America: one nation pretending to be under God

December 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

The United States has always been considered unusually religious compared to the rest of the developed world. This isn’t right. The US isn’t any more religious than secular Europe: rather, it simply pretends to be.

Standard polling techniques have Americans proclaiming considerably higher levels of religious belief and religious practice than their European counterparts. Perhaps the best data of this sort is from Gallup: in their 2009 poll about religion, the US scored much higher than the average developed nations (65% versus 38%). In terms of belief, around 80% of Americans believe that God exists (compare to the UK at 38%, France at 35% or Germany at 47% in the 2005 Eurobarometer poll). Ditto religious behaviour: 40 or so % say they’ve attended church in the last seven days, compared to 20-30% for western Europe.

One question was whether these differences represented Americans really praying more or filling church pews more often than the Europeans, or just them saying they did. People tend to slant their responses to those that paint them in the most socially desirable light – perhaps if profession to religiousity had different social consequences between the ‘States and Europe, then this might explain the different patterns of response.

There are a few ways of settling the question properly. One approach is to do ‘time-use’ interviews where you simply ask what someone did each day of a week, and then see who mentions church. If interviewees aren’t asked directly about religious participation, it’s fairly unlikely they would make an episode up for self-portrayal purposes. The second is to compare results between interviewer given tests and those of anonymous questionaires – the latter reduce social desirability. Another, elegant, test to simply assess the size of congregations: whether the number of people actually at church in a given week matches up to those who say they go weekly.

The results all show Americans over report their religious practices, and the ‘real’ figures of religious practice closely mirror those of Europe. ‘Time-use’ interviews give religious practice at around 24-25% for Americans – unremarkable and in line with European countries. What is remarkable is the degree of over reporting, of the order of 10 to 18% (the runner up is Ireland, with 2-4%) (Brenner Forthcoming). Comparing interviewer to anonymous surveys gives a similar story – the interviewer reported rates are far higher than those reported anonymously (and, interesting, although interviewer-report has remained fairly constant at 40%, self report shows a creeping trend of secularization)  (Presser and Stinson 1998). Looking at bums on pews reveals a similar picture: congregation numbers suggest around 22% regularly attend religious services (Hadaway and Marler 2005).

America is an outlier in the western world about it’s religious practice. But it’s not an outlier in it’s level of religious practice; it’s an outlier in how much it lies about it.


Brenner P. (Forthcoming) Exceptional behavior or exceptional identity? Overreporting of Church Attendance in the US. Public Opinion Quarterly

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

Presser S, Stinson L. (1998) Data collection mode and social desirability bias in self-reported religious attendance. American Sociological Review 63(1): 137-145


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