New study on American church attendance: a 10-18 percent gap between what people say versus what they actually do

The United States is consistently cited as a religious nation. The contrast is often drawn with a number of European nations where church attendance is usually said to be significantly lower than the American rate of about 40-45% of Americans attending on a regular basis. These figures have driven several generations of sociologists to debate the secularization thesis and why the American religious landscape is different.

But what if Americans overstate their church attendance on surveys and in reality, do attend church on a rate similar to European nations? A new study based on time diary data suggests this is the case:

While conventional survey data show high and stable American church attendance rates of about 35 to 45 percent, the time diary data over the past decade reveal attendance rates of just 24 to 25 percent — a figure in line with a number of European countries.

America maintains a gap of 10 to 18 percentage points between what people say they do on survey questions, and what time diary data says they actually do, Brenner reports. The gaps in Canada resemble those in America, and in both countries, gaps are both statistically and substantively significant…

“The consistency and magnitude of the American gap in light of the multiple sources of conventional survey data suggests a substantive difference between North America and Europe in overreporting.”

Given these findings, Brenner notes, any discussion of exceptional American religious practice should be cautious in using terms like outlier and in characterizing American self-reported attendance rates from conventional surveys as accurate reports of behavior. Rather, while still relatively high, American attendance looks more similar to a number of countries in Europe, after accounting for over-reporting.

A couple of thoughts about this:

1. This is another example where the research method used to collect data matters. Ask people about something on a survey and then compare that data to what people report in a time diary and it is not unusual to get differing responses. What exactly is going on here? Surveys ask people to consult their memory, a notoriously faulty source of information. Diaries have their own issues but supposedly are better at getting better information about daily or regular practices.

2. Even if church attendance data is skewed in the US, it doesn’t necessarily mean that America might still not be exceptional in terms of religion. Religiosity is made up of a number of factors including doctrinal beliefs, importance of religion in everyday life, membership in a religious congregation, the prevalence of other religious practices, and more. Church attendance is a common measure of religiosity but not the only one.

3. This is interesting data but it leads to another interesting question: why exactly would Americans overestimate their church attendance by this much? Since the time diary data from Europe showed a smaller gap, it suggests that Americans think they have something to gain by overestimating their church attendance. Perhaps Americans think they should say they attend church more – there is still social value and status attached to the idea that one attends church.

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