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How Religious are Americans? Not as Much as You Think.

Americans are famously religious compared to other countries in the West. But revealing studies have peeked behind the curtain to determine how religious Americans really are.

Turns out: not so much.

Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are.

The question “How often do you go to church?” confronts Americans in ways that it doesn’t elsewhere in the West. Americans tend to see it as a question with a correct answer, and this has skewed poll results.

What else does this need to give the “correct” answer hide? If Americans fib when reporting their church attendance, might they be doing the same when answering questions about their own belief? Perhaps this explains the dramatic rise in the number of “Nones” (those who check “None of the Above” on religious surveys). We may not be seeing a loss of faith but an increase in honesty. And maybe my hopeless dream of a secular Christianity (or at least a secular-friendly Christianity) may not be so hopeless after all.

Clues to this mismatch between poll results and reality have been glaring for a while.

Even as pundits theorized about why Americans were so much more religious than Europeans, quiet voices on the ground asked how, if so many Americans were attending services, the pews of so many churches could be deserted.

In fact, actual church attendance is about half what people report.

We may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of, “Why are Americans so much more religious?” the more pointed question may be, “Why are Americans so much more compelled to portray themselves as religious?” If we can tear down some of the barriers to honesty, helping them feel comfortable being open about their disbelief, religious Americans might be able to be open about their true beliefs. Or lack thereof.

Religion is at its best when it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves.
It is at its worst when it deludes us into thinking
we have all the answers for everybody else.
A man who lives, not by what he loves but what he hates, is a sick man.
— Archibald Macleish

(This is a modified version of an article originally posted 10/19/11.)

Photo credit: Mark Bridge

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Kodie

    I think most people consider themselves believers even if they don’t go to church every week. The other side of it is that they perceive that everyone else is so much more religious than they are that they feel ashamed if they are not going to church as often as they should. And most people were raised in a religion and their parents are still religious, so when someone asks you, you give the same answer you give your mom.

    I tend to think of most the US as religious when something reminds them to be – like when they are in church for a family event, or when there’s a national tragedy, or when they get into an argument, they revert to religion, but most of the time, they are ordinary humans doing ordinary things. I mean when they are pressed, they believe “strongly” as if they had firmed up their position years ago and never had to think of it again. I don’t think of most religious people the kind to hang out on religion forums fortifying their arguments with thicker and thicker garbage. I do think of most religious people to be the kind who don’t go to church, and behave no better and many times worse than anyone else. They cut in line, they are rude, they are defensive, impatient, and selfish, among other discourtesies. Their religious beliefs amount to no more morality or consideration of their fellow human than tribalism or nationalism. It’s better for no good reason than the person believing it identifies with the banner.

    • Greg G.

      The other side of it is that they perceive that everyone else is so much more religious than they are that they feel ashamed if they are not going to church as often as they should.

      Maybe they don’t go to church often enough to realize that nobody else is going either.

      • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

        Gee Greg you guys need to get out more, whole stadiums are being filled with tens of thousands.We have heaps of mens conferences where we get 3-5000 men every time,and its only our denomination and our city.Not to mention ladies and youth.My son spent 4 days from 9am-9pm at the last PlanetShakers conferance with 10000 other youth in his school holidays.The best part is,(you’ll love this) is he was “slain in the Spirit”.He said he stood with his foot braced behind him cause theres no way I’m going down,but this “power” hit me and there was no way I could stay up.Darn it, a personal experience and he’s so academic it shouldnt have happened to him.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ BobSeidensticker

          Norm: I hear that people in other religions have powerful personal experiences, too. Maybe they’re correct just like Christianity.

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          Maybe they are Bob,l dont try and limit God to my understanding.I think the mistake all religions make is that they think they know it all when it comes to God.What l do believe is God judges the heart and He judges right,not by our ideas of right and wrong.Jesus said “there are those who are mine who dont know me yet”,and “those that seek me will find me,when they seek with all their heart”,so keep asking the questions Bob,God sure as hell isnt threatened.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ BobSeidensticker

          Norm:

          Maybe they are

          Sounds like you’re an open-minded person. That’s great. But you need to toss into your list of possibilities the option that they’re all wrong and that mankind’s desire to find ultimate meaning in the universe is just a misfiring of our imperfect brain. Sure, it’d be cool if it existed. But if it really did, don’t
          you think it’d be a little more obvious?

