How many North Americans attend religious
services (and how many lie about going)?
"Americans misreport how often they vote, how much they
give to charity, and how frequently they use illegal drugs. People are not
entirely accurate in their self-reports about other areas as well. Males
exaggerate their number of sexual partners, university workers are not very
honest about reporting how many photocopies they make. Actual attendance at
museums, symphonies and operas does not match survey results. We should not
expect religious behavior to be immune to such misreporting." Kirk Hadaway,
a sociologists at the United Church of Christ, (1993) 1,2
"... despite the rhetoric, active religious participation remains a
minority interest in American life." Tom Flynn, writer for Free Inquiry
magazine, (1998). 2
1999: Reported attendance at religious services by Americans and Canadians:
Attend at least weekly
Never/almost never attend
This data is taken from the Millennium Study by
Taylor Nelson Sofres Intersearch in 1999. 3
For years, pollsters have been asking adult Americans whether they go to
religious services regularly. Typically, the specific question asks whether they
attended a service during the previous weekend. The results have been relatively
constant over time. Some recent estimates are:
38% by the National Opinion Research Center.
44% by the Institute for Social Research's World Values survey.
This institute is located at the University of Michigan. 4
The Barna Research Group reported that in 2005, "47% of
American adults [said that they] attend church in a given weekend, not
including a special event such as a wedding or a funeral."5
In earlier years,
attendance varied from 37% to 49%:
The Gallup Poll conducts yearly polls asking the question: "Did you,
yourself, happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days, or not?"
They reported the following attendance levels. 6
The margin of error is ~+mn~2%:
Between 2008 and 2014, church attendance varied little. However, between 2014 and 2017, attemdance has been reported as steadily dropping -- slightly faster than one percentage point per year.
National Election Studies' poll shows that in 1996, 25% of
adult Americans claimed to attend church, synagogue or temple every week; 12%
almost every week; 16% once or twice a month, 18% a few times a year, and 30%
never. 7 Assuming that "almost every week" means 3
weeks out of 4, then these data indicate 40% attendance.
The estimate of 40% church attendance is widely reported in the media.
Andrew Walsh, editor of the "Religion in the News" magazine and
professor of religion in public life at Trinity College, commented in 1998:
"Since the late 1930s, the Gallup Organization has been
asking pollees if they 'happened to attend' church or synagogue in the past
seven days.' Invariably, about 40 percent respond that they have done so.
Long running surveys like the General Social Survey of the
National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago,
the Harris polls, and the polling of the Barna Research Group in
California have tended to support the 40 percent figure."
"This number is so commonplace that when polling data on
church attendance is released, as it is several times each year, American
journalists usually relegate it to news notes or use it as a springboard to
other stories." 1
How many people lie about going to religious services?
Various studies in recent years have cast a grave doubt on the 40% value.
Public opinion polls generally do not report real opinions and events. They
report only the information that the individuals choose to tell the pollsters. Quite often, their answers
will be distorted by a phenomenon called "social desirability bias."
answer questions according to what they think they should be doing, rather than
what they are doing. For example,
a poll by Barna Research showed that 17% of American adults say that they tithe
-- i.e. they give 10 to 13% of their income to their
church. Only 3% actually do. 9
The gap between what they do and what they say they do is closer in the case
of religious attendance. It is "only" about 2 to 1.
