Canadians overstate their religious attendance, survey shows (external - login to view)
By Shannon Proudfot, Postmedia News December 3, 2010
With a prime church-going holiday just around the corner, new research reveals Canadians are second only to Americans in overstating how often they go to church.
The University of Michigan study looked at more than 400 surveys done over 30 years and covering 750,000 people from 14 countries, including Canada, the United States, Britain and France.
It found that Europeans report their religious attendance more or less accurately, but there's a big gap between what Canadians and Americans say and what they do.
Philip Brenner, a research fellow at the university's Institute for Social Research, compared the proportion of people in each country who responded to surveys by saying they attended religious services regularly -- two to three times a month -- with time-use diaries that ask people to record everything they do on a given day.
When people are asked a direct question about religious behaviour, they're more likely to give what they see as a desirable answer, Brenner says. But when they're simply asked to record their daily activities, it produces a more accurate portrait because nothing is singled out.
"It's not that the respondent is intentionally misrepresenting their behaviour, but rather they're interpreting the question in a pragmatic way," he says. In the U.S. over the past three decades, 35 to 45 per cent of people said they attended religious services regularly, but time-use information reveals that about 24 per cent is a more accurate figure.
In Canada, the percentage of people who said they worshipped regularly fell from 41 per cent in 1974 to 25 per cent by 2005, but over that time period, the percentage who actually attended religious services ranged from about 22 per cent in 1974 to 10 per cent in 2005.
In Europe, the biggest gaps between people's reported and actual religious attendance are found in predominantly Catholic countries. But even in Ireland -- where reported church attendance tumbled from 90 per cent in the 1970s and '80s to about 46 per cent in 2006 -- the gap was only about four to eight percentage points.
Reginald Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, says once people develop a "churched" identity, it tends to stick and they answer questions about their religious behaviour based not just on what they actually do but on what they try to do and think they ought to do.
"The fact the level of exaggerated attendance in Canada remains fairly high points to the reality that significant numbers of people here -- unlike the situation in much of Protestant Europe -- remain open to the possibility of greater involvement in religious groups," he says.
His research on Canada's baby boomers and millennial generation reveals half of all teenagers are willing to acknowledge "never" attending worship services, compared to one in four adults -- which demonstrates how ideas about religious attendance are changing, he says.