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Americans Significantly Inflate Religious Participation, New Study Finds

Catholics and white mainline Protestants most likely religious groups to exaggerate church attendance 

WASHINGTON – Despite a changing religious landscape in which more people feel comfortable describing themselves as “unaffiliated,” Americans still significantly exaggerate how often they attend religious services. While every subgroup of Americans measured over-reports their levels of religious participation, young adults, Catholics and white mainline Protestants are particularly likely to inflate the frequency of their attendance at religious services.

The new study, entitled “I Know What You Did Last Sunday: Measuring Social Desirability Bias in Self-Reported Religious Behavior, Belief, and Belonging,” was conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute and presented at the national meeting of the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). The unique study asked random samples of Americans identical questions about religious attendance, affiliation, salience and belief in God on two surveys – one via telephone and the other online – and compared the results. It found that on the telephone survey, 36 percent of Americans report attending religious services weekly or more, compared to 31 percent on the online survey. Compared to telephone respondents, online survey respondents were also much more much more willing to say they attend religious services seldom or never (43 percent vs. 30 percent).

“The existence of religious participation inflation demonstrates that church attendance remains a strong social norm in the U.S.,’” said Robert P. Jones, co-author of the study and CEO of PRRI. “The impact of these norms – what social scientists call ‘social desirability bias’ – is that respondents talking to live interviewers on the telephone are less willing to admit lower levels of participation in an activity deemed to be socially good. Respondents completing the survey privately online are less apt to feel this pressure.”

The inflation of religious participation varies considerably by religious affiliation. Catholics and white mainline Protestants are more likely than white evangelical Protestants to over-report. When interviewed by telephone, fewer than 3-in-10 (29 percent) white mainline Protestants report that they seldom or never attend religious services, compared to 45 percent in the self-administered online survey. Catholics are less than half as likely to report seldom or never attending religious services when responding on the telephone versus online (15 percent vs. 33 percent). Among white evangelical Protestants, the differences are less stark: 9 percent report they seldom or never attend religious services when speaking with a live interviewer, compared to 17 percent who report the same in a self-administered survey. Among black Protestants, the differences between modes are also not as glaring. Only 14 percent of black Protestants report seldom or never attending on a telephone survey, compared to nearly one-quarter (24 percent) on the online survey. Surprisingly, the social desirability effects are strong among the religiously unaffiliated. While 73 percent say they seldom or never attend religious services in a telephone survey, that number jumps nearly 20 percentage points to 91 percent on an online survey.

“Even among Americans who claim no religious affiliation, the social pressure to report at least nominal religious engagement is still quite strong,” said Daniel Cox, co-author of the study and PRRI’s Director of Research. “Very few people are willing to admit that they never attend religious services, even though many of us don’t.”

There are also notable differences between younger and older Americans in the degree to which they over-report religious participation, as well as significant variations in different regions of the country. The study was presented today at the American Association for Public Opinion Research Annual Conference in Anaheim, California.


The study tested the impact of social desirability bias by comparing the results of a series of identical questions that measure religious behavior, belief and belonging across different modes of survey administration: a live interviewer telephone survey and an online self-administered survey. Both surveys were conducted in 2013 among a random sample of adults age 18 and older currently living in the U.S. The telephone survey included 2,002 adult respondents; 60% were interviewed on a landline telephone and 40% were interviewed on a cellular telephone. The online survey was conducted among a random sample of 2,317 adults who are part of GfK’s Knowledge Panel, a nationally representative probability sample of the U.S. population.

Read the entire paper here.