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Survey questions long-held church-attendance figures.

NEW YORK - A high-level debate, spiced with a dash of bare-knuckle language, has erupted in some academic circles over claims by several scholars that the rate of church attendance in the United States, as established by decades of telephone polls, has been heavily inflated.

The study, based partly on actual head counts of churchgoers, argues that the rate of church attendance is actually about half that claimed for years by social scientists.

If the revised rate proves true, it would have significant implications for assumptions about American religious practices that have long undergirded articles in both popular and academic journals.

The harshest attack of the new study came from Catholic priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley, who called it "a sloppy piece of work."

"I doubt, if the subject was anything but religion, that a serious social science journal would publish it," said Greeley, who has published extensively on religion in America as a result of his work at Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

Greeley's objection aside, the work was presented - and by several accounts, well received - last month at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting. It will be published in the December issue of American Sociological Review.

The study, titled "What the Polls Don't Show - A Closer Look at U.S. Church Attendance," reports that approximately 20 percent of Protestants and 28 percent of Catholics attend church in any given week, figures that are dramatically lower than results of other Gallup Polls, which have consistently shown weekly church attendance to be more than 40 percent for all denominations.

The researchers say their results call into question the validity of the kind of telephone polling on which the Gallup figures are based. "When people self-report in a survey, they tend to overreport what they perceive to be Socially desirable behavior," said Mark Chaves, assistant Professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame and one of the authors of the survey. "We have shown that the church-attendance rate probably is half what everyone thinks it is."

The current research is based, in part, on an elaborate counting of Protestant churches and congregants attending those churches in rural Ashtabula County in northeastern Ohio. That count turned out to be considerably lower than the number of people in the county who, in a telephone poll taken about the same time as the head count, said they had attended church.
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Author:Roberts, Tom
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 24, 1993
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