Study identifies worldwide rates of religiosity, church attendance

January 22, 2007

EDITORS: A table, “Percentage of Adult Population that Attends Church at Least Once a Week,” follows this story.

ANN ARBOR—Even though some Americans worship only once a year, weekly church attendance is higher in the United States than in any other nation at a comparable level of development, according to a worldwide study based at the University of Michigan.

Fully 44 percent of Americans attend church once a week, not counting funerals, christenings and baptisms, compared with 27 percent of people in Great Britain, 21 percent of the French, 4 percent of Swedes and 3 percent of Japanese.

Moreover, 53 percent of Americans say that religion is very important in their lives, compared with 16 percent, 14 percent, and 13 percent, respectively, of the British, French and Germans.

“The stereotype that the American public is more materialistic than other peoples seems to be very misleading, at least by these criteria,” says Ronald F. Inglehart, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research and director of the World Values Survey, now covering 60 nations.

Funded by a variety of public and private sources, including the National Science Foundation, the series of global surveys started in 1981. They were last conducted between 1995 and 1997, using representative national samples of each nation’s adult population. The latest U.S. figures are based on a sample of 1,839 people.

In addition to comparing religious attitudes and behaviors among nations, the data provide a look at how the religious beliefs of each society have changed over the years.

“In general, the importance of religion has been declining in the developed world,” says Inglehart, “whereas in countries experiencing economic stagnation and political uncertainty, religion has remained strong.”

The collapse of religion in Northern European countries is particularly striking, he observes. Not only has weekly church attendance plunged, but Latin American countries are now sending missionaries to save the souls of their former colonizers.

Why America is an exception to this global trend is uncertain, although Inglehart suggests several possible explanations. Religion could be a legacy of America’s frontier mentality, in which a strong sense of faith was necessary in order to brave the unknown. It could also have a more contemporary cause: a social welfare system less developed than those in most Nordic or European countries.

Finally, according to Inglehart, high American church attendance and interest in religion may also reflect a well-educated and rapidly aging population’s search for the meaning and purpose of life. “Besides providing a sense of orientation and insecurity in an insecure world,” he says, “one of the functions of religion is to help satisfy the need to know where we come from and where we are going.”

Nigeria 89 Ireland 84* Philippines 68 N. Ireland 58* Puerto Rico 52 South Africa 56 Poland 55 Portugal 47* Slovakia 47 Mexico 46 Italy 45* Dominican Republic 44 Belgium 44* U.S.A. 44 Turkey 43 Peru 43 India 42 Canada 38* Brazil 36 Netherlands 35*

Venezuela 31 Uruguay 31 Austria 30* Chile 25 Argentina 25 Britain 27* Spain 25 Solvenia 22 Croatia 22 Hungary 21* France 21* Romania 20* South Korea 14 Switzerland 16 Australia 16 Lithuania 16 W. Germany 14 Czech Republic 14* Bulgaria 10* Ukraine 10

Taiwan 11 Moldova 10 Georgia 10 China 9 Armenia 8 Azerbaijan 6 Serbia 7 Montenegro 7 Belarus 6 Latvia 5 Denmark 5* Norway 5 East Germany 5 Sweden 4 Iceland 4* Finland 4 Estonia 4 Japan 3 Russia 2 Source: Based on latest available data from the 1990-1991 or the 1995-1997 World Values surveys. Results with an asterisk are from the 1990-1991 survey; all others are from the 1995-1997 survey.