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Archive for the category “Sociology of Religion”

Theistic Atheists?

Pew God Belief

Because of a tweet by Pew Research’s Conrad Hackett (and a puzzled response by David Creech) I was reminded of the fact that surveys often show a very small percentage of self-identifying “atheists” also claiming various beliefs in god(s). Conrad was tweeting a result of the Religious Landscape survey, that 21% of “atheists” also profess some manner of belief,  which on it’s face sounds like a strange contradiction. The table pictures appears in Pew’s report #2 from the Religious Landscape survey.  It breaks down three levels of belief based on religious self-identification. Much of what it shows isn’t particularly head turning. That some Christians don’t believe in a personal God, or any god at all is to be expected because people do identity with Christianity culturally. The same is true for Judaism, which in fact has a long tradition of “secular” (that is non-believing) sub-culture(s). But what are we to make of the believing atheists?

I would argue that the “atheists” who believe in an “impersonal force” are not that strange, after all the Christian church has in the past labelled anyone who didn’t believe in their one true, personal God an atheist. The point being that there is a tradition of using atheism as non-belief in the personal God of the Abrahamic faiths alone, or perhaps more specifically Christianity. But what about those 6% of “atheists” who believe in a “personal God?” I have to admit that I’m completely stumped on this one. Essentially these people are theistic atheists (whereas the “impersonal force” folk are deistic atheists). So how does one explain this conceptual contradiction? Pure error in the survey taking or something more interesting?

Attending to the Secular at AAR 2013

Last year I started putting together conference guides for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network aimed at scholars interested in topics covered by concepts like nonreligion, secularism, and secularity. The guides are meant to call out relevant panels, sessions and individual papers at large conferences like the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. They are a navigation tool in other words. So with no further ado I give you the conference guide for this year’s AAR meeting in Baltimore:

Take special note of the sessions sponsored by the Secularism and Secularity Group, which we successfully founded last year to do more sustained and concentrated work on the relationship between religion and the secular. There was enough demand for such work that we ended up with four seperate sessions this year:

  1. Is the School a Secular Site?: The Study of American Education, Religion, and Secularity - Saturday, 1:00 PM-3:30 PM
  2. Religious “Nones”: Understanding the Unaffiliated - Sunday, 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
  3. Producing Secularism in Public Spaces - Monday, 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
  4. Memorializing the Secular: Martyrs, Mourners and Saints on the (Non)religious Borderland - Tuesday, 9:00 AM-11:30 AM

If you are interested in the long term efforts of the Secularism and Secularity group be sure to attend the 3rd session, “Producing Secularism in Public Spaces,” because our business meeting will follow the paper presentations. If you have any questions, comments or criticisms of this conference guide please feel free to contact me directly. Enjoy.

And Now for Some Charles Peirce

The conversation at Org Theory about critical realism that made me post a lengthy quote from William James, has now made me turn to the thinker who inspired James’s own pragmatism, Charles Sanders Pierce. Phil Gorski suggested that Pierce’s pragmatism left more room for questions of ontology and metaphysics and now Clark suggests that it did so within the confines of a “scholastic” (or metaphysical) realism. But I wondered how essential Pierce’s scholastic realism was to “the pragmatist maxim” driving his philosophy of science, and how compatible that realism was, in the end, with the ontology of critical realism. I don’t think it’s very compatible at all, and here’s an example of why.

One of the two categories of critical realists that Kieran Healy identified in his initial critique at Org Theory were the “religiously minded” bunch (the other group were certain historical sociologists like Phil Gorski). The exemplar of the religiously minded group is quite clearly Christian Smith. I’ll note that Smith objects to being classified in this way, but I agree with Kieran’s response to that objection:

It think it’s pretty clear that one of the appealing things about CR to some people is that its picture of the world seems consistent with—or actively friendly towards—their religious beliefs. I think that’s comes across quite straightforwardly reading What is a Person? and Moral, Believing Animals.