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          To me its like the nose on your face,its that obvious. Our brains are imperfect,they carnt possibly comprehend eternity,size being irrelevant ,absolute love,no evil what so ever,distance never being a barrier,true justice and mercy and to be able to comprehend Gods grace. I flew into Sydney last week and thought from up here it all looks so insignificant,multi million dollar properties just little dots.On the ground they look like they are worth striving for but if you can see the big picture,like God can ,you would see there is a better way of doing things. What God is saying is ,”I understand what life looks like from down there but believe me theres a better way”.It might not make much sense from where your standing,but lve got a glimpse of the spirit realm and lm going with that,and yes it’s called faith.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ BobSeidensticker

          Norm:

          (BTW, it does help readability to put a space after punctuation.)

          To me its like the nose on your face,its that obvious.

          You start with your preconception that the Christian worldview is correct, and then you look around and—whaddya know?!—it looks like the Christian worldview is correct.

          OK, but just know that this is no apologetic. It does nothing to convince the rest of us that your religion is real.

        • Greg G.

          Bob

          He said in a response to me a couple of days ago that he has some problems typing.

        • Kodie

          He has no problems typing at length to describe how much like a Nazi (apropos of nothing) he imagines I am.

        • Greg G.

          I just saw that one. I was thinking about a reply but he already Godwin-ed himself.

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          Heh it was your perfect description of the human race as Hitler saw it and you agreed.

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          Im just saying it as l see it Bob,l know l can convince you of nothing,thats the Holy Spirits job anyway.The issue you will always have l believe is you try and comprehend God from a very limited academic view,if He doesnt fit in your small box,you deny His reality and replace Him with your own.I do hope you have an undeniable spiritual experience of your own,not that in itself will convince you but will give you a peek out of your small box. BTW l know lm crap at this writing stuff that is so easy for most of you but with limited time in life at the moment its something to be worked on.

        • Kodie

          You live in a small world maybe your own planetary bubble. I’ve mostly grown up and lived around people who can’t remember the last time they went to church on purpose.

          I still don’t believe you’ve had a spiritual experience. You got high like on drugs. That’s what happens when you are gullible. It’s addictive too, apparently.

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          My small world consists mostly of non Christians from an art class,gun club to basket ball team so no its not a very sheltered environment.I can say I’ve never used drugs,never needed to.You might need them to balance you out which is fine but as for me I”ll take the Holy Spirit any time.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ BobSeidensticker

          Norm:

          I”ll take the Holy Spirit any time.

          Atheists typically prefer reality.

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          So drugs are your source of reality Bob..ok now l see where you get your ideas from.

        • RichardSRussell

          And here in Madison we regularly put 85,000 fannies in the seats at Camp Randall 7 times a year. At the same time that’s happening here, the very same thing is going on at 60-70 other locations all across America. By your standards, that must make college football the national religion, eh?

          But, of course, Bob’s essay wasn’t about the fans (short for “fanatics”) who’ll turn out by the tens of thousands (out of hundreds of millions in the country as a whole) for a special event a few times a year. It was about those who slog along, day in and day out, at the mundane, tedious stuff. And, as hard data demonstrate, fewer and fewer self-proclaimed “Christians” are seeing any point or value in doing so when it comes to attending church.

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          Your so right ,if what Christianity claims is true all Christians should be” fanatics”,the fact that their not is a reflection on their relationship with God.If going to church is ever a tedious slog there is something wrong with church or maybe they’ve just settled for doing religion and its all down hill from there.

        • RichardSRussell

          The fact that they’re not should be calling your premise into question.

          If I were really walking thru a driving rain, I should be soaking wet. The fact that I’m not doesn’t reflect on any kind of relationship I might have, it’s a reflection of the fact that I’m not walking thru a driving rain.

