The number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation has hit an all-time high - about one in five American adults - according to a new study, with the number of self-described atheists and agnostics hitting a peak of 6 percent of the U.S. population. Photograph taken inside a Catholic church in Kansas City, Mo. on Oct. 9, 2012.

Poll: Americans stretch the truth on attending church

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(RNS) “I know what you did last Sunday,” claims the title of a new survey.

Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Nearly one in seven of you fibbed about attending church, according to a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute released Saturday (May 17). Photograph of empty church pews taken inside a Catholic church in Kansas City, Mo., on Oct. 9, 2012. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

You skipped church. And then nearly one in seven of you fibbed about attending.

That's according to a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute released Saturday (May 17). The study, to be presented at the national meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, was designed to measure the “social desirability bias in self-reported religious behavior.”

The survey finds that many Christians -- and unbelievers, too -- will exaggerate about attending worship in live phone interviews. However, when asked in an anonymous online questionnaire, people will answer more realistically.

On the phone, 36 percent of Americans report attending religious services weekly or more, while 30 percent say they seldom or never go.

But online, a smaller share (31 percent) of people surveyed said they attended church at least weekly, while a larger portion (43 percent) admitted they seldom or never go.

People who don’t attend worship -- but say they did -- may not mean to lie, said PRRI CEO Robert Jones.

People respond to phone surveys as they think “a good Christian” would or should answer, he said. “There’s an aspirational quality here," he said. "People see themselves as the kind of person who would go.”

Once you remove the social pressure of speaking on the phone, “you see people willing to give answers that are probably closer to reality,” he said. "People feel less pressure to conform."

Three groups were most likely to inflate attendance:

-- White mainline Protestants: By phone, 29 percent say they don’t go to church. Online, that jumps to 45 percent.

-- Catholics: On the phone, 15 percent. Online, 33 percent.

-- Adults ages 18-29: On the phone, 31 percent. Online, 49 percent.

"Differences in Reported Attendance by Survey Mode Among Religious Groups" graph courtesy of PRRI

"Differences in Reported Attendance by Survey Mode Among Religious Groups" graph courtesy of PRRI

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The PRRI study is an update of studies on inflated church attendance conducted in the 1990s. In those studies research teams surveyed Catholics and Protestants in Ashtabula County, Ohio, and compared self-reported attendance claims with actual head  counts in scores of churches.

The result: "Actual church attendance was about half the rate indicated by national public opinion polls."

Since there's no way to do head counts of people not attending, PRRI found a contemporary technological approach -- two different survey formats. Both surveys of American adults were conducted in 2013, with 2,002 people interviewed by cell and landline and a demographically comparable group of 2,317 who answered questions online.

People don’t even have to be religious to inflate claims of religiosity, PRRI found.

Those one in five Americans who are “nones” also may feel greater pressure to fib because “they are the farthest outside general social expectations,” said Jones.

On the phone, 73 percent of “nones” say they seldom or never attend, but 91 percent say so when interviewed online.

In the overall study, 19 percent of adults answering online said religion was not important to them; only 13 percent said so on the phone.

However, among the “nones,” the gap on the importance of religion was markedly wider -- 49 percent on the phone, compared with 73 percent online.



  1. WHAT???
    Christians telling lies! But, but..How can they get away with that?
    Oh, right. They are Christians.

    At least the belief in God is dying off.

  2. Cathy,
    Thank You for the story. It is fascinating.
    The obligation to be religious is so dominant that even ‘Nones’ feel obliged to say they go to church once in awhile.

    Such is the poison of religion; there are a long list of ‘shoulds’ and going to church is one of them.

  3. Are you implying that Christians are more immoral than Atheists?

  4. So, American Christians are claiming to be regular church-goers but aren’t going to church after all? Could they really be guilty of a kind of hypocrisy, which the founder of their own religion explicitly forbid them ever to engage in? Say it ain’t so!

  5. Yep.

    It helps when you can get instant absolution by praying or excuse your actions as doing it on God’s behalf.

  6. @HOLLY

    YES indeed!
    Vicarious redemption is the most immoral concept ever invented as is the gross, barbaric superstition that you can benefit personally from the torture and misery of another human being.

    Ask me to count the ways in which Christians are more immoral than Atheists and I’ll fill this page.

