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Americans aren’t as religious as they pretend to be

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Hello everyone!

It’s well-known that a lot of church-goers don’t really believe what their pastors preach. This is probably especially true among teenagers. Twenty minutes at the Atheism sub-Reddit will convince you that there are plenty of young people being forced by their parents to attend church who don’t believe a lick of it, and I’m sure that many of our own members (myself included) continued attending church long after they stopped believing in gods. On occasion, I still attend church, to see old friends and hear the music. Not to generalize, but there is a lot of social pressure in this country to be seen at church, especially in the South and Midwest, to the point that it’s become a cliché for Southerners, women especially, to “dress up for each other” (to quote John Mellencamp) – witness “church hats” and “Sunday best.”

What isn’t as well-known is that Americans are even less religious than this. We’re so far just talking about people who actually attend churches. What about people who only pretend to attend? Data show that Americans, when polled, tend to exaggerate their church attendance by about 200%. That is, about 40% of Americans, when polled, say they attend church every week. But if you actually go around to churches and count heads (as researchers have done), that number is closer to 20%. Another, more-recent study with a different methodology shows that the attendance gap is between 10-18%, but still extant.

Why do Americans lie about how often they attend church? I’ve seen other data that indicate this doesn’t really happen in European countries, or at best, at a rate approximately half of the American rate, and then only among Catholics (4-8%).

I think the lead study author, Phillip Brenner, hit the nail on the head when he said, “American religiosity as an outlier is a concept that may be better applied to identity and self-concept rather than behavior.”

It’s like the joke about when you ask an American what religion they are, and they answer, “None,” the next question you’re supposed to ask is, “What church do you go to?” A surprisingly large proportion of people who answer “None” to the first question have a ready answer to the second one. Many millions of Americans don’t actually want to be religious; they just want to appear religious, for whatever reason. I think that’s sad.

Greta Christina and Jen McCreight spoke about this during the 2011 Midwest Humanist & Freethought Conference in Omaha this summer: The reason religious people get upset when you criticize their beliefs is that they don’t consider them “beliefs”; they consider their religion to be their identity. And it’s not cool to attack someone’s identity. For example, it’s the same reason LGBTQ folks get upset (rightfully) when bigots criticize the “belief” that LTBTQ people deserve the right to be with whomever they want. They (and allies like me) do not consider this to be a “belief,” open to criticism; it’s part of our identity and when you criticize it, you criticize us. Is this bad? I don’t know; it’s just something that is. I think that, in order to make logical progress, we need to put things on the table for discussion and look at them empirically and reasonably. To quote Matt Dillahunty, “If you can come up with something I believe, that I DON’T have evidence for, guess what I’ll do? I’ll stop believing it. That is the nature of a rational mind.” I can justify, reasonably, why LGBTQ people deserve the right to be with whomever they want. If I couldn’t, or if someone were able to demonstrate to me why my justifications aren’t sound, I would change my mind, and be grateful that I was no longer incorrect (good luck!).

The question is, can people who believe in Christianity (this wording is intentional, rather than “Christians”) justify, reasonably, that their religion is true? Despite years of active searching, I have never heard a rational justification for belief in Christianity that didn’t include 1) incorrect or unsubstantiated historical information 2) one or more logical fallacies 3) and/or an absence of logical or empirical backing altogether (i.e. appeals to faith). My “belief” that LGBTQ folks have the right to be with whom they want and the belief that Jesus is a god are not on equal footing. One is justifiable (and justified), and the other is not.

So what does all of this mean for atheism activist? It means that not only are church-going people not as religious as they, for whatever reason, want to appear to be, but non-church going people aren’t, either. To quote Alan Harvey, “Every day the voice of atheism grows louder, more confident, backed by ever increasing evidence, reason and logic. Every day the religious respond by sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting “Lalalalala!” The number of self-reported atheists and non-religious people are increasing every year, especially among people under 30. The seed of rational thinking is planted, and it’s growing. It is finally becoming socially acceptable, at least in cities and especially on the coasts, to be “out” as an atheist. The internet is fueling this even faster in other areas. I am so excited to be in on the ground floor of atheist activism, so to speak. But there is more we need to do.

As I’ve said before on this blog, as atheists, we need to be better about providing a place of safety & community for each other. A lot of people are “trapped” in churches because they are afraid of loneliness or rejection. They are afraid of losing their friends or their social safety net. We can provide this, guys!

