Contrary to common belief and despite a sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed the Catholic Church, attendance at churches in the United States has declined only slightly in recent decades.
Since the 1970s the number of days Americans of all denominations have gone to services has declined from about 28 to 23 or 24 days a year. But what has changed is the makeup of the congregations — particularly women, Southerners and Catholics.
"There is a small decline in church attendance over time, but not nearly as large as suggested in popular culture, or even by some social scientists," said Philip Schwadel, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, adding there was a moderate decline in the 1990s.
"We are an exception. We attend religious services and hold religious beliefs far more than most people in other well-to-do nations," he added in an interview.
In research published in the journal Sociology of Religion, Schwadel studied the responses of 41,000 Americans who had answered questions about their religious beliefs and habits.
He found that in 1972 Catholics attended church more often than Protestants, women more often than men, and Southerners more often than other Americans.
But by 2006 the gap had closed in all three groups.
'Largely due to education'
In 1972, Catholics went to church about 18 days more a year than Protestants, but that dropped to just six days more recently. The divide between Southerners and other Americans closed from six to three days and among women and men from 10 to six times a year.
Although the research does not address the cause of the changes, Schwadel suggests it is due to the growing number of minority populations, including Latinos, and the rising education levels among women, whom he says traditionally connected their roles at home to their roles in the church.
"In terms of the Southern affect, I hypothesize it is largely due to immigration because the South and West are by far the fastest growing parts of the United States through immigration, particularly," Schwadel said.
"This internal migration has probably changed some of the cultural emphasis on religious service attendance in the south."
The biggest surprise he found was the gap in church attendance between men and women from 1972-2006, when women's involvement in the workforce increased.
As women's roles shifted from the home to work and became more similar to men's, Schwadel said it is likely behavioral patterns would change, particularly due to time constraints.
"Who has time to go to the additional mid-week religious attendances that many women used to go to?"