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Posted on Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 11:05 a.m.

Americans exaggerate reports of church attendance, UM study reveals

By Pam Stout


Photo by Flickr user little black spot

Americans have often been touted as more religious compared to people in other developed nations. But this may not actually be the case, at least when it comes to attendance.

A new University of Michigan study finds that Americans are much more likely to overreport their attendance at religious services than are people in many other developed countries.

Philip Brenner, a research fellow at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and the author of the study, found, "In the U.S., and to a lesser extent in Canada, the gap between what we say and what we do is substantial and has been so for the last several decades."

The study will appear in a forthcoming issue of Public Opinion Quarterly.

Brenner analyzed conventional survey data asking respondents how often they attend religious services and compared it to time diary data recording weekend activities. The data came from more than 400 surveys of more than 750,000 individuals from 1975 to 2008.

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, the study shows. While surveys show American church attendance rates between 35 and 45 percent, the time diary data reveal attendance rates of just 24 to 25 percent. The latter rate is more in line with a number of European countries.

In contrast, outside of North America, even in high-attendance Ireland, the gap only ranges from about four to eight points. View a chart of some of the results here.

So why do Americans tend to exaggerate reports of church attendance? Brenner isn't sure it is necessarily intentional.

"When someone is asked a question about religious attendance, people often interpret the question as asking about their own religious identity," Brenner explained. They might hear, "Am I the type of person who would attend church?"

The time studies, on the other hand, didn't specifically ask about religious attendance, Brenner said. "This study suggests that American religiosity may be exceptional not in terms of actual behavior, but rather in terms of identity," noted Brenner.

This American phenomenon has been documented in previous studies, Brenner said, but not on such a large scale. "The most surprising thing," Brenner explained, "was not the size of the gap, but the consistency." The study showed that the gap has remained remarkably consistent over several decades.

A new Gallup poll recently reported that 56 percent of Americans say religion is "very important" in their lives.

What do you think?

Pam Stout coordinates Faith and Home & Garden coverage for Email her at


Rork Kuick

Fri, Dec 3, 2010 : 2:15 p.m.

A2K: Just cause some people don't agree with us about the dust thing does not automatically imply they don't care about the world. I've known some Christians who were very devoted to the good of others, everywhere. (Please, mama, don't you faint.) Other religions have them too. You can argue they can't top the atheists if you want but there'd be a call for some data about that I'll bet.


Fri, Dec 3, 2010 : 9 a.m.

Not surprising that people will lie about church attendance to seem like what..."better/good people"? As an Atheist, I am frequently annoyed at the "religiosity=good/moral" that is still (ever more prevalent actually since the rise of the Christian-Right-Wing)eaten up like pap in our culture. Attending church does not mean you are any better, more trustworthy, or charitable that someone who does not believe in god/deity (when you adjust for tithing...which religious institutions love to include as proof that religious folks are the most charitable folks around.) I think this is a valid and interesting study - and only when people are comfortable ADMITTING they do not believe, and take full responsibility for their thoughts and actions, and face the fact that we have limited time on this beautiful earth, after which we ALL are nothing but dust, - will we truly be ADULTS and able to tackle the many problems facing our world.


Fri, Dec 3, 2010 : 7:36 a.m.

I remember reading a survey several years ago about church attendance. One question asked how often people went to church, and a whopping number (around 70%) said "Every week." Another question asked who went to church the previous Sunday. It was about 40%. Hmmm...


Fri, Dec 3, 2010 : 12:24 a.m.

I found the last line of the article linked a bit 'snarky' - as if to imply that Americans say they're religious but they don't 'act' religious. The one thing I have learned in my own 'spiritual quest' is that many people do hold very strong religious beliefs - they are very comfortable in their own individual personal relationship with God - but they are not necessarily involved in organized religion. It's pretty evident from many the views of many non-believing posters that there is hypocrisy within organized religion - there is an ongoing indoctrination that is at odds with what the church is supposed to stand for. I - myself - share that view with the exception that I DO have very strong religious beliefs and my opinion is based upon what is in the Bible as opposed to what the church teaches. Going back and looking at the generations before me - especially the Catholics in my family - they NEVER questioned the church. They had family Bibles but never read them, instead turning to the church to 'teach' them how to worship. They practiced rituals that has no Biblical basis, but their religion was passed on from generation to generation. They automatically joined the church because that was 'expected' of them. Americans now are much more open. We do question things - especially the ideals and beliefs that are important to us. I don't think this is the case in other countries - partly because in many countries there is not as much ethnic diversity as there is here. The outside influence of different belief systems are not as strong. There are communities within our country that are inclusive to their own ethnicity - within those communities there is still a very strong pull toward the central church/synagogue/mosque. As we become less 'tied' to our specific ethnic communities - the connection to the central religion practiced by our predecesors becomes looser - and eventually we break free. I know a lot of people in my age group (mid 40's to early 50's) that say they believe in God - but don't attend church. And have not for many years. I suspect - like myself (at one time) they believe because they were taught to believe but don't really know why. They think they're supposed to believe because if they don't - something bad will happen or whatever. Maybe it's like some invisible psychological tether - if they cut it they might become lost, for all they know it may or may not be attached to something - but they are afraid or unwilling to take a chance on cutting the line. Me - I stepped away - cut the line and decided to learn and research. I cannot believe in something I know nothing about nor could I deny it. My journey brought me to belief. Am I religious? Yes. Do I practice what I have learned? Yes. (I am not always successful - but I try.) Do I attend church? No. I know I'm not the only person that 'practices' religion in an organized way. So how can a study determine that people who say they are religious but do not attend church services are 'stretching the truth' or not reaallllly practicing what they say they do. Church attendance is NOT a measure of spirituality - your actions in everyday life are.

Jim Christophersen

Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 7:09 p.m.

This study strikes me as an incredible waste of time and intellect


Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 2:23 p.m.

Considering that church is NOT just attended on Sundays - many have groups that meet throughout the week and many have several services on any given Sunday - I think it's hard to speculate as to whether or not REAL attendence is down - or just more 'spread out'. I don't attend church - but I know a lot of people that do - some don't 'belong' to a particular church and will attend services at different churches in the community. So - while they are not necessarily 'members' of a church - they are active in going to services. I have seen an increase in church goers in the past couple of years - just from the increased parking and traffic at the churches here on Sundays between 8 am and noon. It would be interesting to see how the researchers came to the conclusion that people said they attended services regularly but in reality - did not. Did they follow these people to verify that they attended church? Just wondering.


Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 1:37 p.m.

yeah, this is a big surprise. People of faith making up stuff.