A religious studies professor I know who focuses largely on theory and methods put it even more bluntly in a brief review of that very book, posted for colleagues on Facebook. He suggested that What is a Person cloaks a Catholic understanding of humanity in the language of science. This particular scholar then went on to suggest that if we take Smith’s view of personhood as scientific, we end up with a supposedly scientific critique of various issues that the Church is staunchly critical of, like for instance abortion. As Kieran points out, it’s critical realism that enables these kinds of moves. What I’d like to point out that it’s exactly those kinds of moves that empirically minded philosophers and social scientists want to avoid calling science. And yes that includes Charles Peirce. Here’s a segment from Peirce’s “How to Make our Ideas Clear,” which is incidentally the treatise in which James later recognized the very foundation of pragmatism:

To see what this principle leads to, consider in the light of it such a doctrine as that of transubstantiation. The Protestant churches generally hold that the elements of the sacrament are flesh and blood only in a tropical sense; they nourish our souls as meat and the juice of it would our bodies. But the Catholics maintain that they are literally just meat and blood; although they possess all the sensible qualities of wafercakes and diluted wine. But we can have no conception of wine except what may enter into a belief, either –

1. That this, that, or the other, is wine; or,
2. That wine possesses certain properties.

Such beliefs are nothing but self-notifications that we should, upon occasion, act in regard to such things as we believe to be wine according to the qualities which we believe wine to possess. The occasion of such action would be some sensible perception, the motive of it to produce some sensible result. Thus our action has exclusive reference to what affects the senses, our habit has the same bearing as our action, our belief the same as our habit, our conception the same as our belief; and we can consequently mean nothing by wine but what has certain effects, direct or indirect, upon our senses; and to talk of something as having all the sensible characters of wine, yet being in reality blood, is senseless jargon. Now, it is not my object to pursue the theological question; and having used it as a logical example I drop it, without caring to anticipate the theologian’s reply. I only desire to point out how impossible it is that we should have an idea in our minds which relates to anything but conceived sensible effects of things. Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects; and if we fancy that we have any other we deceive ourselves, and mistake a mere sensation accompanying the thought for a part of the thought itself. It is absurd to say that thought has any meaning unrelated to its only function. It is foolish for Catholics and Protestants to fancy themselves in disagreement about the elements of the sacrament, if they agree in regard to all their sensible effects, here and hereafter.

There are two interesting things happening here — 1) Peirce flat out rejects the scientific reality of transubstantiation as “senseless jargon,” but 2) he also makes it clear that his scientific rejection of transubstantiation makes absolutely no theological claim nor is he even interested in “the theologian’s reply” to it. For Peirce science and Christian theology operate within incommensurate epistemological boundaries, at least as long as that Christian theology makes claims that do not meet empirical scrutiny. I cannot, after reading this, imagine that Peirce would have kind things to say about a philosophy of science that makes an end-run around empiricism to enable theological ideas as scientific.


The incommensurability mentioned above does not hold true, at least not in the same way, for William James, but that’s precisely because James wasn’t a realist, or more specifically because he was a pluralist.

And Now for Some William James

Yesterday I tweeted that comment because of an ongoing discussion at Org Theory about critical realism. Allow me to be blunt. I don’t find critical realism very appealing and in general I’m not sure that the social sciences need to be this concerned with ontology and metaphysics. I certainly am not myself, and can’t figure out what I would gain if I were. Pragmatism came up in the discussion thread at Org Theory and I’ve had a couple of back and forths with Phil Gorski and Mark Austen Whipple about it, because I do find Pragmatism appealing…precisely because I believe pragmatism is not particularly concerned with ontology and metaphysics, or at least wants to transcend many of the concerns of those philosophical branches. Anyway Gorski mentioned William James’ A Pluralist Universe while trying to convince me (and others) that James and Dewey took ontology more seriously than contemporary pragmatists. I have conceded somewhat on Dewey (who I am not that fond of anyway), but not James. Because of this exchange I wanted to share a couple of paragraphs from A Pluralist Universe that speak to my fondness of James. There are better quotes out there for sure, but these are fresh on my mind. Enjoy.

