Researchers adjust as Americans say they are more religious when asked via phone versus responding online

Research findings suggest Americans answer questions about religiosity differently depending on the mode of the survey:

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Researchers found the cause of the “noise” when they compared the cellphone results with the results of their online survey: social desirability bias. According to studies of polling methods, people answer questions differently when they’re speaking to another human. It turns out that sometimes people overstate their Bible reading if they suspect the people on the other end of the call will think more highly of them if they engaged the Scriptures more. Sometimes, they overstate it a lot…

Smith said that when Pew first launched the trend panel in 2014, there was no major difference between answers about religion online and over the telephone. But over time, he saw a growing split. Even when questions were worded exactly the same online and on the phone, Americans answered differently on the phone. When speaking to a human being, for example, they were much more likely to say they were religious. Online, more people were more comfortable saying they didn’t go to any kind of religious service or listing their religious affiliation as “none.”…

After re-weighting the online data set with better information about the American population from its National Public Opinion Reference Survey, Pew has decided to stop phone polling and rely completely on the online panels…

Pew’s analysis finds that, today, about 10 percent of Americans will say they go to church regularly if asked by a human but will say that they don’t if asked online. Social scientists and pollsters cannot say for sure whether that social desirability bias has increased, decreased, or stayed the same since Gallup first started asking religious questions 86 years ago.

This shift regarding studying religion highlights broader considerations about methodology that are always helpful to keep in mind:

  1. Both methods and people/social conditions change. More and more surveying (and other data collection) is done via the Internet and other technologies. This might change who responds, how people respond, and more. At the same time, actual religiosity changes and social scientists try to keep up. This is a dynamic process that should be expected to change over time to help researchers get better and better data.
  2. Social desirability bias is not the same as people lying to researchers or being dishonest with researchers. That implies an intentional false answer. This is more about context: the mode of the survey – phone or online – influences who the respondent is responding to. And with a human interaction, we might respond differently. In an interaction, we with impression management in mind where we want to be viewed in particular ways by the person with whom we are interacting.
  3. Studying any aspect of religiosity benefits from multiple methods and multiple approaches to the same phenomena under study. A single measure of church attendance can tell us something but getting multiple data points with multiple methods can help provide a more complete picture. Surveys have particular strengths but they are not great in other areas. Results from surveys should be put alongside other data drawn from interviews, ethnographies, focus groups, historical analysis, and more to see what consensus can be reached. All of this might be out of the reach of individual researchers or single research projects but the field as a whole can help find the broader patterns.

Churches and a digital divide during COVID-19

COVID-19 has pushed more churches into the digital realm but there are patterns in who is operating online and in what ways:

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“The digital divide in churches reflects the digital divide in American society more generally,” says Mark Chaves, a theologian at Duke University and director of the National Congregation Study, which has surveyed religious groups in the US since 1998. Churches with less of a digital presence tend to be located in rural areas. Their congregations are more likely to be older, lower-income, and Black. Those demographic groups are also less likely to have access to broadband, and they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both in health and economic outcomes. Those realities have factored into church outcomes too. A survey from LifeWay Research, which focuses on Christian ministries, found that white pastors were the most likely to report offerings that were higher than expected in the past year. Black pastors, by contrast, were most likely to report that the pandemic economy was impacting their churches “very negatively.” Churches often run on tight margins, and those impacts can have long-term effects: LifeWay Research found that a small percentage of churches have had to cut down on outreach, suspend Sunday School or small group programs, or lay off staff members. Black pastors were more likely to say they cut staff pay or deleted a church position…

For the faith sector, the acceleration of new technologies could lead to massive changes. Other industries, like media and retail, have been transformed as they progressively moved online; money, influence, and attention now converge in a small pool of winners, often at the expense of smaller outfits. Some believe churches might experience something similar. “You’re going to have the top 40 preachers that everyone listens to, and the regular everyday preacher is not going to be able to compete,” says William Vanderbloemen, a former pastor and founder of the Vanderbloemen Search Group, an executive search firm for churches. That’s not to say more niche markets couldn’t also emerge. “People will still show up to hear a message from a pastor who knows their specific community on a micro-contextual level. Like, here’s what happened in our zip code this week, and here’s how it relates to how we think of our God.”…

Chaves, who runs the National Congregation Study, says it’s too soon to know whether this year will have a lasting impact on worship practices, and what that impact would be. “Church attendance has been declining slowly for decades,” he says. “Will we see a shift if online participation stays ubiquitous? Or will it mean that more people are participating?” Some early research suggests that churchgoers are eager to get back to in-person services and worshipping together with their community. While smaller congregations, like First Baptist Church Reeltown, are unlikely to continue broadcasting their sermons on Facebook Live, other churches may find value in a hybrid model, where some people come into Sunday services and others watch from their computers.

One way to think about this is to consider the marketplace of American religion. Because there is no state-sponsored religion and there is the free exercise of religion, religious traditions and congregations can compete for people. In this competition, innovation and flexibility can help lead to increased market share. The Internet and social media are additional tools in this competition. Want to appeal to those using those mediums? You have to have a presence. Or, perhaps a group can seek others who eschew digital worship.

