Survey Reveals Polling Bias

By Dan Barker

Many have suspected it, but now there's proof: Americans are not as religious as the polls report.
Only half of those who say they regularly attend church actually do!

According to the traditional polls, 40% of the United States population reports attending church regularly. This figure has held remarkably constant for decades. Responding to a 1992 Gallup poll asking, "Did you, yourself, happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days?" 42% of adult Americans said "Yes."

But a new study questions this prevailing wisdom. "What The Polls Don't Show: A Closer Look At U.S. Church Attendance" was published in the December 1993 American Sociological Review, casting serious doubt on the supposedly high rate of regular church attendance. The authors are C. Kirk Hadaway (United Church Board for Homeland Ministries and Adjunct Faculty at Hartford Seminary), Penny Long Marler (Assistant Professor of Religion at Samford University), and Mark Chaves (Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame).

"In the sociological literature," the three scholars write, "this high participation rate [40%] is prominently and widely cited to bolster attacks against the secularization hypothesis." They give widespread examples of this "social fact" in sociology texts, history texts, and journalism.

But many observers have doubted this characterization of high American religiosity--it doesn't seem to square with reality. This is especially true among many "old-line" Protestant denominations that have experienced membership losses and slowing growth rates the past few decades.

"Consistently high levels of church attendance and a growing U.S. population suggest that most major denominations should be thriving and growing," the authors point out, "[y]et most are not. Claims that losses in old-line denominations are more than offset by gains in evangelical denominations . . . do not suffice. In addition to the fact that evangelical gains simply are not numerically large enough, Americans in declining denominations still claim high levels of membership and attendance."

Church members appear to be "over-reporting" (to phrase it politely) their attendance. It has long been known that people tend to make themselves look better than they are in surveys. Overreporting (or underreporting) is often due to "social desirability" factors. Many people, for example, tell pollsters that they vote regularly, although their names are absent from voting records. Many youths underreport deviant behavior, such as substance abuse.

Suspecting that poll respondents "substantially overstate actual church attendance," Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves hit upon a novel idea. First they did a poll, then they did a head count.

Then they compared the polls to the pews. Using a variety of data sources and strategies, they estimated count-based church rates among Protestants and Catholics in a rural Ohio county (Ashtabula) and among Catholics in 18 dioceses nationwide.

To be as accurate as possible, the authors located every single church in the county, driving the length of every road. They found 172 Christian churches, 44 more than the 128 listed for Ashtabula County in Churches and Church Membership in the United States 1990. Some congregations were counted physically, and average attendance counts were received from other churches through denominational yearbooks, telephone interviews, and letters. (It is not to be expected that churches would underreport their attendance.)

"The results are dramatic," they write. Church attendance rates "are approximately one-half the generally accepted levels."

Although 35.8% of Protestants said they regularly attend church, only 19.6% showed up. The 35.8% survey result is consistent with 1991 statewide and 1992 Cincinnati polls yielding 36%.

Only 25% of Catholics were counted in church, compared to 51% reported. The 51% survey result is similar to polls in New York (44.8%), Chicago (48.5%) and Cincinnati (59.3%).

One of the harshest attacks on this new study came from Catholic priest/sociologist Andrew Greeley, who called it "a sloppy piece of work," according to Christian Century. But Gerald Marwell, the review editor who decided to publish the study, said he was not surprised by Greeley's reaction: "To some extent he [Greeley] was one of the people who is argued against in the research." Marwell pointed out that the ASR study was reviewed before publication by a panel of noted sociologists.

"To generalize from a county in Ohio to all of Protestant America is irresponsible," said Greeley. Marwell responded that the burden of proof is on the critics to demonstrate how the county in this study is out of line with the rest of the nation.

Jay Demerath, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, responded to the survey's conclusion that Americans have been inflating church attendance. He said: "I think the study needs to be taken very seriously indeed. . . . Gallup and other pollsters are aware of this. It's kind of a dirty little secret."

The implications are obvious. If church attendance reports are unreliable, what about other "facts" of American religiosity? What about belief in God?

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