When I’m asked, “What’s the #1 piece of advice you would give to someone doubting their religion?”, my response is, “Find a local group.” My runner-up is “Step into the doubt” – explore your questions, read some Richard Dawkins, Bart Ehrman, Karen Armstrong; check out some YouTube videos (see the links in the Resources section at the bottom of this post), and find some other atheists you can talk to, and ask them questions. There is so much information out there, just waiting for you. Be a sponge! And a local group is a great way to start.

If you are in or near Columbia, I strongly encourage you to attend a SASHA meeting. We meet every Wednesday at 5:30 PM (see this blog or our Facebook group for location details) and we are always open to curiosity-seekers.  That is what we are here for.

I hope you are all having a great weekend. Until next time!

– Dave

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, he posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is

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Helpful resources:
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an

YouTubers: Evid3nc3, Thunderf00t, TheAmazingAtheist, The Atheist Experience, Edward Current, NonStampCollector, Mr. Deity, Richard Dawkins, QualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta Christina, PZ Myers, The Friendly Atheist, WWJTD?, Debunking Christianity, SkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too! :)

About MU SASHA Administrator

University of Missouri SASHA (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics) University of Missouri-Columbia

4 comments on “Americans aren’t as religious as they pretend to be

  1. Jerry Winn
    September 18, 2011

    Dave, I know you and I talk quite a bit about the positive roles of church– those that signify the strength of these social institutions, but are not by any means inherent or exclusive to religious institutions. I’m glad we have an accord of sorts there, because many people, atheists included, don’t seem to “get it”– that it is important for people of like minds to congregate and discuss their spiritual development, whether that consists of beliefs in god or more secular answers to the great metaphysical questions of life.

    What I was interested to learn recently was that in ancient Greece and Rome, before the advent of Christianity, these roles– that of spiritual advisers, fell upon philosophers. That does not include merely the great philosophers that we all know of, but rather it was a relatively ordinary career. I think this is what has been missing since the flourish of Christianity– people to step up and offer secular guidance to the spiritual questions that all normal people struggle with. And one certainly need not be a conventionally trained philosopher by modern standards to fill this role– a more informal level of spiritual and rational enlightenment is all one needs to play this role in the lives of others. What is lacking, of course, is respectability– it is a perfectly fine and noble profession to be a preacher for religion, but not for, let us say, secular humanism. Unfortunately, institutionalism is a requisite in our day and age to acquire respectability, and I suspect that the day when rational belief prevails will be the same that atheists congregate as churches do, or secular spiritual counseling is seen as a regularity of life.

    • Susan Anne Wilson
      September 26, 2011

      So true Jerry. “Institutionalism” has long been where it’s at… people need an imprimatur to take out the trash. I’ve long been “not a joiner” type. Even balked at “joining” my local humanist org. – but did it anyway & forked over the $25 & got a nametag. hahahh I like it in the trenches with just me and my conscience, my aspirations, my ethical reasoning and my actions. But there have been moments, when as a mere individual I felt like but a wisp of smoke that would disappear in the wind. Like when I first retired & no longer had a fancy biz card to announce just who I was “ganged up” with (Morgan Stanley). hahahha I got over it but quick!

  2. Pingback: Dave’s Mailbag, Thursday 9/22/11 « The Official MU SASHA Blog, Updated Daily

  3. Dylan
    September 25, 2011

    Hey Dave, I just wanted to address a couple of your statements from this article.

    “I can justify, reasonably, why LGBTQ people deserve the right to be with whomever they want.”

    Would you mind sharing your theory of justification. Thought you might like the opportunity to “put your money where your mouth is”.

    “The question is, can people who believe in Christianity (this wording is intentional, rather than “Christians”) justify, reasonably, that their religion is true?”

    Your comparison here is fundamentally incorrect. The two questions you have presented are as follows: 1) Do LGBTQ people deserve the right to be with whomever they want? 2) Can people who believe in Christianity justify, reasonably, that their religion is true? For this to be a fundamentally correct comparison, the second question would need to be re-phrased to say something to the effect of: Do Christians deserve the right to be Christians (or simply to practice their religion)? My rational for recommending this correction is that the nature of the first question has less to do with the validity of truth claims and more to do with personal rights in regards to practicing lifestyles. Therefore, for both questions to be considered truly comparable in terms of scope, they should both approach their respective issue (in this case, demographic) with the purpose of determining what constitutes legal right to observe their respective lifestyle.

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This entry was posted on September 18, 2011 by in Author: Dave Muscato, In The News.
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