Church attendance studies by Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves:
Kirk Hadaway and Penny Marler wrote:
"Like other social scientists who use survey data, we
trusted Gallup poll results because we knew they employed sound sampling
methods. Doubts emerged, however, when we compared statistics on church
membership from American denominations to Gallup's reports on church
attendance. If the percentage of Americans attending church is stable,
aggregate church membership should have increased as the American population
grew. But after adding together denominational membership statistics
(including estimates of membership for independent congregations) we found
that the aggregate membership total has been virtually static since the late
1960s. This contradiction led us to wonder if Americans were reporting the
same level of attendance to pollsters while their actual church
participation was dropping. Our first study provided an initial test of this
dynamic. Subsequent research confirmed it in important ways." 10
Hadaway, Marler, and Mark Chaves counted the number of people attending four Protestant churches in
Ashtabula County, OH, and in 18 Roman Catholic dioceses throughout the U.S. In
their 1993 report they stated that actual attendance was only about half of the
level reported in public opinion surveys: 20% vs. 40% for Protestants, and 28%
vs. 50% for Roman Catholics. 1,11
They later returned to Ashtabula County to measure attendance by Roman
Catholics. They physically counted the number of attendees at each mass over
several months. They concluded that 24% of Catholics in he county actually
attended mass. They then polled residents of the county by telephone. 51% of
Roman Catholic respondents said that they had attended church during the
previous week. Apparently, a slim majority were lying.
Later in 1993, Jay Demerath of the University of Massachusetts referred to the gap between poll results and reality. He said:
and other pollsters are aware of this. It's kind of a dirty little secret."
Many academics were not convinced that the 20% church
attendance estimate was valid. Thomas Smith of the National Opinion Research
"There's a claim that surveys lead to overreporting of
church attendance, which seems to be correct. The question is by how much.
We haven't nailed down how much Americans exaggerate." 1
In 1998-FEB, Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves published
another article reinforcing the validity of their 20% church attendance rate
estimate. Hadaway told the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
"We believe that too much trust has been placed in survey
data and not enough attention given to membership records, patterns of
giving, and even the incredulity of local church pastors when they hear that
40 percent of Americans attend church during an average week." 2, 12
Church attendance studies by Presser and Stinson:
It gets worse.
Sociologist Stanley Presser of the University of Maryland and research
assistant Linda Stinson of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics completed
a study of notes in personal diaries. These time-use diaries were maintained for
social scientific research projects in the mid-1960s, 1970s and 1990s. Those
participating in the projects were asked to keep track of their activities. The
1992-1994 diaries, for example, were used by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency to determine exposure of the participants to harmful
substances in the environment.
Presser and Stinson found that many Americans were not at church when they
claimed to be. Their best estimates are that the percentage of adults who
actually attended religious services during the previous weekend dropped from
42% in 1965 to 26% in 1994.
"We asked people, tell us everything you did in the last 24 hours so we
can know what chemicals you might have been exposed to. If somebody went to
church, they ought to tell us, but if they didn't go, they shouldn't
manufacture it. We didn't do what most polls of religious belief do, and
ask, 'Did you go to church in the last seven days?,' which some might
interpret as being asked whether they were good people and good Christians."
The Washington Post reported that the analysis
"reveals a discrepancy between the diaries and the polls, and
suggests that many Americans have been misreporting how they spend their
Sunday mornings, inflating estimates of church attendance by perhaps as
much as a third." 14
American Atheists commented:
"The researchers also found that the percentage of Americans who lie
about their attendance is increasing. Presser and Stinson described the
16-point drop off in church attendance 'really very striking'..."
If this study by Presser and Stinson is accurate,
it would indicate a substantial drop in actual church attendance from the
mid 1960s to the mid 1990s. Since the reported attendance has remained
stuck at the magical 40% figure for decades, one might conclude that the rate of
exaggeration of church attendance is increasing. Also, it would appear
that polls are to be mistrusted. Nobody really knows what the percentage
attendance is. To obtain accurate data, pollsters will have to abandon the
comfortable task of polling opinion by phone and camp out in church, synagogue,
and mosque parking lots so that they can count noses.
