The US is not as religious as you think it is

There is a distinct impression that folks in the US are very religious, more so than those within other industrialized nations.This is often confirmed by opinion polls. Shankar Vedantam has some numbers for you in a Slate article …

Two in five Americans say they regularly attend religious services. Upward of 90 percent of all Americans believe in God, pollsters report, and more than 70 percent have absolutely no doubt that God exists. The patron saint of Christmas, Americans insist, is the emaciated hero on the Cross, not the obese fellow in the overstuffed costume.

So there you have it, its a fact … or is it? Well, thats just why Shankar Vedantam has written his article, its to question these poll numbers, because when some proper analysis is done, it turns out that these poll results have a serious flaw that greatly skews the numbers.

Have people been telling lies just to distort the numbers? No, its a little bit more complex and has a lot to do with cultural identity. Here in the UK, we often see something similar. The Church of England is the official state Church and so many, when challenged, will self-identify as Church-of-England even if they only actually go three times in their entire life. Least you wonder, thats for hatching, matching and dispatching, so it can be argued that such cases are more about cultural expectations and not very much to do with personal religious belief. Apparently its a similar experience in the US. As explained in his article …

Beyond the polls, social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses of religious behavior. Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries …

Religion in America seems tied up with questions of identity …When you ask Americans about their religious beliefs, it’s like asking them whether they are good people, or asking whether they are patriots. They’ll say yes, … Asking people how often they attend church elicits answers about their identity—who people think they are or feel they ought to be, rather than what they actually believe and do.

Ah now that is fascinating, and not so different from folks who tick the C of E box on UK surveys, but never actually go. This then begs the question, what are the real numbers, or for that matter, how do you even get the real numbers?

Hadaway and his colleagues compared actual attendance counts with church members’ reports about their attendance in 18 Catholic dioceses across the country and Protestants in a rural Ohio county.* They found that actual “church attendance rates for Protestants and Catholics are approximately one half” of what people reported.

So if thats the case, then how the heck do you get people to tell you what they really do and so confirm this? Well, the researchers needed to account for the cultural quirk, so instead of making it a directly religious poll, they instead took a different approach by asking people to document what they did at the weekend. Now thats smart, it makes it religious neutral and so enables them to note who actually went to church without actually asking … and sure enough, as expected, the quantity of church attendance drops by 50% when you measure like this.

So when faced with claims that the US is a highly Christian nation, be skeptical. If you are then given poll results as proof, you are fully justified in retaining that skeptical view, because the polls themselves have now been proven to be seriously flawed.

To read the full article in Slate, click here.

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