May 23, 2014

​Poll: Americans Stretch the Truth on Attending Church

By CATHY LYNN GROSSMAN ©2014 Religion News Service

I know what you did last Sunday,” claims the
title of a new survey. You skipped church. And then nearly one in seven of
you fibbed about attending.

That’s according to a new survey by the Public
Religion Research Institute released May 17. The study, to be presented at the
national meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research,
was designed to measure the “social desirability bias in self-reported
religious behavior.”

The survey finds that many Christians—and
unbelievers, too—will exaggerate about attending worship in live phone
interviews. However, when asked in an anonymous online questionnaire, people
will answer more realistically.

On the phone, 36 percent of Americans report
attending religious services weekly or more, while 30 percent say they seldom
or never go.

But online, a smaller share (31 percent) of
people surveyed said they attended church at least weekly, while a larger
portion (43 percent) admitted they seldom or never go.

People who don’t attend worship—but say they
did—may not mean to lie, said PRRI CEO Robert Jones.

People respond to phone surveys as they think “a
good Christian” would or should answer, he said. “There’s an aspirational
quality here,” he said. “People see themselves as the kind of person who would

Once you remove the social pressure of speaking
on the phone, “you see people willing to give answers that are probably closer
to reality,” he said. “People feel less pressure to conform.”

Three groups were most likely to inflate

– White mainline Protestants: By phone, 29
percent say they don’t go to church. Online, that jumps to 45 percent.
– Catholics: On the phone, 15 percent. Online, 33 percent.
– Adults ages 18-29: On the phone, 31 percent. Online, 49 percent.

The PRRI study is an update of studies on
inflated church attendance conducted in the 1990s. In those
studies research teams surveyed Catholics and Protestants in Ashtabula
County, Ohio, and compared self-reported attendance claims with actual head
counts in scores of churches.

The result: “Actual church attendance was about
half the rate indicated by national public opinion polls.”

Since there’s no way to do head counts of people
not attending, PRRI found a contemporary technological approach — two different
survey formats. Both surveys of American adults were conducted in
2013, with 2,002 people interviewed by cell and landline and a demographically
comparable group of 2,317 who answered questions online.

People don’t even have to be religious to inflate
claims of religiosity, PRRI found.

Those one in five Americans who are “nones” also
may feel greater pressure to fib because “they are the farthest outside general
social expectations,” said Jones.

On the phone, 73 percent of “nones” say they
seldom or never attend, but 91 percent say so when interviewed online.

In the overall study, 19 percent of adults
answering online said religion was not important to them; only 13 percent said
so on the phone.

However, among the “nones,” the gap on the importance
of religion was markedly wider—49 percent on the phone, compared with 73
percent online.