Did You Really Go to Church This Week? Behind the Poll Data

Article excerpt

CHURCH ATTENDANCE in the U.S. is, apparently, stable and strong. Year after year 40 percent of Americans tell pollsters that they attended church or synagogue in the last seven days. From this evidence, American religion seems quite hardy, especially compared to the statistics from European nations. If the poll data can be believed, three decades of otherwise corrosive social and cultural change has left American church attendance virtually untouched.

Public opinion polls, which measure everything from church attendance to confidence in the president, provide many of the "hard facts" that social scientists (and the general public) use to understand the social world. But how much trust should we put in the polls, particularly in the accounts people give of their own behavior?

Numerous studies show that people do not accurately report their behavior to pollsters. Americans misreport how often they vote, how much they give to charity and how frequently they use illegal drugs. Their misreporting is in the expected direction: people report higher than actual figures for voting and charitable giving, lower for illegal drug use. 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. Several years ago we teamed up with sociologist Mark Chaves to test the 40 percent figure for church attendance. Our initial study, based on attendance counts in Protestant churches in one Ohio county and Catholic churches in 18 dioceses, indicated a much lower rate of religious participation than the polls report. Instead of 40 percent of Protestants attending church, we found 20 percent. Instead of 50 percent of Catholics attending church, we found 28 percent. In other words, actual church attendance was about half the rate indicated by national public opinion polls.

Gerald Marwell, then editor of American Sociological Review, said our research raised questions about "stylized facts" that are passed around "as if they were the truth." Of course, much depends on whose experience does or does not match the presumed "truth" about American church attendance.

Many people, and particularly local church pastors, did not seem surprised by our findings. In fact, a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that "plenty of religious leaders express private doubts about polls that find almost half of American adults say they worship God each week." Less congratulatory, although still confirming, were the reactions of some of our colleagues, friends and family which tended to go something like, "So you discovered what everybody else already knew," or "Well, I could have told you that church attendance wasn't that high without doing a study about it."

Others saw the truth about American church attendance quite differently. While very few laypersons or clergy seemed troubled by our findings, one active laywoman did call to protest that her suburban church was "packed" at every service.

The greatest outcry, however, came from survey organizations who produce the polls, social scientists who utilize poll findings to bolster arguments about the vitality of American religion, and a number of Roman Catholic researchers who argued that we exaggerated the overreporting in their constituency. One prominent sociologist, who represents all three groups, said our research was "a sloppy piece of work" and added, "I doubt if the subject was anything but religion that a serious science journal would publish it."

Rather than attack the research directly, the Gallup Organization tried to explain the positive (and, in its eyes, erroneous) response to it. In Emerging Trends Gallup suggested that those who doubt the validity of the 40 percent figure may be reacting to their own experience in places (such as large cities) where attendance is likely to be low. …