More recent polling results:
Tom Flynn, writing for the Free Inquiry magazine wrote:
"Some pollsters have refined their survey instruments after the 1993
Hadaway paper. Gallup changed its questions, but continued to report weekly
churchgoing at over 40%. Yet when the National Opinion Research Center
(NORC) redesigned its mammoth General Social Survey (GSS), church
attendance figures declined sharply. For many years GSS data had supported
Gallup's; the redesigned 1996 GSS reported that only between 29 and 30.5% of
Americans attended church in the last week, a figure similar to Presser and
"Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves wonder, "To what extent do these findings
challenge the conventional wisdom that Americans are a very religious
people?" At the least, they would seem to reinforce the claim that despite
the rhetoric, active religious participation remains a minority interest in
American life." 2
Over-reporting in other countries:
The 50% figure also appears to apply in
the UK. Author Monica Furlong commented on the Church of England data:
"...people questioned about how much they go to church, give
figures which, if true, would add up to twice those given by the churches."
Hadaway and Marler noted that when Gallup asked people in Great Britain what
they did during the previous weekend, and presents a list of likely activities,
they found that 14% said they went to church. But when the question that Gallup
asks in the US ("Did you, yourself, happen to attend church or
synagogue in the last seven days?") is asked in Great Britain, the weekly
attendance rate rises to 21%. They state that:
"... figures from the 1989 English Church Census
and additional attendance data from the 1996-97 UKChristian
Handbook indicate that only around 10 percent attend worship services
each week." 10
Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves repeated their Ohio study in Oxford Country in
southern Ontario, Canada. Most polls show that 20% of the adult population say that they go to
church weekly. Again, half were lying, as only about 10% actually attend church
Fluctuation in church attendance after the 9-11 terrorist
There was a surge in church attendance after the terrorist attacks on New
York City and Washington on 2001-SEP-11. Some religious leaders predicted that
the phenomenon would be short lived. Others saw it as the start of a major
revival in the U.S. According to the New York Times, Franklin Graham, son
of the well known Christian evangelist, Rev. Billy Graham, hailed it as an
enduring turn toward God. On NOV-20, Fundamentalist Christian Pat Robertson said
that the attack was:
"... bringing about one of the greatest spiritual revivals in
the history of America. ... People are turning to God. The churches are full."
It appears that, with the exception of the New York City area, the increase
lasted only about two months. By 2001-NOV-26, attendance had returned to normal. The
New York Times cites data from the Gallup Organization, which shows that
religious attendance rose from 41% in 2001-MAY to 47% by 2001-SEP-21. By early
November, attendance had sunk back to 42%.
The director of the Center for the Study of Religion at
Princeton University, Robert Wuthnow, said that the terrorists'
attacks have not changed the basic makeup of the U.S.:
About one in four of American adults is devoutly religious;
one in four is secular, and
the remaining half is mildly interested about religion.
"We are in some ways a very religious country,
especially compared to Western Europe. But we're of two minds, and the other
mind is that we really are pretty secular. We are very much a country of
consumers and shoppers, and we're quite materialistic. And as long as we can
kind of paste together a sense of control through our ordinary work and our
ordinary purchases, we're pretty happy to do that." 8
Rabbi Ronald S. Roth of West End Synagogue in Nashville, TN, said:
"We did see a larger influx for the holidays, and the mood was very
intense. I can't say, however, that this increased interest in services has
been sustained...When people face such a tragic and horrible event, they
need comfort, they need community, they need to relate to their God and
their traditions, and try to find a way to get through the pain. Once I
think people got past some of the initial shock and difficulties, they
started to get back to how it was before."
A poll conducted by Barna Research Group showed no increase in 11
of the 13 key measures of religiosity due to the terrorist attacks.
Individual churches growth rate:
Church researcher and author, Thom Rainer, led a research team that concluded in 2012 that:
"94 percent of our churches are losing ground in the communities they serve."
That is, their church attendance is not growing as fast as the population growth rate in their community. 16
Decline by denomination:
Outreach Magazine reported in 2018-APR that:
"The most significant drop in attendance came at the expense of the Catholic Church, which experienced an 11 percent decrease in its attendance percentage from 2000 to 2004. Next, and not far behind were mainline churches, which saw a 10 percent percentage decline. Evangelicals experienced the smallest drop at 1 percent." 16
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