Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Americans: Less Religious Than They Claim

Shankar Vedantam asks a provocative question at Slate: Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are? If you ask Americans in a poll if they regularly attend religious services, for example, about twice as many claim to do so than actually do so.

Beyond the polls, social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses of religious behavior. 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.

And in Canada too, apparently:

Brenner found that the United States and Canada were outliers–not in religious attendance, but in overreporting religious attendance. Americans attended services about as often as Italians and Slovenians and slightly more than Brits and Germans. The significant difference between the two North American countries and other industrialized nations was the enormous gap between poll responses and time-use studies in those two countries.

Why do Americans and Canadians feel the need to overreport their religious attendance? You could say that religiosity for Americans is tied to their identity in a way that it is not for the Germans, the French, and the British. But that only restates the mystery. Why is religiosity tied to American identity?

He never really gives an answer to that question. Is America, more than other countries, comprised of posers? Could be. Our popular culture certainly seems to encourage it. Our advertising and marketing is based in large part on pretending to be something we’re not — buy this car, use this toothpaste, put this body spray on, and it will make you attractive to women.

In politics, the striking of poses is considered essential to success. Thus we have George H.W. Bush and his pork rinds, and his son buying a ranch and spending much time and effort “clearing brush” to make the pose seem authentic. And John Kerry’s famous stop at Wendy’s during the 2004 campaign. The wealthy and most powerful have to pose as the Everyman in order to get elected.

I suspect this specific issue comes down to a very basic and deeply inset cultural assumption that religion, or at least Christianity, is a very good thing and perhaps even the key thing in determining whether one is a good person or not. So when a pollster asks if they attend church, what the respondent hears, in essence, is “Are you a good person?” And the answer to that is yes, of course.