What We Say About Our Religion, And What We Do

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A recent Pew survey found that an unprecedented one in five Americans now say they are not affiliated with any religious denomination. Or, looked at another way, nearly four out of five identify with an organized faith. Research also shows those Americans overstate how often they go to church by about half.


Transcript:

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Religion has come up less often in this year’s presidential campaign than in some others. But beneath the headlines, American religious practices are evolving.

A new study from the Pew Research Center showed that 79 percent of Americans identify with an organized faith group. By that measure, this is a deeply religious country – more so than many countries, for example, in Europe.

NPR’s science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has been looking more closely at that number.

Shankar, what are you looking for?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: I wanted to know if it held up, Steve. You know, by any measure, as you point out, the United States is a significant outlier when it comes to how religious people say they are. You know, virtually alone in the developed world, large numbers of Americans report that they are indentified with a religious faith. Nearly half of all Americans report that they attend church every week – that’s every single week, compared to Western Europe, for example, where maybe about 20 percent of people say they attend church.

 

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Written By: Shankar Vedantam and Steve Inskeep
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10 COMMENTS

  1. Not entirely sure about their methodology — “marching” someone through the week seems a little invasive and could get the subject to behave differently — and there’s no sign of testing for a reverse case (attending church but reporting that you don’t). But if these results are accurate, then the discrepancy between what people say and what they do is interesting, especially when the link is made with other “moralistic” claims:

     Well, Brenner seems to think that there are questions in every country that are sensitive questions. And let me give you an example from a completely different field. If I were to ask you how often you exercise or how often you floss your teeth, right, you’re likely to report to me that you work out much more regularly than you actually do, and that you floss your teeth much more regularly than you actually do. So I don’t know if there’s a better way to put it, but it turns out that when it comes to religious behavior, Americans report attending church the same way they report flossing their teeth: lots of people say they do it, not many people actually do.

    People do have a tendency to exaggerate when being questioned about things that could paint them as good people or  bad people, as they have an interest in appearing to be good people.  If so, then the idea that religion is moral seems to be alive and well in USA, and this is a big problem for American atheists to tackle.

  2. It is a result that I would find unsurprising, in fact rather expected it.
    The USA is a society that ‘thinks’ it is obsessed by religious flim flam…they dare not question what they perceive as the majority position.
    I rather consider that on any one Sunday the pews would hold folk that actually could not give a stuff about jeebus or the donkey he rode in on!
    But appearances must be maintained and the obvious danger of being outside the community, to being ostracised, is a powerful fear that few would feel comfortable with.

    It could be out of a crowd of, say 100 folks trooping into a church…upwards of 60 of them are privately far more atheist then they would ever admit to friends or family!

    There are probably whole families that think each other uber religious but in fact none of them are, they actually might try and outdo each other to be in the in-crowd gambit, by pursuing the line that religious = trustworthy, an extreme example maybe but not out of the question.
    The pressure in society is a self made meme…they are conning themselves, irony does not even cover it, it is a tragedy.

    That is why the question elicits out right lies, because the religious majority is in itself a lie. 
    And xtians lie, to themselves more then anyone!

  3. The religios live by lies and self delusion.  That their propensity for dodging the truth extends beyond their supernatural delusions and pervades their lives should come as no surprise. 

    Have there been any studies into the psychology of deception and religious belief?

  4. Lying in surveys is not restricted to religious people. If the question is sensitive enough, you will always get a lot of answers that don’t match the reality. People will overstate how often they have sex, if you ask married people whether they are happy in their relationships you will get results that don’t fit the divorce rates etc.

    If you think you should be acting in a certain way but you don’t, you’ll tend to lie, to yourself and to others.

  5. BRENNER: Americans significantly over-report their church attendance,
    and have consistently done that since the 1970s. But we don’t see
    substantive over-reporting in Western Europe.

    Considering the timeframe, what comes to mind is the advent of televangelism. If, for example, I were to tune in to Robert Schuller* every Sunday and send him an occasional check, that would definitely cover my conscience in the matter. I’m inclined to say this applies to a lot of Americans.
    ____
    * AFAIK, he had the first ever drive-in Sunday services in the ’60s, and one of the first weekly televised services.

  6. I think the best way to get an accurate number would be
    to simply count the number of people in each of the 36,000 US churches each
    Sunday and divide it by the population. Repeat the procedure for a few months to
    get an average. Most churches appear to post their number of attendees on wall
    boards within the church. Of course some people may attend more then one Sunday
    mass, but I suspect that the final number will be closer to the truth.

  7. well I don’t go to church, I drive by a lot of churches, I’ve been to church in the past, there always seems to be a lot of attractive women at church, I suppose attractive people in general, but still it would be better if they were all pagans. instead of all these religious holidays, I’d like to see some nice pagan holidays.

  8. I think the numbers simply reflect the peer pressure put on people to appear as “Good Christians”. The view that being a person of faith or at least spiritual is the basis for moral behavior is till heavily promoted in the mass media (unfortunately even by NPR). 
    I got a good taste of that when I first moved here (rural South-Western Virginia).  Almost everyone I met asked me if I had picked a church yet or what church I attended to.  Having lived in Europe and in Denver prior to moving to the bible belt, I was rather taken aback by this.  Now I have no problem to let people know that I am an atheist and have better things to do on Sundays.

  9. Hasn’t the notion that people in Europe are more truthful about their religiosity been disproved by the poll Richard Dawkins initiated in Britain? I remember that it was found that a large fraction of those who self-identified as Christian in this poll actually did this because they consider themselves to be “good persons”. So how is that different from overstating church attendance in the US?  (By the way, I lived 3/4 of my life in Europe.)

  10. Rather than disproving the notion that British citizens are more truthful regarding their religiosity, the RDF poll confirmed that the Government Census was poorly worded and that questions (and available answers) regarding faith were so simplistic, the participants could not record accurately their related feelings and activities. Consequently, people had to second-guess what exactly the question was trying to discover. The limited list of answers forced participants to respond in a way that prevented analysts access to the important details of nation’s religiosity. The quality of the data reflected the quality of the census, i.e. useless.

    In contrast, to say that one visits the church every week when in fact one doesn’t, is just plain lying.

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