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Survey Tips

How to ask about religion in your surveys

How to ask about religion in your surveys

Let’s say you’re a restaurant owner and you want to learn more about your customers, or you’re serving on your son or daughter’s school board and you want to ask whether other parents approve of an upcoming change to the school dress code. You can use a survey to help you get the information you need!

Aside from the standard demographic questions (e.g. gender, age, race/ethnicity) that you always include in your survey, you may want to include questions about religion as well. If knowing about your respondents’ religious preferences will help you better understand their opinions, then it may be a good idea to ask about religion.

Our restaurant owner, for example, may want to know about her customers’ religious beliefs so she can offer new menu items that would better suit their diets. Our school board member may want to see whether families of different religions have different concerns about new school clothing restrictions.

In either of these cases, including a question about religion along with demographic questions like age and race can help our survey creators examine their results in more nuanced ways.

But religion is more sensitive than other demographic questions, like gender or age, and your respondents may be less willing to share more information than is necessary.

Surveys about religion can be enlightening, but it helps to ask them in the right way. Here are a few tips for how to ask questions about religion in your next survey.

If you include a question about religion, it’s best to allow your respondents to skip it if they don’t want to answer. Religious affiliation is often a personal topic, and questions that probe too deeply are likely to feel invasive. If you’re not careful, you’ll cause people to drop out of your survey altogether.

If you’re worried that asking people about religion might cause them to balk at taking the rest of the survey, put your demographics questions at the end. That way, you’ll still be able to get as much information as respondents are comfortable sharing. Allowing respondents to skip questions on topics that they would rather not share keeps them engaged in your survey while still respecting their privacy.

Sometimes you want to find out more about your respondents’ religious beliefs, but you just don’t know how to ask. It’s tricky! To make things a little bit easier on yourself, use questions that are pre-written and (when possible) benchmarkable.

You can use the Question Bank to browse questions written and vetted by our survey experts (that’s us) on a variety of topics related to religion, including our standard SurveyMonkey Audience question (below) on religious affiliation.

It’s usually perfectly fine to borrow someone else’s question and ask it yourself, especially if you look to a reputable source for help. Here are a few good sources of inspiration for surveys on religion:

  • The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) is a “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.” Their website includes a searchable Data Vault where you can view all the questions they’ve asked on religion over the years, along with their results.
  • The Pew Research Center is another leader in research on religion, with an additional focus on international comparisons. Use their Question Search to find questions like the ones you want to ask, or view this resource that lists all the different ways they ask about religious affiliation.

You’ll notice that some of our own QB questions about religion match the language used by Pew or PRRI. These questions are designed to be familiar and objective, so that respondents will be more likely to have seen the question before and less likely to be caught off guard by something in the language.

Sometimes respondents shy away from answering demographics questions because they don’t understand what their answers will be used for. In the restaurant example from above, the survey could simply say, “What is your religion? (We keep our customers’ diets in mind when making new menus.)”

That little bit of context, either in the question itself or in a separate introduction, could ease your survey takers’ minds about your motives and make them more likely to answer. People are more willing to share information when they know how you’re going to use it.

If you ask your religion questions correctly, there are a ton of really cool things that you can do with that information. You can use skip logic to build questions that only appear to people of a certain religion (for example, only asking about someone’s Christmas plans if they self-identify as Christian). You can also use Analyze to uncover demographics trends about religion.

Unlimited filters and crosstabs expose meaningful patterns in your survey responses, so you can make strategic decisions.

Religion questions aren’t only sensitive—they’re also susceptible to bias. Oftentimes in surveys, people take the opportunity to present what they perceive to be the best possible version of themselves, rather than their honest selves. If you ask your respondents how often they attend religious services, or how often they pray, or how much money they’ve given to their church or temple in the past year, their responses will likely be a little inflated.

It’s a good idea to compare your responses to any benchmarks that are available to see how your results compare with others’.

Growing up, you may have heard that religion is one of those topics you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation. That rule doesn’t apply to surveys—but it does force us be cautious about how we frame questions about religious beliefs and practices. If you create a smart survey with thoughtful question, you will likely get some interesting insights.