But it’s been evident for years that Americans tend to overstate their own religiosity: There is a persistent gap between the number of people who claim to go to worship services and the number who can actually be counted in pews.
The gap grows more striking as America becomes more secular. In recent years, poll after poll has found more Americans who do not identify with a religious tradition, and many denominations show evidence of decline. And yet, more than 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God or a universal spirit, and nearly 40 percent report weekly attendance at a worship service, numbers that have remained relatively unchanged for decades.
What’s going on? A study released last week suggests that the gradual secularization of the nation has not eliminated the perceived social desirability of going to church, and the result is that Americans exaggerate their religious behavior.
That exaggeration is more pronounced among some groups — Catholics, mainline Protestants and, strikingly, the unaffiliated, meaning that even people willing to say they don’t belong to a religious tradition still feel compelled to exaggerate their attendance at worship services.
The study, by the Public Religion Research Institute , used an intriguing method to try to measure exaggeration: It asked the same set of questions in telephone interviews, and in an online survey, and compared the results.
Researchers say that online surveys, with their lack of human questioners, significantly reduce “social desirability bias” in polling — the tendency of people to exaggerate behaviors that they think will impress others.
In this study, the group that took the online surveys reported much lower levels of worship attendance than those interviewed by telephone.