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Church attendance inches up, Gallup says

July 2, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C.

A new Gallup Poll found that Americans’ self-reported church attendance has increased slightly since 2008.

When asked “How often do you attend church, synagogue, or mosque?” 43.1 percent of Americans in 2010 said they attended church “at least once a week” or “almost every week.” That’s up from 42.8 percent in 2009 and 42.1 percent in 2008.

Researchers previously believed that church attendance rises when economic times are bad. The Gallup data, however, indicates that the opposite may be happening.

“There has been well-publicized speculation about the possibility that church attendance has risen over the past two years as Americans became more despondent and worried as a result of the economic recession,” Frank Newport of Gallup writes. “However, trends ... reflect just the opposite pattern, with both church attendance and economic confidence increasing from 2008 to 2009, and now into 2010.”

Conservatives, non-Hispanic blacks and Republicans demonstrated the highest participation, with 55 percent of each group reporting frequent church attendance. Liberals and young adults (18 to 29) rounded out the bottom, with 27 and 35 percent respectively.

In its report, Gallup says “the small increase in attendance between 2008 and so far in 2010 is statistically significant, suggesting that there has in fact been an uptick in religious service participation in the real world over the last 2 1/2 years.”

Others are more skeptical.

“Frankly, I wouldn’t put much store in a 1 percent increase in the attendance rates,” said Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University. “It’s just too small to make a very big story of. That number, the 42-44 percent range, has been so stable for so long that that in itself is a story.”

Ammerman added that these figures are not demonstrative of actual American religious participation.

“If you go into any church on any given weekend, you will find less than 43 percent in the pews,” she said, citing a more realistic figure of 20-25 percent. “But that in and of itself is quite striking, that a quarter of the population of any given country will be found in a religious service on any given week.”

The poll is based on more than 800,000 interviews since February 2008, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.

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