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          Well now thats an interesting analogy Richard, try this one…. me and my wife hardly talk anymore,are never passionate,she does the washing,l cut the lawn,we do what has to be done,we get by. When the family visit we do the happy family thing,but when they leave,l switch on the TV and watch sport and she does what ever it is she does. What l dont understand is why is our marriage such a bore

        • Alice

          Being a fanatic is not automatically good because the person we are fanatic about is good: it depends on how we /behave/ because of our fanaticism. History is filled with people who enthusiastically committed atrocities because they thought they were following God’s will.

          Proverbs 19:2 says “It is dangerous to have zeal without knowledge, and the one who acts hastily makes poor choices.” I am a Christian, and I have seen a lot of destruction done by Christians who were emotionally high but did not have knowledge or common sense. I used to BE one of them, and it is one of the worst places to be. Now I strive to balance my emotions and my intellect, which is very difficult to do.

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          You are right of course Alice,fanatic was actually Richards term used.Personally l would say most Christian “fanatics” are really just religious people.

        • Paul D.

          I’ve been part of the religious crusade scene before. It’s mostly the same people who go over and over again.

          I used to be the only one who was never “slain” in the spirit. I guess I’m not as influenced by the power of suggestion and peer pressure as most people.

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          Two of my friends crumbled to “peer gp pressure” and didnt wake up till 40 minutes after church had finished. They said it felt like someone punched him in the head.

        • Kodie

          Your cult sounds fetishistic. I’d rather not pass out and wake up to feel like I was punched in the head. Then you believe whatever they tell you. Haven’t you ever been to the carnival?

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          Hey people pay good money to feel like that^^^^see Greg above.Oh…what did you learn at the carnival?

        • Kodie

          We know the effects of amounts of alcohol on the brain, and how the brain works when impaired to limit motor coordination and lower impulse control. Eventually, if you don’t make it to bed, you might lay down where you are, and you might wake up in vomit with a headache caused by dehydration, because we know alcohol dehydrates the body. Eventually, you learn to know your limits. The fun you had is not worth the pain.

          I learned at the carnival not to believe bullshit artists who wanted to separate me from my money. If you’ve already had the spirit knocked into you in one of your arena-church settings, why go twice? You are addicted to crack. Why does this spirit head-knocking bullshit only happen in large crowds with a charismatic speaker if your god is everywhere? It is not god, it is the participation in a group activity. It is like when I might go see a musician live, the experience will be far greater to hear a song live than to hear it on the radio.

          You are stirred to a heightened emotion in a large crowd within a large room that diminishes when you leave. It is not god there, it is the normal experience one has in things like concerts or football games or rallies of any kind. I would not say your experience wasn’t real, just that you attribute a normal amount of emotion that stirs in identical situations to a unique spiritual sensation that may have happened, but is not unique. People crave that experience because of the way it touches them and because they believe it is god, they will keep coming back the same way some people go to rock concerts more often than I do, or baseball games, or get drunk. You, having little knowledge of how brains work, are exaggerating because you think you found a feeling no one else ever felt before, and possibly have little experience comparing what you think to other people’s experiences. You are a terrible listener. You think you have the answer but you don’t listen when other people say your experience is not unique and teach you how brains work.

          When I said you got high like on drugs, you missed the point and accused atheists of taking drugs; then you talk about money like what you signed up for is free. The opposite is true – religion is about raking in the money. How many idiots can we get to believe this bullcrap and spend their money on attending – 10,000, you say? – well of course they want to feed you a persuasive performance and get the repeat customers.

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          Well heres the problem Kodie, youv’e just justified to yourself why you dont go to church, all based on absolute ignorance and biased information which is fine if it works for you but as usual youre telling me things about me you dont know,have never asked and dont care to know because it would spoil the fun for you.Me personally have never been “slain in the spirit”….my friend who was ,was as a rebellious teenager not wanting anything to do with God,so it came as a shock to him most of all.Almost all the spiritual encounters lve had personally have been on my own,no one else to hype me up at all.Oh and when did l talk about money ?I do regularly give money away,some to Christian things and some to worthwhile causes.I do so happily with no compulsion but because l feel rich and blessed.

