Various studies in recent years have cast a grave doubt on the 40% value.
Public opinion polls generally do not report real opinions and events. They report only the information that the individuals choose to tell the pollsters. Quite often, their answers will be distorted by a phenomenon called “social desirability bias.” Pollees answer questions according to what they think they should be doing, rather than what they are doing. For example, a poll by Barna Research showed that 17% of American adults say that they tithe — i.e. they give 10 to 13% of their income to their church. Only 3% actually do. 9
The gap between what they do and what they say they do is closer in the case of religious attendance. It is “only” about 2 to 1.
If this study by Presser and Stinson is accurate, it would indicate a substantial drop in actual church attendance from the mid 1960s to the mid 1990s. Since the reported attendance has remained stuck at the magical 40% figure for decades, one might conclude that the rate of exaggeration of church attendance is increasing. Also, it would appear that polls are to be mistrusted. Nobody really knows what the percentage attendance is. To obtain accurate data, pollsters will have to abandon the comfortable task of polling opinion by phone and camp out in church, synagogue, and mosque parking lots so that they can count noses.
Tom Flynn, writing for the Free Inquiry magazine wrote:
“Some pollsters have refined their survey instruments after the 1993 Hadaway paper. Gallup changed its questions, but continued to report weekly churchgoing at over 40%. Yet when the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) redesigned its mammoth General Social Survey (GSS), church attendance figures declined sharply. For many years GSS data had supported Gallup’s; the redesigned 1996 GSS reported that only between 29 and 30.5% of Americans attended church in the last week, a figure similar to Presser and Stinson’s.”
“Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves wonder, “To what extent do these findings challenge the conventional wisdom that Americans are a very religious people?” At the least, they would seem to reinforce the claim that despite the rhetoric, active religious participation remains a minority interest in American life.” 2
The director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, Robert Wuthnow, said that the terrorists’ attacks have not changed the basic makeup of the U.S.:
- About one in four of American adults is devoutly religious;
- one in four is secular, and
- the remaining half is mildly interested about religion.
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Church attendance as established by surveys is one of the main factors alleged to illustrate the depth of religious feeling in America. Depending on which poll you consult, between 33 percent and 43 percent of Americans claim to attend church weekly. Using the low end of that range, we get a figure of around a hundred million people. Even cursory crack research, however, reveals that this might not be true, for the simple reason that there might not be enough seats in all churches in America to hold nearly as many people.
According to a study conducted for the Catholic Biblical Federation in 2008, 93 percent of Americans have at least one copy of the Bible at home. Twenty-seven percent of Americans surveyed believe that the Bible is “the actual word of God, which must be taken literally, word for word,” and 78 percent view its contents as true. Almost half of American respondents agree–either somewhat or completely–with the statement “The Bible should be studied at school,” and 56 percent have given a Bible as a gift at least once. In addition, a Harris poll conducted the same year showed that Americans overwhelmingly name the Bible as their favorite book.
One might deduct from these numbers that the Americans’ knowledge of the Bible is at least somewhat satisfactory. Nobody could like the Bible, let alone maintain that its contents are true, give it as a gift, or recommend that it be taught in schools, without possessing at least an elementary awareness of its teachings. In order to agree that the Bible contains the unerring pronouncements of God, which are to be taken literally, word for word, from beginning to end, one must necessarily be acquainted with what these pronouncements are.
Not so. According to polls, a mere half of Americans are able to name a single Gospel, and a majority are unfamiliar with the fact that Genesis is the first book of the Bible. Thomas, according to 22 percent of Americans, wrote one of the books, and Sodom and Gomorrah were married, if we are to listen to half of American high school seniors.
While a majority of Americans maintain that they use the ten biblical commandments as a life guide, 60 percent are unable to name more than four. Among adult and teen believers, “God helps those who help themselves” is the most widely-known verse in the Bible; only 38 percent of respondents correctly said that this was not a Bible quotation, while 42 percent thought it was, and 20 percent did not hazard a guess.
Sixteen percent of American Christians believe that the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ was born in Jerusalem, 8 percent in Nazareth, 6 percent abstained from responding, while the rest got it right. Twelve percent also attribute to Jesus the writing of a book of the Bible.
America seems to not be the solid bastion of Christianity that many claim it is or wish it were. In large numbers, Americans from all walks of life shun church and reduce their Bibles to the status of objects of decoration, while they maintain, perhaps in a bout of wishful thinking, that God, churches and religion rule their lives. People who believe Joan of Arc to have been Noah’s wife, as one in 10 Americans do, can not be said to have even a fleeting interest in their scripture. Americans are indeed religious; just how religious is a question that still needs investigating. In private, religious apathy piles thick behind the screen of public piety, and the famously robust American religiosity–taken for granted by many–seems to become a delusion of biblical proportions.