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Why People Lie About Their Faith
Taking a closer look at why Church going Christians can't be candid about their faith

I have listened to a great many voices raised in righteous indignation lately about the accounting deceptions widely practiced in the 1990's by leaders of major corporations like Enron, WorldCom, and the like. The sins of our business and political leaders have been the big news makers, not to mention the scandals over child abuse in the Catholic Church. All of this makes for lurid headlines and involves real people losing their retirement savings on the one hand, or their sense of innocence on the other. One can easily be filled by anger at the thought of those once trusted with either our material or spiritual treasures betraying that trust on such a spectacular scale. Castigating such leaders in the press and on television talk shows may be the equivalent of the public floggings of a previous generation ... while physical punishment and torture have largely been forbidden, public humiliation of those identified as sinners has not. 

But while spotlights of indignation are focused on high profile public leaders, I remain to be convinced that the stories we read about in the nation's newspapers and listen to on radio talk shows are any more lurid that what one finds when the same spotlights are focused upon the ordinary behavior of those most frequently thought of as the "good, law-abiding" citizens of the Republic. Is cheating on your income tax any less a crime than what the accountants at Enron were doing? Further, sex abuse most often occurs between members of the same family and within the intimacy of the home, rather than at school, at work or in church.

Another illustration of what I have in mind are those statistics on church attendance reported by Gallup and others. You've probably heard those supposedly heartening reports. Church attendance in the U.S. continues at very high levels despite numerous, premature announcements of the demise of organized religion. Year after year, about 40 percent of U.S. citizens tell pollsters that they have attended church or synagogue in the last seven days. With this "evidence" in mind, one might conclude that church going is as popular as ever, despite decades of so-called "secularization." The problem is that these polls are known to be highly inaccurate. People are massively over reporting their church attendance.

To put it bluntly, when asked about religious belief and practice, ordinary citizens lie. And they lie about their faith to a greater degree then they lie about their sex life, or political activity. 

How do I know this? From several research projects involving an actual head count of the number of people attending churches in areas of the country where people were reporting high levels of attendance. For example, researchers C. Kirk Hadaway, P. L. Marler and Mark Chaves physically counted every person in every Protestant church in one Ohio county and in every Catholic church in 18 dioceses. They found that, in fact, only 20 percent of Protestants were actually in church on a given Sunday morning, whereas 40 percent reported they had attended church that Sunday.  Likewise, they found that only 28 percent of Catholics attended mass, while 50 percent reported doing so. 

Subsequent studies have confirmed these findings. The interesting question then follows. Why do people misrepresent their religious activity?  Or to put it more bluntly, why do they lie about their faith? There is a well known phenomenon among social science researchers that people tend to answer questions on the basis of what they think the pollster wants to hear, or what they think the "correct" answer ought to be. Hadaway and Marler put it this way: 

Gallup asks, "Did you, yourself, happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days?" Active church members who did not happen to attend church last Saturday or Sunday are expected to say no in response to Gallupís question. But this creates problems for people who see themselves as committed church members and "weekly attenders." Many have an internal rule that says, "I am a person who attends church every week." Saying "No, I did not attend church" violates that internal rule and identifies them, symbolically, as non churchgoers. On the other hand, saying, "Yes, I went" is consistent with their internal rule, counts them on the side of active churchgoers, is in line with their usual behavior (including what they hope to do next week) and affirms their support of the church. (For the full text of the article: "Did You Really Go To Church This Week?")

I believe than similar factors were at work in the accounting frauds of the 1990's. In American society we put a great premium on success. Everyone wants to be part of a growing enterprise; few seek failure. Naturally, business leaders want to tout their company's growth, and favorable prospects for the future. They also know that sounding negative or pessimistic is not a quality that Americans admire in their leaders. People want to hear that it's "morning in America," and do not want their leaders to point out problems that are difficult or even impossible to solve. In other words, the public seems to rank success as a more important value than honesty. And nearly everyone in a position of leadership understands this. Unless and until we learn to be honest with ourselves, can we expect our elected leaders to have an integrity we lack? This is not to say there should be less attention to misconduct by those who hold positions of public trust. It is to suggest that there's a large element of hypocrisy involved in public debate involving citizens who are not examining their own behavior as critically as they examine the behavior of others.


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.