        • Greg G.

          That happened to me in a bar once. My head felt the same way the morning after but it was a typical weekend in college.

        • http://www.facebook.com/norman.donnan Norm Donnan

          Ha,but think of the money you save doing it this way

        • smrnda

          Wow, TIN TIN! Had to give props to your avatar.

          On being ‘slain in the spirit,’ I saw something similar when I met some ‘paranormal investigators’ who can find a ghost in any blurry picture taken at night, or voices in any lo fi recording, or the similarities between pagans channeling Egyptian gods and Pentacostals speaking in tongues. The evidence seems pretty shaky and even laughable, unless you’re already a true believer.

        • Greg G.

          I traveled for work a couple of weeks ago. The hotel was packed with kids who were there for some kind of Jesus party. It sure was hard to get a wireless connection, I can tell you. I noticed that the chaperons put masking tape on the door to the frame to make sure they all stayed put at night. They did everything they could to keep the kids from going home as parents.

        • Alice

          Going to conferences is different than going to church regularly. Conferences are only held a handful of times a year, and people travel from all over the country. Plus, conferences are typically hosted by Christian celebrities and are often more emotionally intense than church. So comparing the number of people who go to conferences to the number of people who go to church on a regular basis is comparing apples to oranges.

      • JohnH2

        Well, if one is an Easter bunny or a Christeaster or whatever other term one has for those going to church mainly at Christmas and Easter then the church will be completely packed every time one actually goes to church.

  • John Kesler

    I’m reminded of this joke: What’s the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic? The Catholic will speak to you in the liquor store.

  • RichardSRussell

    If Americans fib when reporting their church attendance, might they be doing the same when answering questions about their own belief? Perhaps this explains the dramatic rise in the number of “Nones” (those who check “None of the Above” on religious surveys). We may not be seeing a loss of faith but an increase in honesty.

    A more probable (and also more mundane) explanation is simply that they’re responding to a different question. Earlier versions of the ARIS* questionnaire asked “What is your religion?” Anyone who’d been baptized or raised in a particular religion, or occasionally attended church with other family members, probably named the most recent denomination they’d had anything to do with.

    Then they added 2 tiny words to the end of the question: “What is your religion, if any?” (ARIS 2008) Now prompted that “none” was a possible answer, more people spontaneously came up with it. The first time that happened, the researchers reported a “spurt” in the ratio of “nones” in the general population, a spurt which mysteriously halted when subsequent studies used the revised wording.

    Chances are that the “nones” (who, incidentally, are most decidedly not all atheists, bring primarily apatheists) have been about the same 15-20% of the population all along, it’s just that it took more sophisticated research methodology to bring it out.

    The good news is that the added attention, plus the “bandwagon effect”, has (a) given more people reason to reflect on atheism as a possible preferred philosophy and (b) made it easier to say so in public. So, while we probably won’t see any more artificial “spurts” in the future, we probably will see slow, steady, and most importantly actual growth.

    ––––
    *American Religious Identification Survey

    • JohnH2

      Richard:

      Football seems in most places I have been to be closer to a national religion than Christianity is.

      You are probably right about the surveys

  • Lewis C.

    If Americans fib when reporting their church attendance, might they be doing the same when answering questions about their own belief? Perhaps this explains the dramatic rise in the number of “Nones” (those who check “None of the Above” on religious surveys). We may not be seeing a loss of faith but an increase in honesty.

    Only problem is, statistically, religious nones haven’t “lost” their faith. Over two-thirds still maintain belief in god. About one-third report being part of an organized religion when followed up with only a year later, so it’s quite a fluid population with far less Dawkins-dogmatism than you would think.

    Take a look at Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us if you want to see the latest scholarly research on these measures. They employ a very rigorous methodology to compensate for over-reporting of religious attendance. Against the Slate article (which noticeably lacks very many actual numbers), they argue America is still uniquely religious among Western, industrialized countries. If you have numbers to the contrary I’d love to see them.