For pluralism, all that we are required to admit as the constitution of reality is what we ourselves find empirically realized in every minimum of finite life. Briefly it is this, that nothing real is absolutely simple, that every smallest bit of experience is a multum in parvo plurally related, that each relation is one aspect, character, or function, way of its being taken, or way of its taking something else; and that a bit of reality when actively engaged in one of these relations is not by that very fact engaged in all the other relations simultaneously. The relations are not all what the French call solidaires with one another. Without losing its identity a thing can either take up or drop another thing, like the log I spoke of, which by taking up new carriers and dropping old ones can travel anywhere with a light escort.

For monism, on the contrary, everything, whether we realize it or not, drags the whole universe along with itself and drops nothing. The log starts and arrives with all its carriers supporting it. If a thing were once disconnected, it could never be connected again, according to monism. The pragmatic difference between the two systems is thus a definite one. It is just thus, that if a is once out of sight of b or out of touch with it, or, more briefly, ‘out’ of it at all, then, according to monism, it must always remain so, they can never get together; whereas pluralism admits that on another occasion they may work together, or in some way be connected again. Monism allows for no such things as ‘other occasions’ in reality—in real or absolute reality, that is.

In case it isn’t clear James was arguing against monism. Unlike Dewey he had no fondness for Hegalian idealism whatsoever.

Secularity in the Religious Marketplace?

In a recent Religion Dispatches op-ed, “Why Atheists Should Fight For Establishment of State Religion,” professor Shanny Luft advises American atheists on how they can win the “culture war.” Using the recent proposal to establish a state religion in North Carolina as an example, Luft points out that our nation’s various squabbles over religious/public entanglements add up to a veritable stalemate in the larger culture wars, a situation he claims a remedy for:

Those atheists and progressives hoping to end religious intrusion in government affairs should not have protested this legislation or claimed the founding fathers as secular liberals. Instead, they should have done everything in their power to promote North Carolina’s Freedom of Religion Act and, more, fought to establish the Christian state of North Carolina as quickly as possible. And conservative evangelical legislators need not waste their time writing toothless resolutions establishing state religions. Rather, if the Christian Right would like religion to prosper in America, they should erect a wall between Church and State so high it can be seen from orbit.

According to history, the side that heeds this advice first will win.

I’m dubious about the extent to which “history” can accord future outcomes and especially based on the observed correlation between just two of many interrelated variables. Luft’s premise follows the assumption that America’s “free market” of religious competition is the cause of our nation’s religious vitality. As the argument goes religious monopolization in Europe (in the form of state churches) spurred on the secularization of European society by regulating religion and limiting choice. Apparently when faced with only one choice religious consumers grow disinterested, or so say the supply-side rational choice theorists (e.g. Rodney Stark, Roger Finke and Laurence Iannaccone) who originally championed  the theory. The flip side is that by (constitutionally) deregulating the religious market in the United States–through the freedom of (personal) religion and from (state) religion–our founding fathers set into motion a self-replicating personal interest in religion. Not only are Americans interested in faith because as consumers they inherently like choices, but because competition between religions and denominations has meant the production of innovative religious goods, services and perhaps above all marketing plans. Or so the story goes, and that is why Luft suggests that atheists should fight for state religion(s), because, following this argument, it will lead to European style secularization.

