Friday, March 25, 2011

Everybody Lies -- Especially about Church Attendance

As Dr. House famously says: "Everybody lies."

As my father used to less-than-famously say, people lie about three things: voting, going to church, and their gas mileage.

This is about the middle one, the lying about church. No preaching.  Instead I'm pointing at a new Public Opinion Quarterly piece on the overreporting of church attendance in the U.S.  We've known for some time that people exaggerate their attendance at religious services, but this study does something interesting -- it looks across 14 countries to compare how Americans stack against others. 

In general, surveys suggest a "yawning divide" in religious attendance between Americans and Europeans and Canadians.  Call it American religious exceptionalism.  But is this really so?  Using diary data rather than cross-sectional surveys, Philip Brenner finds Americans to "in line with a number of European countries."  Yes, American religious attendance is high compared to other similar countries, but so high as to qualify as an "outlier" and, according to these data, looks a lot like a few other countries.

What I find interesting is why this gap exists between what we say we do, in terms of religious behavior, and what we really do.  Maybe House is right.  Maybe everybody lies.  Or maybe this has more to do with self-presentation and social desirability, a sense of how we should answer versus what we really do.

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