  • ZenDruid

    from the Slate article:

    Why do Americans and Canadians feel the need to overreport their
    religious attendance? … Why is religiosity tied to American identity?

    Historians will point to the European roots of North American
    colonization. Many European settlers came to the New World in search of
    religious freedom, presumably because they cared more intensely about
    religion than did the brethren they left behind.

    Perhaps. That answer feels unsatisfactory. I don’t think religious
    intensity necessarily explains how religiosity becomes part of one’s
    identity. Canada and the United States are quite different today in
    terms of their religious intensity and the importance they attach to the
    role of religion in public life, yet citizens in both countries greatly
    exaggerate their church attendance.

    The pioneers who went West in the early days left all social traditions behind except for what was already ubiquitous and easily portable, i.e. the King James bible. As we all know, people in insecure times tend to gravitate toward religion both for its implied ethical framework and its sense of community.

    As an aside, without all those ready-to-hand rationalizations for tribal warfare in the bible, the early settlers as a general thing might have been much more righteous toward First Nations people. From my perspective, Canucks demonstrate more fairness toward the Indians than the Yanks, and this translates as being more polite and less evangelical. Polite enough to sort of play along to keep the peace.

  • ortcutt

    Religion is still perceived as normative in certain geographical and sociological groups in the US. People in those places and groups think that they should be religious even if they aren’t, and thus are likely to report higher than actual religious observance. In other places there is no such normativity. I live in New England, and I don’t know anyone who attends services, but more importantly, I don’t know of anyone who would feel embarrassed to admit that they don’t. Religion is something that some people do, and some people don’t.

    • Kodie

      I would say that most people in the US assume almost anyone they meet, if they are white, black, or Hispanic, is some kind of Christian, and they identify as Christian or Catholic even if they never go to church or even think about how definitely they’re sure about that. At least that’s how I feel as an atheist.

      I made the mistake of labeling this section of people “casual” believers once, and oh no, they definitely deeply believe that little morsel that makes them Christian. They just don’t think what that means. They coast along identifying with a religious belief, “set it and forget it.” As far as I can tell, they still retain their built-in prejudices about atheists too, but they seem to be tolerant and adjusting to the fact that other people have religions. (I’ve met this tolerance/intolerance – it’s ok if you have *a* religion even if it’s different, but how could you believe in nothing???) If you showed them a person who looks like they are from India, they would not assume they are Christian, they know, vaguely that other people from all over the world have their native religions and it doesn’t conflict them that other people believe something else, if they or their family is from somewhere else. They are usually accepting of Jews as well, but it bothers them if they can’t tell if someone’s Jewish from their name or their facial features. It might take them aback when they find out their white cubicle-mate identifies as a Jew, but they don’t hate Jews. We don’t toot our horns about what we believe in, so assumptions can go uncorrected for a long time.

      I have lived my entire life in the Northeastern portion of the United States – I hardly know what any bible-thumpers you hear about from the Southern regions would be like… one or two every now and again. But as an atheist, I’ve come to learn that even if they don’t talk about it, most people everywhere in the US are Christian. They know it too. They don’t talk about it a lot, but when asked, would definitely say they are a Christian, kind of like, “what a silly question, what else would I be?”

      • ortcutt

        A lot of people find the idea that someone doesn’t have a religion incomprehensible. They think that by default you’re just whatever your parents and grandparents are, and that you can convert to a different religion, but everyone has a religion. I think it’s because religion is very tribal and society fits neatly into categories if everyone belongs to some tribe. When you or I say “I don’t belong to any of these tribes”, that doesn’t fit into their conception of what society looks like.

  • Croquet_Player

    For a variety of reasons, religion is on a slow yet steady decline in the U.S. I’m glad that some of this trend is because some people finally feel comfortable enough to be open about the fact that they’re non-believers. Sadly however, there are some regions of the U.S. where non-believers are still met with open hostility. People risk the loss of jobs, family, and friends if they declare themselves atheists or agnostics. It’s too easy for some to overlook that in a county which values freedom of religion, those who are not religious are equally entitled to respect.


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