Growing up, you may have heard that religion is one of those topics you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation. That doesn’t apply to surveys—but it’s still wise to approach questions on religious beliefs and practices with care and consideration.
Religion can be a more sensitive subject than other demographic questions and your respondents may be less willing to open up. But just like other demographic data on gender, age, race, and income, knowing about your respondents’ religious preferences can help you better understand their opinions and your audience as a whole.
A school board member, for example, could uncover whether parents of all religious backgrounds approve of a proposed change to the school dress code. A product marketer could spot demographic trends around who uses their company’s services and when. In these cases (and so many more) including a question on religion can prove remarkably useful.
So how should you ask about religion? We’ll walk you through what you need to know to get the right insights.
First, a few “don’ts”
Don’t ask what religion people were “born into”
This phrasing implies that the respondent has a religion, and also that everyone grows up with a particular religion.
Avoid using the word “belong”
Loaded questions are never good for a survey and belonging can be a sticky concept for people. Respondents may feel religious but not necessarily feel a strong connection, or a “belonging,” to a particular religious group.
Avoid asking about “God”
Unless you’re specifically surveying respondents of a monotheistic faith, you shouldn’t assume that they believe in one God or use wording that implies that.
Don’t mix up religious upbringing, affiliation, participation, and belief
These concepts may be related, but it’s important to differentiate them. For many respondents, religion isn’t a clear and fixed identity—meaning they might identify with a certain religion, but don’t feel strongly affiliated, participate, or even believe in the religion’s core tenets.
Tips for asking about religion in surveys
Make questions optional
If you ask a demographic question about religion in your survey, it’s best to make it optional. As we mentioned, religious affiliation is often a personal topic, and questions that probe too deeply are likely to feel invasive. A required question about religion may even impact your response rate.
In fact, our research shows that 27% of respondents say that the inability to skip a question is enough to make respondents quit a survey altogether. By simply providing the ability to skip questions, you’ll give respondents a sense of agency and, in the process, help them feel as though their privacy is respected.
If you’re worried that asking people about religion might make them 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. (This is a good rule of thumb for any demographic question
Lean on the experts
As survey specialists, we understand all too well that certain topics can be particularly tricky. Questions on religion definitely fall into this category. To make things a little bit easier on yourself, use questions that are pre-written and (when possible) benchmarkable.
For example, you can use the SurveyMonkey Question Bank to browse pre-written and vetted questions by our survey experts on various questions related to religion, including our standard SurveyMonkey Audience question (below) on religious affiliation.
As long as it’s a trustworthy source, it’s perfectly fine to borrow another survey’s question. Here are a couple of good sources of inspiration for surveys on religion:
The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) is a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization “dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.” Its website includes a searchable Data Vault where you can view all the questions it’s asked on religion over the years, including the results.
The Pew Research Center is a household name and leading source when it comes to research on religion, with particular focus on international comparisons. You can use its Question Search to find questions similar to the ones you want to ask.
You’ll notice that some of our own Question Bank questions about religion match the language used by PRRI and Pew. These questions are designed to be familiar and objective, so respondents will be less likely to be caught off guard by something in the language.
Remember that context is key
Sometimes respondents shy away from answering demographic questions because they don’t understand how their answers will be used.
Let’s say a restaurant sends a survey that asks a question about religion. It would be completely reasonable for a customer to find that odd, even invasive. Without any context, they might feel alienated, even to the extent that their view of the business is negatively impacted and they decide to frequent a different restaurant.
Now, let’s say that the restaurant poses the same question—some variant of “What is your religion?”—but includes an explanation like: “Religious beliefs often influence dietary choices, which is something we like to consider when crafting new recipes.” With that little bit of context, the question no longer seems so out of the blue and respondents are more likely to answer.
Use skip logic
Skip logic is a logic feature that allows you to skip respondents ahead to certain questions or pages depending on the answers they give to a particular question. Skip logic is a handy tool to have in your survey toolkit in general, but especially when asking sensitive questions.
For instance, let’s say a survey asks respondents for their religious affiliation, and a respondent selects “Hindu.” If that respondent is then asked about their favorite Christmas tradition, or how frequently they attend church, they could feel ignored or unwelcome. They may even bail on the survey at the first sign of irrelevant questions.
Skip logic not only lets you tailor respondents’ survey experience but also ensures that they feel their time and answers are valued.
Embrace the “self-describe” option
Including a “self-describe” answer option can make a big difference when you're asking sensitive or personal questions. Let’s say, for example, that a survey asks the following question and provides the following answers:
What is your religion?
If you took this survey and didn’t see the religion with which you identified listed, you’d probably feel excluded—and who could blame you?
In addition to listing more answer options (e.g. Hindu, Sikh, No religion, etc.), this question would do well to include a “fill in the blank” answer option so respondents can self-describe.
Not only will this allow for answers that aren’t listed, such as “Spiritual but not religious,” but it also allow respondents to give more specific answers, such as “Orthodox Jewish” or “Greek Orthodox,” etc.
Be conscious of social desirability bias
Religion questions aren’t only sensitive—they’re also famously susceptible to bias. You see, people often take the opportunity to present what they perceive to be the best possible version of themselves, rather than their honest selves.
So 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, it’s highly likely that their responses will be a little exaggerated. Because of this social desirability bias, it’s a good idea to compare your responses to any available benchmarks so you can check how your results measure up.