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Chaves: American Religion, Contemporary Trends

I wanted to point out a fascinating discussion with Mark Chaves, Duke University professor of sociology of religion at (wait for it) Issues Etc. [link]. He’s discussing his recent book, with findings summarized at Duke Today here [link]. Here are some interesting quotes:

Americans attend church less often than they say they do. About 25 percent of Americans attend religious services, which is lower than the 35 to 40 percent who claim to do so.

I have no idea how a survey can discern this. Just saying. Regardless, 25% seems high to me. There must be very religious towns somewhere picking up the slack.

Chaves challenges the popular belief that religion has enjoyed a surge in popularity in the United States. In fact, traditional religious belief and practice are either stable or in decline, he says.

The public misperception is fed in part by the rise of very visible mega-churches, which suggest that more people are actively religious than is actually true, he adds.

“A 2,000-person church is far more visible than 10 200-person churches,” Chaves says.

I am tempted to say here that because Chaves is a sociologist he picks this measure; I might also suggest that megachurches benefit from an economy of scale, and are more visible because they are in some sense richer and more powerful than their smaller counterparts on a per person basis. I’d love to see an economist answer the same questions; good data would be hard to get since e.g. churches aren’t required to disclose financials via the IRS Form 990.

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