Merry Christmas

to all.  And to all a good night.

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Social desirability and church attendance

Given that today and tomorrow mark the time of year where millions and millions of Americans will make their sole or (semi-annual) visit to church, it’s the perfect time to share this fascinating piece from Shankar Vedantam.  One largely unquestioned bit of research I’ve been teaching my classes for years is that Americans are much more religious than citizens of other modern democracies.  Turns out, though, we only say we are much more religious.  Turns out there’s huge social desirability effects in America (but not so these other countries) when we ask people about their church attendance.  Vedantam:

Two in five Americans say they regularly attend religious services. Upward of 90 percent of all Americans believe in God, pollsters report, and more than 70 percent have absolutely no doubt that God exists. The patron saint of Christmas, Americans insist, is the emaciated hero on the Cross, not the obese fellow in the overstuffed costume.

There is only one conclusion to draw from these numbers: Americans are significantly more religious than the citizens of other industrialized nations.

Except they are not.

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.

What’s really interesting then, is what this says about the psyche of the average American compared to the average European on matters of religion.   Clearly, it’s got something to do with a sense of religion and personal identity:

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?

Good question.  Surely (as speculated in the article), our unique history is involved to some degree.  Regardless, I do think it is still really telling us something that Americans a) place a greater importance on religious identity regardless of their belief and behavior; and b) they clearly feel that this is something where the socially desirable thing to do is to overemphasize their religiousity.  If I was a Sociologist, I’d be all over this.  As a political scientist, I wonder if there’s something there with the religious right worth investigating.  Anyway, interesting stuff.  And it will definitely change the way I teach about the uniqueness of American political culture.

Oh, and Merry Christmas.

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