Belonging to a Religion without Being Religious?
As I noted earlier, the Pew Forum released a report two days ago about religious disaffiliation in the United States entitled “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” As one might imagine Pew has been publicizing this report in a variety of ways, but often by emphasizing one particular finding at a time. That’s why they tweeted a table not long ago that shows how those who claim to be “spiritual, not religious” stack up against the “religious” and those who claim to be neither spiritual, nor religious.
So what does the table tell us? Well a lot of things actually, but what struck me from the outset was how a good number of Protestants and Catholics are identifying as nonreligious. The largest group in the “spiritual, not religious category” are Protestants. In fact only a third of the people in this category claim no religious affiliation at all. So what does “not religious” mean to those who are linking their own identities to religious institutions and communities? I’m tempted to interpret those who are both Christian and “spiritual, not religious” through the sentiments expressed by the creator of the (in)famous “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.” But if that’s the case then what does identifying with a specific denomination mean? What does it mean to reject religion in it’s institutional sense while still identifying with specific religious institutions? Or put another way if you’re an anti-institutional follower of Jesus what sense does it make to say you’re Catholic or Protestant as well?
The “neither” group is perhaps more perplexing because it includes those who are not even “spiritual” while still identifying as Catholic, Protestant and so on. In fact a full 45% of those who aren’t religious or spiritual still identify with specific religions. Here it makes little to no sense to apply the guess from above. These are clearly not devout, spiritual anti-institutionalists. So what are they? Do they adhere to a European style “cultural religion,” which would make some of them, for instance, “lapsed Catholics?” If that is the case then why are they rejecting the “religion” label? Why accept the label of a specific religion but not the generic?
The Pew survey doesn’t answer these questions, and in fact large-scale surveys never really do. They involve mostly black and white choices between various terms, the meaning of which is not always clear. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but the job of clarifying must happen also if we are to really understand what’s going on. So how do we clarify these questions? The annoying answer is, “with a lot of qualitative research, of course.” But before that we can make a couple of guesses, and point possible researchers in certain directions.
So what kinds of directions would I personally point them in? Well I’d be interested in what this data suggests about the very identifier, “religious.” It clearly does not mean merely associating with a religious tradition, institution or community (see above). It must mean doing something specific, but is that something specific belief oriented (holding certain beliefs) or is it practice oriented (participating in religious activities)? Put another way is it about the intensity of emotional and cognitive commitment to the religion one identifies with or a fulfillment of its ritual obligations? Or could it be either with some groups (e.g. Protestants) leaning towards the former while others (e.g. Catholics) lean towards the latter?
A related question I would ask is what does all of this signify about specific religious identifications? What does it mean to be “Catholic,” if one is not religiously fulfilling various obligations or Protestant if one does not truly, religiously believe? What meaning do those categories of affiliation have outside of the ideals that people are possibly caging “religiousness” within? These last questions especially, I think, are exceedingly unclear to us despite the fact that we have been measuring religious affiliations for decades now. What we need is to step back several paces from these religious affiliation surveys and get our hands dirty with religion as a “folk category,” to steal Benson Saler’s phrase. And while we’re at it we should also attend to those other folk categories, “Catholic,” “Protestant,” “Muslim,” “Atheist,” etc. Let’s find out what muddying these waters can really tell us. Trust me it will be fun.