Americans Stretch the Truth About Sabbath Day Attendance

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On May 17, 2014, the Public Religion Research Institute released a new survey titled, “I Know What You Did Last Sunday” which found that Americans exaggerate their religious activity. PRRI gave two identical surveys to random groups of Americans covering religious attendance, affiliation, salience and belief in God. One group was surveyed over the phone, the other was given an online survey. They found that every subgroup of participants were likely to exaggerate their religious attendance over a live phone interview but be more realistic in an anonymous survey.

According to the phone interviews, 36 percent of Americans claim to attend worship services on a weekly basis, but on the online survey, only 31 percent of participants say they attend weekly religious services. PRRI CEO Robert Jones explains that when they remove the human interaction of speaking to someone on the phone, “you see people willing to give answers that are probably closer to reality [and] people feel less pressure to conform.”

The group with the greatest difference was among those who claim to be unaffiliated with any religious group. Over the phone 73 percent said that they never attend worship services. However, that number jumps up 20 points to 91 percent in the online surveys.

What they found

  • On the telephone survey, 36 percent of Americans report attending religious services weekly or more, compared to 31 percent on the online survey.
  • Compared to 30 percent of telephone respondents, 43 percent of online survey respondents say they attend religious services seldom or never.
  • Catholics are less than half as likely to report seldom or never attending religious services when responding on the telephone versus online (15 percent vs. 33 percent).
  • Nine percent of white evangelical Protestants report they seldom or never attend religious services when speaking with an interviewer by phone, compared to 17 percent who report the same in a self-administered online survey.
  • Only 14 percent of black Protestants report seldom or never attending on a telephone survey, compared to nearly one-quarter (24 percent) on the online survey.
  • Surprisingly, the social desirability effects are strong among the religiously unaffiliated. While 73 percent say they seldom or never attend religious services in a telephone survey, that number jumps nearly 20 percentage points to 91 percent on an online survey.

Conclusion

The study tested the impact of social desirability bias by comparing the results of identical surveys, one given over the telephone with a live interviewer and the other by a self-administrated online survey. The study concluded that as long as religious affiliation and participation remains a positive trait in American culture, it can be expected that Americans will continue to over-report their religious behavior when talking to another person.

What do you do to maintain Sabbath Day observance? Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been counseled to attend weekly worship meetings regularly. Give us your thoughts on what your favorite Sunday activities are here. We’ll feature those answers in a future column.

Adam was born and raised in Southern California then went to high school in Arizona. He is currently pursuing a degree in English at BYU-Hawaii.