Just how religious is Utah?

Mission Field NOM Utah

I recently came across this study released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in December. The analysis is based off of a 2007 religious landscape survey. On the link there is an interactive graph of the various states and their responses to the questions.

Utah comes in at 12th in the rank of percent of residents who say that religion is important in their lives; but the state comes in second for weekly attendance at worship services.

Also interesting is that Utah comes in 10th of percentage of people who are certain of their belief in God.

I find that surprising.

I am not sure what their sample size was, or of more details about the survey.

What does interest me, however is that there is clearly some percentage of people who attend church regularly (in Utah) who are not believers or who don’t believe religion is important in their lives. As a caveat, I do know that Utah is not the only mormon/LDS state, and that other states have high populations of mormon believers.

I simply thought that for as sometimes holier than thou that some LDS can be (note I said some, not all)- the data do not seem to show that LDS (particularly those in Utah) are excessively more devout than people in other states or people of other faiths.

16 thoughts on “Just how religious is Utah?

  1. I was talking about this with my gym buddy last night. We’re both from outside Utah, both pretty much inactive, and both of the opinion that if we could move away, our attendance would increase.

    We both think the problem in Utah is that Church attendance isn’t based on a person wanting to be there, it’s as a result of peer pressure and fear of being ostracized by the community. I don’t think this is always the case, but for many, it’s easier to just attend church and not believe than it is not to attend.

    Our problem is that we both struggle with the lack of sincerity, and the fact that both having held significant leadership positions in the past, we know all the tricks when the reactivation efforts start, and it bugs the hell out of us!

  2. Those are some interesting results. I would be interested in knowing more information on their methods and sample population. For example, were they limiting their contact to individuals they defined as Christians (i.e., Protestant or Catholic), or to include all religions (i.e., did they include Islam? Judaism? etc.)? Also, I would be also curious to know whether the “questions” as stated on the website were the actual questions that were asked, or if they are a summary of what they were trying to get at.

    Also, individuals can feel that “religion is important in their lives,” but not have that show in their church attendance, since peoples’ idea of what “religion” is varies so widely. I think about my family who are all culturally Catholic… they would firmly say religion is important to them, but they attend church twice or less a year. Perhaps the results we see in Utah are a reverse type of thing, where people may feel social pressure to conform and attend church (because the bishop is your dad, etc.) but don’t actually have “testimonies”.

  3. John, are you indicating that it is the Mormons or the non-Mormons that attend church but don’t believe in God?

  4. Go look at the numbers. 2nd in “Worship Attendance” is only 57%. 10th in “Importance of Religion” is 66%.

    If you only look at ranks, it’s easy to come to the conclusion “there are a huge number of people just paying lip service to their religion”.

    If you look at percentage of total population, it starts to look a little less unusual.

    So to answer your question, it’s probably both. But not in massive quantities.

  5. By the way, “Believe in God” is still 80%. So it’s far more likely that there are people who believe in a god but don’t attend church. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone, really.

  6. FYI, Rick Phillips pretty clearly illustrated in this SofR piece that attendance in Utah is driven by peer-pressure:
    Phillips, Rick. (1998) Religious Market Share and Mormon Church Activity. Sociology of Religion
    59(2):117-130.

    As market-share of Mormons goes up in a community, so does attendance. As it goes down, so does attendance. In other words, peer pressure drives attendance in Utah.

    Also, regarding the methods, I don’t remember the exact numbers, but the Pew Survey from 2007 is a very well-done survey with a sample size over 30,000. I’ve spoken with some of the primary researchers and they do good work. I’m not sure I could get them to come comment over here, but I could try if you’d really like me to do so.

  7. @proxfm: I certainly don’t doubt that. But it has nothing to do with my comment.

    I question the conclusion that people are paying lip service to their religion based entirely on the comparison of “rank 2” with “rank 10” on two different lists. That’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.

    If you look at the absolute percentages (which Pew provides), they make more sense. 57% of people attend weekly (that’s weekly, keep that in mind), and 66% say religion is important. If you assume that the first implies the second, which isn’t unreasonable, then these numbers make sense. That leaves about 9%, plus or minus some error, that find religion important but don’t go every week. Not too weird.

    Additionally, not surprisingly, 80% believe in god. We can probably safely assume that the other two categories (mostly) fall into this one, with few closet atheists. You also have to consider that being closeted means that you’re willing to lie to a survey conductor.

    To get back to my main point — I think that LDS in Utah are just as religious as they were before. What’s remarkable is that their percentage is dwindling. But there has always been a significant percentage of non-Mormons in Utah. So when I see statements like “Also interesting is that Utah comes in 10th of percentage of people who are certain of their belief in God. I find that surprising.”, I usually try to point out the facts. Statements like that completely discount a significant part of the Utah population.

    As for Pew: Pew is very highly regarded. I don’t question their work. It turns out that I’m not just a one-dimensional contrarian. So no, you don’t need to pull contacts at Pew just to prove a point here.

  8. John, I think profxm was directing her Pew surveryor comments at me, since I had some questions above about how the study was performed.

    And profxm, I take your word for it. I’m a science editor, and whenever I look at the results of any study, questions about control and sample population are the first things to spring to mind.

  9. Given the lack of a comment address, I think that it’s more likely that proxfm was directing the comment at aerin64. If that’s the case, I owe both aerin64 and proxfm an apology.

  10. Thanks everyone for your comments. No need to bring anyone here from Pew profxm, if you were asking me…

    John #8 – I agree – 66% to 57% is not very much. What’s interesting to me is that there are so many states ahead of Utah (again, just one state, not completely mormon) in the importance of religion question, but Utah is #2 in weekly attendance. And that may have nothing to do with mormons or mormons per se, but with the nature of religion in the U.S.

    To your comment about whether or not people were being honest about their belief in God, I can see your point that it is also possible to lie to a survey conductor (was the survey anonymous?). But I would assume most people would be honest in such a survey (particularly if it was anonymous).

  11. True — most people are honest, but surveys are susceptible to misinformation of that kind (but they also have error bars for that). There’s also data to that effect, but I don’t remember where I saw it.

    I agree that seeing Utah at #2 in attendance is interesting. It seems to imply that churchgoers don’t take it halfway here, and many more go every week despite being of a similar profile to other religious states. I would guess that might be because of the more structured nature of the CJCLDS?

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