New study uncovers an overlooked religious phenomena: Identity-inconsistent worship attendance

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Approximately 20% of Americans attend religious services at places of worship that do not align with their stated religious affiliation, according to new research published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. This discrepancy sheds light on the complexities of American religious identity and challenges the traditional understanding of religious affiliation as a straightforward indicator of congregational membership.

Traditionally, researchers have sorted individuals into broad religious categories based on their self-reported denominational affiliations. However, this method is fraught with challenges, from the omission of respondents who don’t fit neatly into predefined categories to the variability in responses depending on how questions are phrased.

“I have been wary of using big categories of religious classification for a long time – there’s just so much variation underneath those umbrella terms (‘evangelical’, ‘mainline’),” explained study author Paul Djupe, a professor and director of the Data for Political Research program at Denison University and co-editor of Trump, White Evangelical Christians, and American Politics.

“But I also like testing assumptions behind survey measures and this comes with a big one. The presumption has been that when we ask ‘What is your present religion, if any?’ that we are capturing their organizational affiliation. But what if that’s not true? What if it is just an identity?”

To investigate the extent of this inconsistency, the study analyzed survey data from over 4,000 Americans collected in February 2022 and 2,300 in March 2023. Participants were asked about their religious affiliations and whether the congregation they attended matched their reported religious identity.

The results indicated that a substantial number of Americans are choosing congregations based on criteria other than their stated religious affiliation. Specifically, it was found that approximately 20% of Americans in one survey and 18% in another reported “identity-inconsistent attending.”

Identity-inconsistent attending varied across different religious traditions. Not surprisingly, inconsistency was highest among the nonreligious—those identifying as “nothing in particular,” atheists, or agnostics—since any religious attendance could be considered inconsistent with their identity. Among those who fell through the classification cracks or identified with “other faiths,” a third reported inconsistency, suggesting a mismatch between personal identity and available local congregations.

Additionally, individuals embedded in religiously diverse social networks were also more likely to be found among the identity-inconsistent attenders, suggesting that exposure to a variety of religious perspectives may encourage individuals to explore beyond the confines of their reported religious identity.

“When people self-identify their religion, we should not presume that they attend a house of worship that matches that identity,” Djupe told PsyPost. “There are religious nones who attend congregations, there are Lutherans who do not attend Lutheran churches, non-denominationals who attend Catholic churches, etc. Overall, about a fifth of Americans are attending a house of worship that does not match their religious identity. Religious identities and involvements are even more fluid than we thought.”

Identity-inconsistent attending was particularly pronounced among those who had switched congregations or seldom attended services. Those who had physically moved communities were also more likely to attend congregations that did not match their religious identity.

Interestingly, the research highlights a political dimension to identity inconsistency. Those who identify as politically independent are more likely to be identity-inconsistent attenders, possibly reflecting a broader pattern of non-conformity or a desire to avoid the more partisan environments found in some congregations. Identity-inconsistent attenders often held distinctive political attitudes compared to identity-consistent attenders within the same religious tradition.

“The main finding itself was the most surprising,” Djupe explained. “But I was also surprised about how much of ‘identity-inconsistent attending’ is linked to being unmoored — these folks have largely been cast adrift by dissatisfaction with a prior congregation, by political disagreement, and by simply moving to a new community.”

But the study, like all research, includes limitations. The reliance on self-reported data could introduce bias, as individuals might not accurately recall or report their religious affiliations or attendance. Additionally, the study’s cross-sectional design makes it challenging to infer causality or the directionality of the relationships observed.

“These are only two studies, so we should continue to assess whether this pattern hold up over time and in other data,” Djupe noted.

Looking forward, the researchers suggest further exploration into the causes of religious identity inconsistency, including a deeper investigation into the personal, social, and political factors that influence religious mobility and affiliation. They also highlight the need for developing more nuanced measures of religious identity and affiliation to better capture the complexity of religious experience in the United States.

“I will continue to ask this question,” Djupe said. “But if we take these results seriously, we ought to forgo simple descriptors of the public with religious tradition labels. At the very least, we should consider whether we need religious identification or religious association. Association measures would be important if we’re asking about exposure to information in a congregation, while identity may help them link to broader groups and elites in society.”

The study, “Religious Identity-Inconsistent Attending: Its Correlates and Political Implications,” was authored by Paul A. Djupe, Ryan P. Burge, and Christopher R.H. Garneau.

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