(RNS) – When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many Americans fell out of the habit of going to church after nearly every church nationwide shut down in-person services and moved online.
But have some of them forsaken God?
Sociologists like Michael Hout want to know.
Hout, a sociology professor at New York University, has long tracked the decline of organized religion in America. So he was interested to see that several indicators of what he called “intense religion” declined in the 2021 General Social Survey.
In this survey, fewer Americans than in 2016 said they take the Bible literally, pray frequently, or have a strong religious affiliation. Even though church attendance had steadily declined over the past few decades, these more personal measures of faith had previously either held steady or shown only a slight decline.
“Then they fell off a cliff,” Hout said in a video interview.
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In a new, yet to be published study, Hout and colleagues Landon Schnabel of Cornell University and Sean Bock of Harvard raise questions about the rapid decline of such measures during the pandemic, which they say could be more due to changes in how the ESG was administered rather than a sign of religious decline.
Founded in 1972 at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the ESG, conducted every two years, has long been considered the gold standard for national surveys, in part because it was administered in person rather than online or by phone.
When the pandemic made in-person surveys impossible, the GSS shifted to a hybrid approach, with most participants answering questions online, while others answered the survey over the phone. The researchers also asked some of the participants in the 2016 and 2018 surveys to participate in the 2020 survey, which was released in 2021.
Hout and his colleagues compared former participants who agreed to take over the survey with those who did not and found that fewer “intensely religious” people took over the survey.
For example, they wrote, 36% of those who took part in the 2016 survey said they took the Bible at face value. This dropped to 25% among those who completed the follow-up. They also found that those who did not respond to the follow-up survey were more distrustful of institutions and more disconnected from civil society and the internet than those who did.
As a result, the change in survey format led to fewer religious people participating in the 2021 survey, which Hout said skewed some of the results on religion.
It’s unfortunate, he said, especially at a time when the religious landscape in the United States is changing.
“If you want to measure change, don’t change how you measure it,” he said. “In this moment of great change, we have changed the way we measure it.”
Hout said data from the 2022 GSS will provide a clearer picture of how religion in the United States has changed during the pandemic. And he hopes the GSS will remain an in-person survey in the future – although he admitted doing in-person surveys is expensive and difficult.
Overall, Hout said, investigations have become more difficult in recent years due to greater changes in American culture. In the past, he said, polls offered everyday people a way to comment on major trends in culture. Now, he said, social media allows everyone to express themselves. And people are more skeptical about talking to strangers.
“Before the internet, one of the things that kept response rates on the ESG and other surveys very high was people saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’d like to get rid of some things,'” did he declare. “Now they have a lot of other options that they have a lot more control over.”
A GSS spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the methodology changes.
Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and author of “The Nones,” says a move online is inevitable for the GSS. Burge, who often writes about religion and survey data, said most other major surveys, including those from Pew Research and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, have now adopted online panels.
Burge thinks online polls provide a more accurate view of religion in America than in-person interviews, in part because people are less likely to lie to a computer about their faith.
Being religious, he said, is still seen as a social good for many Americans. This leads to what is called the halo effect, where people overestimate their degree of religion because they want to make a good impression on the surveyor.
Burge argues that previous ESG surveys have underestimated the number of Americans who are considered non-those who have no religion. The 2021 survey, he said, yielded a result more in line with other surveys, showing about 30% of Americans would be considered no.
“People are more honest when looking at a web browser,” he said.
There are losses in the shift from in-person to online polls, Burge said. There are more nuances in an in-person interview, as people may give an answer that is not in the survey. And not everyone understands all of the faith-based categories in polls, he said, and might not know where they fit in an online poll.
Hout said that while organized religion in the United States is expected to continue to decline, much of the decline is among so-called Christians and Easter Christians, who only occasionally attend services.
This led to what he called “all-or-nothing” approaches to religion – where people show up all the time and believe intensely, or they abandon religion. And people remain spiritual, even if they don’t identify with a particular faith.
“Atheism is not what’s going on,” Hout said. “If we think of organized religion as a joint thing, the quarrel is with the organized part, not the religion.”
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(Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation. See other Ahead of the Trend articles here.)