Today is Sunday, which means a whole lot of Americans are at church. While it is well known that some of those who report going to church are actually mowing the lawn, sleeping in or fishing, we can be fairly certain that many are in fact attending a service today or at the very least on some other given Sunday. According to the 2000-2010 cumulative GSS data, 73% of Americans say they go at least once a year, 60% report going several times a year or more and 26% claim to go weekly.
I know what you are thinking. In a nation as purportedly devout as the United States these numbers don’t seem particularly interesting. True, but a subset of these figures might still surprise you. Of those who claim to have no religious affiliation (the “nones”) 26% claim to attend church at least once a year, 12% report going at least several times a year and 2% say they go weekly. Who are these people who go weekly, or even several times a year, without identifying as religious? Are they “unchurched believers” who are looking for a way to consume that old timey religion without committing fully to an institution? Not likely. In fact I think it much more likely that it has nothing to do with their religious beliefs at all.
Earlier today Hemant Mehta published a post on his blog, The Friendly Atheist, suggesting that if you are one of these people you might be “Going to Church for Your Spouse.” Mehta’s post consists of a picture of a woman with her face completely disguised by a large hat, sitting alone in a church pew. Written with permanent marker on the photo are the words: “Are there other NON-BELIEVERS who only go to church because of someone you love?” Mehta then asks, “How many of you have done that?”
Considering that “nones” only comprise about 16% of the U.S. population, and no more than 12% of that fraction attend church with any regularity, it is probably safe to answer Mehta with, “not many.” In fact, baring in mind that most nones aren’t actually “nonbelievers,” the answer may even be, “less than not many.” Of course we can problematize that last bit in the other direction as well. Most “nones” do indeed believe in something, but that something (aka “higher power”) is not usually the “personal God” that is most likely being worshiped in a church (or synagogue or mosque for that matter). Furthermore, a very small portion of people who claim religious affiliations are also nonbelievers, especially if we define non-belief in terms of that afore mentioned personal God. Such “cultural religionists” (for the lack of a better term) could easily be attending services for the sake of their loved ones.
How many Americans actually do this? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s likely not many, and the answer to Mehta overall is most probably still, “not many”…but that doesn’t mean the phenomenon is insignificant. In fact I’d say it is quite significant for a variety of reasons. Consider what one commentator has said at The Friendly Atheist:
I used to be a Mormon. That church is FILLED with people who participate only to keep peace in the family, to avoid divorce, to keep from being shunned, to keep jobs and clients. I imagine the same is true in other very hardline churches.
Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints actually “filled” with people who only go to please others? I’m not sure, but there is a correlation between both partners in a marriage regularly attending the same house of worship and family stability. One way to explore that correlation further would be to look more closely at situations in which nonbelievers are still attending church because of their religious spouses. What are the effects of this behavior on their marriages? Whether positive, negative or neutral an in depth qualitative study would go a long way towards understanding why. For instance, if the effects are positive we might get a better sense of what it is about joint religious activity, as opposed to religious belief, that has pro-family benefits.
But there may be even more to explore here than the family angle. Another commentator offered this description of his own irreligious church attendance:
Originally this was for my wife, and for the shared idea that our children should have the shared community experience. Now after fifteen years with this church, i’m the only one in the family who chose not to become a member (in doing so i would have to state a belief i do not share) and i’ve since outed myself whenever it has come up. Now my main reason for going is less about a family experience, but rather because this church has a great community of people i care strongly for.
Of course family cohesion and the experience of community may be intricately intertwined, but the point is that nonbelieving church attendance may be driven by social concerns outside of the family and may have outcomes transcending the family as well. And perhaps such social concerns are particularly poignant when it comes to collective celebrations and other ritual performances. Here is yet another comment:
Weddings, funerals, and baptisms… much else I cannot stand. I respect my family members’ decisions when it comes to where they want to hold their major events.
Of course this individual isn’t part of the regularly attending nonbeliever crowd, but perhaps they still see the social benefits of religious communities when it comes to celebrating the life-cycle, much like Phil Zuckerman has shown that nonbelievers in Scandinavia do.
What this all points towards is the meaningful distinction between religious belief and practice when trying to determine the social and psychological benefits of religiousness. Consider that Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s sophisticated meta-study of U.S. religion, American Grace, suggests that the social benefits of religion lie much more so in practice than in belief. But as for why that is their analysis of large quantitative data sets can only scratch the surface. What better social location to explore that issue in more depth than among those who are actively practicing without believing, or more specifically “attending without adhering?” I look forward to seeing the results of such a study. Any takers?