Support RNS

(RNS) “I know what you did last Sunday,” claims the title of a new survey.

Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Nearly one in seven of you fibbed about attending church, according to a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute released Saturday (May 17). Photograph of empty church pews taken inside a Catholic church in Kansas City, Mo., on Oct. 9, 2012. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

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 Saturday (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 go.”

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 attendance:

– 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.

"Differences in Reported Attendance by Survey Mode Among Religious Groups" graph courtesy of PRRI

“Differences in Reported Attendance by Survey Mode Among Religious Groups” graph courtesy of PRRI


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.

KRE/MG END GROSSMAN

33 Comments

  1. WHAT???
    Christians telling lies! But, but..How can they get away with that?
    Oh, right. They are Christians.

    At least the belief in God is dying off.

      • @HOLLY

        YES indeed!
        Vicarious redemption is the most immoral concept ever invented as is the gross, barbaric superstition that you can benefit personally from the torture and misery of another human being.

        Ask me to count the ways in which Christians are more immoral than Atheists and I’ll fill this page.

        • What a waste of time, Max and Larry. Boasting that you are more moral than Christians.

          Did it ever occur to you that even if you are 100 percent correct in all cases, you’ve just displayed Pharisee-level hubris instead of humility about it? Sheesh.

          Atheism = No Common Sense. Next religion please.

          • @Doc,

            What is ethical about arranging for a person to be tortured and killed for your personal benefit?

            Yes, I’ll go way out on a limb as to say I am morally superior to that.

          • Doc, I AM more moral than you. Most people actually are. You are not a nice or pleasant person under most conditions.
            -I don’t extol discrimination like you do.
            -I don’t claim people are heading towards eternal torment.
            -I don’t blame my views on literature from antiquity.
            -I don’t deny people who believe differently than I do are “not real” religions or sects.
            Most importantly
            -I don’t excuse my actions by outsourcing moral decisions to an arbitrary outside authority, as all Christians are expected to do.

            I thought I might be displaying some hubris, but then in perspective, not really. Certainly not compared to the self-important nonsense coming out of many people professing to be Christians, like yourself.

            They seem to act like they are the sole arbiters as to who has a real religious belief and who is a Christian. As if God granted them such authority on the spot. THAT is hubris.

          • @Doc Anthony

            Atheism is not a religion. Is humility believing your religion has all the answers to the universe while the rest of humanity waits to die and burn in a fiery pit of hell?

            I’m an atheist b/c I don’t have such answers. However, as an adult, my common sense prevents me from believing in imaginary friends (deities, demons, monster, ghosts or goblins).

    • The belief in God is dying off? Well Max, of course it–the ‘god’ of theism and atheism–is. And it is about time. In the 1930s, I also stopped believing in the fairies and the Santa Claus myth.

      G~Õ~D–that which Generates Organizes & Delivers all that is Good, Optimal & Delightful–however, is not to be confused with ‘God’, or ‘gods’. Unless, you believe it is okay to Generate, Organize & Deliver that which is Gruesome, Odious & Diabolic, :) . Do you? Sincerely, lindsayking.ca

      • God is just a vestigial limb from evolution.

        The desire to look upward toward a dominant father figure is part of the evolutionary process. All children are born looking for parents. They would not survive without it.

        Baby teeth, baby hair and other infant features are outgrown in a few years.
        But in many cultures the infantile search for the parent is kept alive through religion. Indeed it is forbidden to outgrow it in many countries.

        So, after being a Christian for 44 years I came to the realization that I had to pull out that last baby tooth.

        It wasn’t easy. There is no Hell, no punishment for abandoning God any more than there would be for throwing out a baby tooth.
        Life is so much better as a grown up.

  2. Cathy,
    Thank You for the story. It is fascinating.
    The obligation to be religious is so dominant that even ‘Nones’ feel obliged to say they go to church once in awhile.

    Such is the poison of religion; there are a long list of ‘shoulds’ and going to church is one of them.

  3. So, American Christians are claiming to be regular church-goers but aren’t going to church after all? Could they really be guilty of a kind of hypocrisy, which the founder of their own religion explicitly forbid them ever to engage in? Say it ain’t so!

  4. If it ain’t true, why, it should be, so they’ll say it anyway as if it were. Sometimes this is actually lauded in Christian circles; when I was a Christian, we called it claiming victory–to smile when we were distressed, or act very very positive of some Christian claim that we secretly doubted, or even to say we did something regularly like praying or fasting when we almost never did those things. This was walking in faith or speaking truth to power, and we were all sure our faith would be rewarded by what we claimed really happening. “Fake it till you make it” is the more vulgar modern saying, but I think most honest Christians and ex-Christians would recognize the mindset immediately. That outsiders consider it flat lying to say stuff that isn’t true made Christians I knew quite indignant. It wasn’t a lie, not really; it just wasn’t true yet. And even if that wasn’t the case, then anything was justified that got converts babbling the Sinner’s Prayer or Christians more certain of their faith; that’s why Christians tend to cling to urban legends and obviously false “miracle” claims, and tend to get angry not at the spreaders of these lies but at the people requesting proof of their happening or criticizing them in any way.

    Incidentally, there’s a whole name for this idea: lying for Jesus.

    I really wonder sometimes what would happen if Christians all over the world put their foot down and said no, they would not ever again say something untrue no matter how justified they think it might be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.