  7. What a waste of time, Max and Larry. Boasting that you are more moral than Christians.

    Did it ever occur to you that even if you are 100 percent correct in all cases, you’ve just displayed Pharisee-level hubris instead of humility about it? Sheesh.

    Atheism = No Common Sense. Next religion please.

  8. @Doc,

    What is ethical about arranging for a person to be tortured and killed for your personal benefit?

    Yes, I’ll go way out on a limb as to say I am morally superior to that.

  9. If it ain’t true, why, it should be, so they’ll say it anyway as if it were. Sometimes this is actually lauded in Christian circles; when I was a Christian, we called it claiming victory–to smile when we were distressed, or act very very positive of some Christian claim that we secretly doubted, or even to say we did something regularly like praying or fasting when we almost never did those things. This was walking in faith or speaking truth to power, and we were all sure our faith would be rewarded by what we claimed really happening. “Fake it till you make it” is the more vulgar modern saying, but I think most honest Christians and ex-Christians would recognize the mindset immediately. That outsiders consider it flat lying to say stuff that isn’t true made Christians I knew quite indignant. It wasn’t a lie, not really; it just wasn’t true yet. And even if that wasn’t the case, then anything was justified that got converts babbling the Sinner’s Prayer or Christians more certain of their faith; that’s why Christians tend to cling to urban legends and obviously false “miracle” claims, and tend to get angry not at the spreaders of these lies but at the people requesting proof of their happening or criticizing them in any way.

    Incidentally, there’s a whole name for this idea: lying for Jesus.

    I really wonder sometimes what would happen if Christians all over the world put their foot down and said no, they would not ever again say something untrue no matter how justified they think it might be.

  10. Doc, I AM more moral than you. Most people actually are. You are not a nice or pleasant person under most conditions.
    -I don’t extol discrimination like you do.
    -I don’t claim people are heading towards eternal torment.
    -I don’t blame my views on literature from antiquity.
    -I don’t deny people who believe differently than I do are “not real” religions or sects.
    Most importantly
    -I don’t excuse my actions by outsourcing moral decisions to an arbitrary outside authority, as all Christians are expected to do.

    I thought I might be displaying some hubris, but then in perspective, not really. Certainly not compared to the self-important nonsense coming out of many people professing to be Christians, like yourself.

    They seem to act like they are the sole arbiters as to who has a real religious belief and who is a Christian. As if God granted them such authority on the spot. THAT is hubris.

  11. @Doc Anthony

    Atheism is not a religion. Is humility believing your religion has all the answers to the universe while the rest of humanity waits to die and burn in a fiery pit of hell?

    I’m an atheist b/c I don’t have such answers. However, as an adult, my common sense prevents me from believing in imaginary friends (deities, demons, monster, ghosts or goblins).

  12. “it just wasn’t true yet.”
    True LOL!
    Like “yup, the check is in the mail!”

  13. The belief in God is dying off? Well Max, of course it–the ‘god’ of theism and atheism–is. And it is about time. In the 1930s, I also stopped believing in the fairies and the Santa Claus myth.

    G~Õ~D–that which Generates Organizes & Delivers all that is Good, Optimal & Delightful–however, is not to be confused with ‘God’, or ‘gods’. Unless, you believe it is okay to Generate, Organize & Deliver that which is Gruesome, Odious & Diabolic, 🙂 . Do you? Sincerely,

  14. God is just a vestigial limb from evolution.

    The desire to look upward toward a dominant father figure is part of the evolutionary process. All children are born looking for parents. They would not survive without it.

    Baby teeth, baby hair and other infant features are outgrown in a few years.
    But in many cultures the infantile search for the parent is kept alive through religion. Indeed it is forbidden to outgrow it in many countries.

    So, after being a Christian for 44 years I came to the realization that I had to pull out that last baby tooth.

    It wasn’t easy. There is no Hell, no punishment for abandoning God any more than there would be for throwing out a baby tooth.
    Life is so much better as a grown up.

  15. WHAT???

    The “nones” are hypocrites too?!?

    This could really mess up my belief in “none.”

  16. Most “Nones” are religious people who have not attached themselves to a given sectarian tribe. Its a really lousy label which constantly is misinterpreted for dramatic effect.

