Americans, Europeans, and claiming to be religious


Three years ago, I posted an entry to my blog titled "Europe and the Failure of Orthodox Christianity" in which, among other things, I quoted from a researcher from a New York Times article who pointed out that Americans claim to be more religious than they actually are, while Europeans claim to be less religious than they actually are. The researcher, a Spanish sociologist named José Casanova, said

The interesting fact is that people responding to questions about religion lie in both directions. In America, people exaggerate how religious they are, and in Europe, it’s the other way around. That has to do with the situation of religion in both places. Americans think religion is a good thing and tend to feel guilty that they aren’t religious enough. In Europe, they think being religious is bad, and they actually feel guilty about being too religious.
This is borne out a recent study that was highlighted in an article in Slate magazine, which poses the question: Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?" It seems that Americans report going to church much more often than they actually do. Which then leads to this question:
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?
The author of the Slate article, Shankar Vedantam, offers no definitive answer to that question. It does reinforce the notion that Americans are not really as different from Europeans on the subject of religion as people often assume.


Joel Monka said...

I question both the base assumptions and methods of the study in comments here

Mystical Seeker said...

The important part of the research, from my perspective, was when they asked people to record their activities over a weekend, without indicating that the real purpose was to find out whether they went to church or not. When people weren't trying to present themselves as being religious (as they do when asked point blank if they went to church that weekend), but thought they were just specifying what they did over the weekend, essentially their guard was let down and they revealed what they didn't want to reveal--that they didn't go to church in the numbers they claimed when asked directly if they went to church.

It is interesting to find out what people will tell you when they don't know what you are really getting at.