danarel.
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