- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2014

American churchgoers tend to fib about how often they actually go to church, regardless of their denomination, a recent study shows.

A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that Americans are more likely to overestimate their attendance at religious services if they are asked about it by someone on the phone, compared to answering the question online.

The study found that 36 percent of people surveyed by phone said they attended a religious service “weekly or more,” compared to 31 percent who took the survey online.

Daniel Cox, the institute’s research director, said the results point to the phenomenon as just a normal part of being religious.

“That’s strongly felt across religious traditions,” Mr. Cox said. “Even among the unaffiliated, the group that will tell the interviewers they’re not anything in particular, yet they don’t want to never admit to going to church or synagogue.

“It’s interesting, this sort of social influence that pervades. It’s sort of evident of the cultural importance that religion has and continues to have.”

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About 33 percent of telephone respondents said they “occasionally” attend religious services, compared to 25 percent online. And about 30 percent of telephone respondents said they seldom or never attend services, compared to 43 percent of online survey takers.

That pattern applied for nearly all of the surveyed groups, which included white evangelical Protestants, black Protestants, white mainline Protestants, Catholics, and the “unaffiliated.” (Followers of other religions such as Judaism and Islam were not sufficiently represented in the random-sample survey for results to be determined.)

“Because religious behaviors such as religious service attendance are widely regarded as positive, self-reported behavior is susceptible to exaggeration,” the study found. “The problem of social desirability bias is most pronounced when respondents believe they are sharing the information publicly, such as when questions are posed directly by an interviewer.”

The research institute queried 2,002 adults by phone in July and 2,317 online in September. The telephone survey has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.6 percentage points, and the online survey has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.5 percentage points.

Across the different groups, the biggest differences were seen in people admitting they “seldom or never” attend a religious service.

Catholics: 33 percent of online survey takers and 15 percent of telephone respondents said they “seldom or never” attend Mass.

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White mainline Protestants: 45 percent of online survey takers and 28 percent of telephone respondents said they “seldom or never” attend services.

White evangelicals: 17 percent of online survey takers and 9 percent of telephone respondents said they “seldom or never” attend church.

Black Protestants: 24 percent of online survey takers and 14 percent of telephone respondents said they “seldom or never” attend services.

While people may be less likely to admit they don’t attend services often, the research institute found that people tended to answer equally as truthfully on the phone and online about their religious affiliation and beliefs.

“I think being attached to an institution is less important, it’s not viewed as negatively,” Mr. Cox said. “Simply saying you’re not attached to the Catholic Church, I don’t think there’s the same kind of weight.”

Even being labeled an atheist, is “becoming increasingly accepted,” Mr. Cox said. “Compared to where the United States was in the 1950s, considerably more people are at least tolerant.”

The researcher said he couldn’t pinpoint “this sort of tipping point where it’s OK to say I don’t believe in God, or religion is not that important,” but added that the change is likely to start among younger generations.

Nonetheless, people in the 18-29 age bracket were more likely to overreport their attendance. Despite the contradiction, the next generation is “the most diverse generation we’ve ever had; religiously, racially, ethnically, they’re exposed to different ideas. If it’s going happen anywhere, it’s going to happen there,” Mr. Cox said.

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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