How Religious Are Americans, Really?
Is it easier to pretend that we go to church?
Posted Jun 18, 2012
For a developed country, the U.S. is very religious (1). Some 65 percent of Americans say that religion is important in their daily lives compared to just 17 percent of Swedes, 19 percent of Danes, and 24 percent of Japanese according to Gallup data (2).
In general, there is plenty of evidence that religion is losing its power and influence in the U.S. as it is in other developed countries. According to Steve Bruce (3):
First, there is ample evidence of Christianity in the USA losing power, prestige and popularity. Secondly, there is ample evidence that Christianity in the USA has changed in ways expected by the secularization paradigm: greater emphasis on individual choice, a shift from other-worldly to this-worldly salvation, and an increasing therapeutic orientation to religion. Thirdly, … there has been no significant reversal of the major trend of religion becoming marginal to the operation of the social system.
Even so, if 65 percent of Americans say that religion is important to them, surely the majority would also be going to church on Sunday. We have all seen the pictures of crowded mosques at Friday prayer in conservative Muslim countries. If the U.S. population is as religious as survey responders say, then it would be hard to find a seat in most churches on Sunday.
Critics of the secularization thesis point to Gallup data on self-reported church attendance that have hovered above 40 percent during the past half century. This is substantial, if still a minority. During the 1990s, scholars became aware that the numbers claiming to attend church each week were starkly inconsistent with the number of empty pews. As Steve Bruce states:
In surveys conducted by Gallup and other competent organizations, about 35 percent of self-defined Episcopalians said they had been to church in the previous seven days. But the Church’s own figures suggest that only 16 percent actually did so.
Sociologist C. Kirk Hadaway and coworkers (4) found that actual church attendances were far lower than attendance rates claimed in surveys. He measured actual attendance rates by counting the congregations of all the churches in Ashtabula County, Ohio. Ashtabuleans claimed attendance rates that were 83 percent higher than their actual attendance.
These results were also verified in research by sociologist Penny Long Marler on a large Baptist congregation in Alabama. About 40 percent of this congregation actually showed up at Sunday services. When surveyed during the following week, approximately 70 percent said that they had attended. So the self-reported attendance rates for this conservative church with unusually high attendance rates by national standards were inflated by about 75 percent.
Using self-reported church attendance in the U.S. to claim that religion has not declined is using a rubber ruler. When 40 percent of Americans said that they attended church in the 1950s, most of them really did go to church. When the same number claimed to attend forty years later, however, almost half of them were lying. In reality, a huge majority of Americans, about four in five, do not go to church on a regular basis, although they clearly believe that they ought to go to church. Otherwise, they would not go to the trouble of lying about it. Still, using data on people’s willingness to lie about going to church to discredit a secularization trend for the U.S. is absurd.
Contemporary Americans are not big on going to church. Contributing to religious charities is one aspect of religious commitment that really has not changed. It remained at the same level in the late 1980s as it had been 50 years earlier despite the fact that incomes rose (3). Corrected for income level, there has been a steep drop in monetary commitment to churches. Americans gave just 1.6 percent of their incomes to the church in 1983 compared to 2.2 percent in 1963, a relative drop of 37%.
By most objective measures, religion declined steeply in the U.S. over the past half-century. Subjective measures are more stable. The majority of Americans still believe in God (about 76 percent, with 12 percent atheists and 12 percent agnostic, 5) and say that religion is important in their lives. Religion remains stronger here than in Europe whether one looks at objective evidence or self reports. But that is not saying much.
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/
3. Bruce, S. (2002). God is dead: Secularization in the West. London: Blackwell.
4. Hadaway. C. K., Marler, P. L. (2005). How many Americans attend worship each week? An alternative approach to measurement.. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 44, 307-322.
5. Kosmin, B. A., & Keysar, A. (2011). American religious identification survey: Summary report. Hartford, CT: Trinity College.