Using the Internet for church is not new. But, COVID-19 may have accelerated this market competition. Could churches compete without going online? Just as businesses suffered, how many churches might close because of COVID-19? Who can provide a compelling church service and other activities in online forms? Can you easily translate online viewership to attendance or membership measures? Could certain churches flourish in certain platforms while others utilize other options?

And what this means for religiosity in America is hard to know. In addition to church attendance figures, does this push Americans further down the path of individualistic and voluntaristic faith? Is church via Internet or social media really church in the same way without embodied action and sacred spaces?

Why would atheist groups want to be known for meeting in “mega-churches”?

I understand the interest in wanting to meet together regularly but why exactly would atheists want to call their gatherings “megachurches”?

Nearly three dozen gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors have sprung up around the U.S. and Australia — with more to come — after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.

On Sunday, the inaugural Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles attracted several hundred people bound by their belief in non-belief. Similar gatherings in San Diego, Nashville, New York and other U.S. cities have drawn hundreds of atheists seeking the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual…

Hundreds of atheists and atheist-curious packed into a Hollywood auditorium for a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection, an “inspirational talk” about forgotten — but important — inventors and scientists and some stand-up comedy.

During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” ”Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game that involved clapping and slapping the hands of the person next to them and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they had started in LA.

I’m a little surprised they would want to be known as “megachurches” as these kind of churches tend to attract some criticism. Here are some critiques: they are big, impersonal, more about entertainment than community, don’t require much commitment from attendees, are devoted to money and programs, encourage a consumer mentality, may not lead to much spiritual growth, and can swell their congregations by taking attendees from other churches. (To be fair, there are others who would praise what megachurches do and can do.)

Here are a few reasons why using the term megachurches might be attractive to atheists:

1. They imply a sizable congregation. The median church in the United States is around 75 people (this was according to the National Congregations study a few years ago). Interestingly, the congregations described in this study sound like they had “several hundred people,” which is not exactly megachurch size. Perhaps these groups will have to pursue church growth strategies.

2. Megachurches tend to get an outsized amount of attention even though most American Christians don’t go to churches that size. Congregations like Willow Creek or Saddleback or Lakeland have well-known pastors and are seen as leading institutions in conservative Christianity in America. Atheist megachurches could have a similar influence in the media and the public at large.

It will be interesting to see how these groups, megachurches or not, fare.

Church changes from Sunday morning services to Wednesday night in summer to respond to “changing sociology”

One New York church has responded to the “changing sociology” by switching from worshiping on Sunday mornings during the summer to worshiping on Wednesday nights:

“Over the last summers, we’ve seen fewer and fewer members coming in on Sunday morning,” Movsovich said. “This is an attempt to try and stay together. To me, it was more important to maintain community than to maintain the tradition of Sunday.”

Movsovich, who has been with the congregation for 25 years, noticed an attendance decline of about 60 percent at various times in past summers. Some church members take two weeks off, others two months…

The trend of nontraditional services is gaining nationwide popularity, said Bill Leonard, professor of church history and religion at Wake Forest University. More churches are open to adapting to members’ changing schedules and priorities.

“People have so many other personal and familial responsibilities that appear now on Sundays in a way that has just mushroomed — families with aging parents, employment and travel issues or children in college,” Leonard said. “Traditional services were built around the sociology of another era. We’re simply responding to changing sociology.”

Let the theological debates begin! Seriously, I’m intrigued by this sociology explanation. The suggestion is this: we are in a different era of church going where Sunday morning is no longer “sacred” in the same way it may have been in the past (though this sort of “golden era” thinking always has issues). A few questions:

1. Is Sunday morning on the way out with younger generations?

2. How many churches have changed to other days and times for regular worship?

3. How many churches would talk about a “changing sociology”?

Sociologist: seasonal or occasional church attenders will decide the fate of organized religion in Canada

A Canadian sociologist argues that the fate of organized religion in Canada will be decided those who attend church occasionally:

Indeed, a new report finds rumours of the death of religion have been greatly exaggerated, with national data suggesting about 12 million Canadians will attend church this long weekend. And it’s the unfamiliar faces — the 30 per cent who attend either monthly or seasonally — who will have the biggest influence on organized religion going forward, according to Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist.

“Numerically-speaking, they will determine who constitutes a majority: people who embrace faith, or those who reject it,” said Bibby, who’s been studying religious trends since the mid-1970s.

“At this point in time, about 60 per cent say they’re open to greater involvement if they can find it worthwhile for themselves and their families. Which direction they go will depend largely on whether or not religious groups can demonstrate the value of greater involvement.”

National data, released by Statistics Canada’s general social survey and analyzed by Bibby, suggests the core 20 per cent of weekly church attendees will be joined this Easter by many of the 10 per cent of monthly attendees and a good number of the 20 per cent of seasonal attendees.

Interesting argument: these occasional attendees are like swing voters, capable of creating a majority if they continue to attend occasionally. Presumably, if this group stopped attending at all, religion could lose some social influence.

