Did you go to church this week? That's the question that Gallup pollsters have been asking Americans for more than 75 years. And each year since 1939, about 40 percent of those polled have said yes. (The actual question: "Did you yourself happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days?")

That doesn't mean that, on any given Sunday, 118 million Americans (40 percent of the population) will actually be in church. According to sociologists who study religion, the actual number of people in church each week in the United States is significantly lower than the Gallup Poll indicates. Just how low is a matter of some debate.

"We ask the question because George Gallup did, so it's helpful to follow the trend," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. But the results "should not be taken as a precise indicator of actual churchgoing behavior." Newport says that while polls can accurately track opinions, using them to ascertain behavior—like weekly church attendance is much more difficult.

Kirk Hadaway, an Episcopal Church researcher, argues that the actual attendance rate is 20.4 percent, about half the Gallup figure. Hadaway co-authored, with Penny Marler of Samford University, a report last fall on a "count-based" estimate of church attendance in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

On the surface, Hadaway says, counting the number of Americans who attend church seems simple. "If you know how many churches there are in America, and if you know the average attendance of those churches," he says, "then you can come up with a total number of people attending worship of some kind."

There are just two problems with that approach, he adds. First, there's no official, exhaustive list of U.S. congregations, ...

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