  17. “Most ‘Nones’ are religious people…”

    Really? Are they religious but not spiritual, then?

  18. I’m not surprised how quickly people on this forum condemn Christians. You have put Christians on a higher moral scope. To be a Christian is not to say you are better than a non-Christian. The Bible says we all have sinned and come short of the Glory of God. Only through Christ are you saved. So going to church or not going doesn’t make you a better person. The church is for sinners. Yes there are vast amounts of hypocrites in the church. But I grant that without the laws gives down from Moses in the old testament there would be no morals at all. If no God why do we work, or not kill who we want? To believe that we evolved from a single cell organism is fantasy. Even in science it is proven that nothing can be created from chaos. To evolve is to become better adapted. Apes were more evolved physically to handle any environment. Man would have had to regressed. Doesn’t make since. Explain a platypus? Evolution can’t. I walked this earth for 40 years not believing in God until one day I walked into a church to see my son get baptized. I was made and angry at him for this. I sat on the front roll and turned and looked at all the crazy people. Then God went to work on me. I fought God for 4 weeks. The Holy Spirit showed me how wrong I was. Shame and guilt filled me. I truely thought I was having a break down. I finally talked to a preacher and he showed me how I can be saved. When I asked Christ into my heart I was and am a changed man. I felt the Spirit enter my body. I know there is a God. I don’t have to defend him. He doesn’t need me to. I’m just to give my testimony. I’m still a sinner and no better then you. But I strive to be a better husband, father and friend. One day when I pass, I know where my soul will be. I pray yours will be there as well.

  19. Well Stated Brother Mike !
    I am sorry to have just now stumbled upon this Blog. I was researching how many American Christians do NOT attend Church. Every “Follower of Christ” can attest to your Testimony. I think that many who call themselves “Christians” have not felt this POWER of transformation. Many think that it is THEIR choice to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior…..but in reality, I think it is HE you choses you. It is a Honor and a Privilege to be a follower of Christ…..and it is indeed very comforting to have “imaginary Friends” 🙂 There is an old saying….”There are no Atheist in a Fox Hole” … just be Glad that you have never found yourselves in one…..YET 🙂

    This is a very interesting Thread…..please get it going again. For me to hear from an Atheist and their viewpoints is like getting to see an White Elephant….very rare.


  20. Well I find it interesting that many Americans born into a church really have no idea of what Christianity is or God. Many told me it was just a habit. It isn’t a habit for me. I truly believe in God and Christianity or Jesus. I don’t care what others think about me. I have a relationship with Christ that has made a big difference in my life. I was born atheist. Christians who lie about believing in Jesus and who are there for what ever strange reason are the same as an Atheist their life doesn’t change and church is just a country club with no purpose for them.

  21. I disagree. A true Christian is better than one who has not received the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit works on a persons soul and they begin to change. One begins to see others as Christ saw people. And when a person begins to see others as Christ has they have a love and care for others. This to me is very important because then you act out of love of Christ and people like that help stop the hurtful things in society.

    I came mock me if you will I heard then I hear it still
    I know your pain of your game Men ever play it the same
    There is nothing hidden from me Nothing I do not see
    Not even a single one of you Neither Christian nor Jew
    And you the simple atheist too Not one not any of you
    There is not even a moral man None before me to stand
    Before me to meet my demand Not you not even one
    All of you are full of treason So know for good reason
    For me I chose your clothes I chose a cross a tree
    I died there but not for me Barbaric is true as you say
    Barbarian evil has been your way I know I chose to pay
    It was for you I made the way For the vile words you say
    I came for you and so I come Because you it was done
    In love for you so I came So still I call out your name

  23. Are we sure that this was really about people saying different things on the phone than on the internet, or are the people who answer a phone call survey different from the people who respond to an online survey?

  24. Maybe part of the problem is that there are too many dead churches included in these statistics. Clearly religion is not what draws people to Church… God draws. Churches that are alive with the word of God, are growing exponentially and Sunday worship services are standing room only. Young people are joining churches in record numbers, so don’t be fooled by lies. Those with an agenda who wish to promote the idea of the decline of Christianity in America are just using stats to boost their own ideology of non-belief. But, the truth is something completely different. You can find churches alive and growing every day in every state in every city and town in this country. If you can’t, you aren’t really looking.

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