I’m intrigued by this statement: the “direction they go will depend largely on whether or not religious groups can demonstrate the value of greater involvement.” Are religious groups prepared to tackle this question? Which church approach works the best in addressing this group of occasional attendees.

How much does this describe the situation in the United States? Depending on what figures you look at, roughly 30-40% of Americans regularly attend church even as many more claim to be “spiritual” or “believe in God.” Generally, how willing are non-church attending yet spiritual Americans willing to talk about and/or defend religion in the public sphere?

More educated people attend church more

One common idea is that people (or societies) that are more educated will move away from religious beliefs. However, several recent sociology studies suggest that more educated people are more likely to attend church:

While overall church attendance has declined slightly in the United States in recent decades, a new study says attendance at religious services among white Americans who did not go to college has fallen more than twice as quickly as it has among more highly educated whites.

The study, released Sunday by the American Sociological Association, draws on decades of data from the General Social Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth to conclude that “moderately educated whites,” defined as people with high school degrees, attended religious services in the 1970s at about the same rate as whites with degrees from four-year colleges. In the last decade, however, they attended much less frequently…

The research shares some conclusions with a recent study by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor whose findings contradicted the common myth that less-educated people are more religious. That study, released in early August, concluded that a college degree does not make a person less religious, but that more education does make people more accepting of the validity of religions other than their own. Both studies used data from the General Social Survey, which is an ongoing survey of American’ attitudes and behaviors that began in 1972.

This is a reminder that social class, made up of influential factors like education, impacts religious life, an area that some believe should be more of a private matter.

This fits with some thoughts I heard at the ASA meetings in Las Vegas that there seems to be two trajectories in American life: a middle/upper class life built upon education and a working/lower class life built upon traditional values.

I wonder how this would look from the religious congregation side: have more congregations been deliberately seeking more educated members who have more resources and are more open-minded? This makes pragmatic sense but not religious sense.

A final thought: how much of this is driven by increasing education levels of conservative religious group that in the past were less educated (evangelicals, fundamentalists, etc.)?

Sociologists’ claim: interactions with others is how religion leads to greater life satisfaction

A new study in the American Sociological Review looks at why religious people have higher levels of life satisfaction. The conclusion: it is about the networks that form among people who attend services.

Here is a short description of the study:

Many studies have uncovered a link between religion and life satisfaction, but all of the research faced a “chicken-and-egg problem,” Lim said. Does religion make people happy, or do happy people become religious? And if religion is the cause of life satisfaction, what is responsible — spirituality, social contacts, or some other aspect of religion?

Lim and his colleague, Harvard researcher Robert Putnam, tackled both questions with their study. In 2006, they contacted a nationally representative sample of 3,108 American adults via phone and asked them questions about their religious activities, beliefs and social networks. In 2007, they called the same group back and got 1,915 of them to answer the same batch of questions again.

The surveys showed that across all creeds, religious people were more satisfied than non-religious people…

But the satisfaction couldn’t be attributed to factors like individual prayer, strength of belief, or subjective feelings of God’s love or presence. Instead, satisfaction was tied to the number of close friends people said they had in their religious congregation. People with more than 10 friends in their congregation were almost twice as satisfied with life as people with no friends in their congregation.

A few thoughts based on the description of this study:

1. This would seem to support arguments within faith traditions, such as evangelicalism, about the need for religious community.

2. The study suggests these friendships form around “a sense of belonging to a moral faith community.” This sounds like Durkheim and his ideas about people coming together and forming a collective.

3. This sounds like a worthwhile study because it helps explain the causal mechanism between greater life satisfaction and religion: it is about friendships. But, this doesn’t say much about how these friendships lead to greater life satisfaction. Is it because there is someone to share one’s burdens with? Is it because these friends provide spiritual guidance?

4. Are there substitutes for this kind of boost to life satisfaction? That is, are there functionally equivalent things people could do to get the same benefits that religious people get from friendships with people who share their faith?

5. The findings were primarily about the large American religious groups: “Catholics and mainline and evangelical Protestants.” Would these findings hold for other groups in America? Would they hold in other countries?

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.

Shared religious activity enhances marital relationships

New sociological research suggests that certain kinds of shared religious  practices among married couples leads to better relationships:

[F]or all groups, shared religious activity – attending church together and especially praying together – is linked to higher levels of relationship quality.

The findings were particularly significant for African-American couples (and to a lesser extent, Latinos), according to sociologist and co-author W. Bradford Wilcox:

“Without prayer, black couples would be doing significantly worse than white couples. This study shows that religion narrows the racial divide in relationship quality in America.”

But not all religion is beneficial for marriages:

Couples holding discordant religious beliefs and those with only one partner who attends religious services regularly tend to be less happy in their relationships, the researchers found.

The findings make sense: couples who share a religious perspective and activities benefit while those who don’t share perspectives or activities suffer. The most interesting finding seems to be that about African-American and Latinos benefiting from shared religious activity: the authors suggest such activity helps overcome stress minorities experience.