How Religious are Americans? Not as Much as You Think.

Americans are famously religious compared to other countries in the West.  But new studies have peeked behind the curtain to determine how religious Americans really are.

Turns out: not so much.

Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do.  The results are surprising.  Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries.  Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are.

The question “How often do you go to church?” confronts Americans in ways that it doesn’t elsewhere in the West.  They see it as a question with a correct answer, and this has skewed poll results.

What else does this need to give the “correct” answer hide?  If Americans fib when reporting their church attendance, might they be doing the same when answering questions about their own belief?  Perhaps this explains the dramatic rise in the number of “Nones” (those who check “None of the Above” on religious surveys).  We may not be seeing a loss of faith but an increase in honesty.

Clues to this mismatch between poll results and reality have been glaring for a while.

Even as pundits theorized about why Americans were so much more religious than Europeans, quiet voices on the ground asked how, if so many Americans were attending services, the pews of so many churches could be deserted.

In fact, actual church attendance is about half what people report.

We may have been asking the wrong question.  Instead of, “Why are Americans so much more religious?” the more pointed question may be, “Why are Americans so much more compelled to portray themselves as religious?”  If we can tear down some of the barriers to honesty, helping them feel comfortable being open about their disbelief, religious Americans might be able to be open about their true beliefs.  Or lack thereof.

Photo credit: Mark Bridge

Related articles:

  • Shankar Vedantam, “Walking Santa, Talking Christ,” Slate, 12/22/10.

18 thoughts on “How Religious are Americans? Not as Much as You Think.

  1. Tada! We Agree!!

    Very true compaired to the population of America there are very few true Born again believers. Those with “saving faith”. As the Bible say many are called but few are chosen!

    But do not worry Christianity is not going anywhere. God will call His elect untill the final day of judgement! His Church will always be here! And we will continue to fulfill the great commision.

    • Isn’t it odd that Jesus the Teacher, with the most important message possible, has such a poor graduation rate? Most ordinary teachers graduate 100% of their class. Why can’t Jesus do the same?

  2. Jesus only came to save His sheep. Not one more or not one less..God has decreed who He will save before the foundation of the world..
    1) God could have saved everyone.
    2) God could have saved no one
    3) God could save those He choose and leave the rest to the desires of their sinfull hearts.

    God has elected option 3 For His own good pleasure and His own glory.

    • To BobC,

      I would say that God gives everyone a chance to be saved, even if they are atheists or muslims. It could be that people are not believers because they never met the real God, only cheap caricatures. And even if someone explained the real thing to them, we still could not be sure that they correctly understood.

  3. Yes, And by nothing on my part. And by nothing in my nature, I was no different than you. But God has choosen me and has taken out my heart of stone and given me a heart of flesh,
    God loved me before I ever loved him.

    And thanks for asking!

    • That’s a popular claim. How do you know?

      Don’t you say that God’s ways are not Man’s ways? You anticipate that God will let you into heaven, but who knows? You might get there and he’ll say, “My ways are not your ways” and you’ll wind up in hell.

    • To BobC,

      Come on, no one can know with perfect certainty whether one will make it to heaven.

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  5. First to Bob the Atheist:

    God is not a liar is how I know I am going to heaven. God had to first love me, that i could even love Him..God has supernaturally changed my heart by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit..That is how I know..God has made me a new creature..And after 30years I hunger and thirst more and more for God.
    All these are what the Bible says will happen if God elects you.. And all these have happened to me..I could have never made myself feel like this..Or even wanted to fell like this.

    • God is not a liar is how I know I am going to heaven.

      Let’s grant that assumption. But let’s also grant that you’re fallible. You can’t understand things the same way that God does. You could show up at the Pearly Gates and God says, “Sorry, pal!” and down to hell you go. His ways are not your ways, right?

      If you want to believe or need to believe, that’s yours to decide. I’m just suggesting that if you believe for emotional reasons that you simply accept that and not try to delude anyone (including yourself) that you believe for intellectual reasons.

  6. And Second to Random Function 2

    THe Bible is my standard for absolute truth.
    So you comment on God saving people outsied of a belief in Jesus Christ is not a possibilty.

    As Jesus said: …Unless you believe that I AM HE you will die in your sins.
    The use of the term I AM in the GREEK is (ego eimi) whicj GOd in the OT uses of Himself in Isaiah and Genesis..So not only must one believe in Jesus, he must also beleive Jesus is the” I Am”..GOD..

    And to your second statement about one can not know perfectly is they are going to heaven… Is also false.. Jesus knows His shep and they know Him…John10.
    Are you an Athesist? I never asked you?

    • To BobC,

      I’m not an atheist, but I’m not a Christian either (or at best half a Christian).

      Still, catholic theology has a less literal interpretation of the Bible than yours. One may believe implicitly in Christ, that is, in the divine Logos, if one seeks the truth honestly and follows the rules of one’s conscience.

      Don’t forget that many atheists reject false gods that they mistake for the Christian God. They are really rejecting the Antichrist. For some reason, they have not understood what the Christian God is, and it’s not necessarily their fault.

  7. Random,
    So you are a Roman Catholic?
    Romans 1 says the complete opposite of what you just said. Almost word for word!
    You say for some reason they ( Atheist) have not understood what the Christian God is, and it is not their fault..
    When Romans 1 says They do know this God but reject Him in their unrighteousenss, and they are without excuse.
    Best read the book of Romans…Especally Chapters 3, 4, 8, and 9, May change you look on things.

    • To BobC,

      No, I’m not a Catholic, though I have been influenced by Catholic theology. I do think that you should not blindly rely on a literal interpretation of the Bible and that you should more use your reason. Because Christians say that God is the creator of our reason, and “truth cannot contradict truth”, which means that rational truths cannot contradict the correct interpretation of Scripture.

  8. My biblical hermenutics and exegesis of the Bible are correct. We look at the original language, who it is written to, the contex, and the Holy Spirit as our source of interpretation of scripture, which is only for Jesus sheep.
    1Cr 2:14 But ]a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
    As you can see the noetic effect of sin does not let the unbeliever understand the spirituall things of the Bible.

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