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