What We Say About Our Religion, And What We Do

A recent Pew survey found that an unprecedented one in five Americans now say they are not affiliated with any religious denomination. Or, looked at another way, nearly four out of five identify with an organized faith. Research also shows those Americans overstate how often they go to church by about half.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Religion has come up less often in this year's presidential campaign than in some others. But beneath the headlines, American religious practices are evolving.

A new study from the Pew Research Center showed that 79 percent of Americans identify with an organized faith group. By that measure, this is a deeply religious country - more so than many countries, for example, in Europe.

NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has been looking more closely at that number.

Shankar, what are you looking for?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: I wanted to know if it held up, Steve. You know, by any measure, as you point out, the United States is a significant outlier when it comes to how religious people say they are. You know, virtually alone in the developed world, large numbers of Americans report that they are indentified with a religious faith. Nearly half of all Americans report that they attend church every week - that's every single week, compared to Western Europe, for example, where maybe about 20 percent of people say they attend church.

Now, it's a little bit more in Catholic countries, a little bit less in Protestant countries. But that's the big picture, which is that the United States really is very different from most other countries. But there's a problem with all these numbers, which is they're all based on what people say.

INSKEEP: Meaning that you're not sure that people do the same things that they say?

VEDANTAM: Well, leaders of several religious denominations for many years in the United States have said if 45 percent of Americans are attending church every Sunday, the pews should be packed. And in many churches, in many denominations...

INSKEEP: They're not.

VEDANTAM: ...that's simply not the case. Now, I spoke with a sociologist who studies church attendance. His name is Philip Brenner. He's at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. And he told me that he suspected that when you ask people whether they attend church, they actually end up answering a somewhat different question. Here he is.

PHILIP BRENNER: The question that asks how often do you attend becomes a question like: Are the sort of person who attends? The respondent hears the question how often do you attend and interprets the question to be: Are you the sort of person who attends?

INSKEEP: What you're really finding out here is I think I'm the sort of person who should attend church and I don't want to admit otherwise, so I might tell you I go, whether I do or not.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. So the question is about your behavior. What is it you're doing? The answer might be about people's identity. Am I the kind of person who attends church?

INSKEEP: OK. So, you can't necessarily rely on people's own testimony as to whether they attend church. So is there is a better way to measure this?

VEDANTAM: Yeah. So Brenner has been playing with this idea called the Time Diary Method, and he's been following studies that have used this Time Diary Method. And let me tell you what that is.

So, rather than tell people you're asking about their church attendance, what you do is you march people through their week and have them describe to you exactly what they're doing at any given moment. So you say: What were you doing at four o'clock in the morning on Sunday? And most people will say: I was asleep. And then you ask them: What did you do next? Who were you with? Where did you go?

And when you march people through the week in this manner, it turns out only about 24 percent of Americans actually report attending religious services in the past week. And Brenner told me there's two things that's very interesting about this. What this suggests is that in actual religious practice, Americans might not be that different from people in Western Europe when it comes to what they do, but they might be very different for people in Western Europe when it comes to reporting what they do.

BRENNER: Americans significantly over-report their church attendance, and have consistently done that since the 1970s. But we don't see substantive over-reporting in Western Europe.

INSKEEP: So, basically, what we're finding out is that Europeans are more comfortable saying they don't show up on Sunday.

VEDANTAM: Well, sometimes they say they show up. I think what we're finding is that when people in Europe say they show up in church, they actually show up in church. So a variety of studies, Steve, have shown that when 45 percent of the Irish say they attend church every week, when you look at it using the Time Diary Method, 45 percent of the Irish actually are in church every week.

When 10 percent of Scandinavians tell pollsters that they're in church every week, the Time Diary Method shows 10 percent of them actually are in church every week. By contrast, 45 percent of Americans say they attend church every week. In reality, only about half as many do.

INSKEEP: OK. Why are we collectively - at least according to these studies - more likely to fake it?

VEDANTAM: Well, Brenner seems to think that there are questions in every country that are sensitive questions. And let me give you an example from a completely different field. If I were to ask you how often you exercise or how often you floss your teeth, right, you're likely to report to me that you work out much more regularly than you actually do, and that you floss your teeth much more regularly than you actually do.

So I don't know if there's a better way to put it, but it turns out that when it comes to religious behavior, Americans report attending church the same way they report flossing their teeth: lots of people say they do it, not many people actually do.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You can also follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep.

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