I’ve always found this particular narrative of American religious history wanting and consider its current ubiquity unfortunate because it prevents scholars from considering other variables that may have been equally or perhaps even more responsible for American religious vitality. Consider the so called “rise of the nones” we are currently experiencing in the United States. Surely the contemporary decrease in religious affiliation (and belief/practice to different degrees) is not due to the regulation and/or monopolization of the religious marketplace, which has remained unchanged for the most part. So why is it happening if the religious marketplace remains free? No singular cause has been pinpointed with certainty, although the going explanation is usually that people on the liberal ends of American religion (mostly Christians) have left organized religion altogether because of the public association between faith and social conservatism. And of course in keeping with supply-side assumptions religion scholars have been busy working on depictions of these unaffiliated Americans as no less interested in religious goods and services. According to these commentators American “nones” just aren’t attracted to the mainstream producers of those goods and services or indeed to the very category of production they operate within. While it is true that most of the unaffiliated still believe in various supernatural phenomena and find some “religious” practices meaningful the assumption that disaffiliating Americans are merely shifting their religious needs away from established institutions is just as unfounded as the idea that they are all becoming atheists. What survey data from Pew, the GSS and ARIS has shown us is that in the last three decades American religion has, perhaps slowly, been losing ground across a spectrum of measures, including beliefs and practices. So is that trend mainly or merely due to the religious politics of social conservatism?

I don’t mean to downplay the negative effects that the Religious Right has had on religious affiliation, as noted early on by Michael Hout and Cluaude Fischer and more recently “confirmed” by Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s work  in their recent book, American Grace. Surely these scholars are onto something, but just perhaps not onto everything. In fact there is one obvious correlation that has to date been seriously explored by no one (at least to my knowledge), and that correlation brings us back to Luft’s essay. As evidence of religious vitality Luft states that: “Compared to Europeans, three times more Americans report that religion is ‘very important’ to them, and three times more Americans attend church regularly.” On the one hand it should be noted that the first of the two indicators is perhaps the most significant, since it is well established that church attendance figures in the United States are widely exaggerated by survey respondents. The obvious explanation is that religion is deemed so “important” by Americans overall, that many are driven to exaggerate their relationship to it. In Europe, where religion is considered much less important, scholars have found virtually no exaggeration of church attendance. So why has it been so much more important for Americans to be religious? This is where the other correlation comes in…

The “rise of the nones” began in earnest in the 1990s, which not only correlates with the political entrenchment of the Religious Right but also with the end of the Cold War. While the first correlation has been investigated by several scholars at this point, the second hasn’t been considered in earnest by anyone looking directly at the rise of the nones (although in his chapter of Religion and the New Atheism Stephen Bullivant suggests that the abatement of Cold War rhetoric has at least made “atheism” more acceptable as an identity).* So why is no one treading this path? Perhaps because it doesn’t conform as easily to the afore mentioned “free market” narratives that underlie so many perceptions of American religious life. If the end of the Cold War is indeed related to the “rise of the nones” it suggests the importance of another narrative in our religious history–the story of America’s civil religion. If we consider church attendance (actual and reported) as an indicator of religious vitality, we have to consider the fact that at our nation’s founding virtually no one attended church, and the pattern remained the same for much of our early history. While the nineteenth century saw an increase in church attendance the astronomically high figures being reported at the tail end of the 20th century were a product of that same century, and especially starting with WWII. As American civil religion became increasingly nationalistic in contra-distinction to the “godless” foes of the Cold War, Americans reported an increasingly intense involvement with (mostly Christian) religion(s).  After all this was the era in which the Pledge of Allegiance was officially blessed with the additional words “under God” (1954) and “in God we trust” became our nation’s motto (1956).

In contrast to supply side claims then, church attendance and the American experience of religious importance went hand in hand with an increasingly intertwined relationship between American politics and religion–not through specific Christian denominations like the state churches of Europe perhaps but instead (as Robert Bellah originally noted) through a tacitly (Protestant) Christian civil religion. With this in mind one could argue that the supply side comparison between the United States and Europe is, at minimum, too general. The world of contemporary global religion also suggests that state religions backed by nationalism actually thrive in the right geopolitical contexts, and I’m unsure why we should consider the United States exceptional in that regard.

Perhaps a civil religion/religious nationalism approach provides a more accurate explanation of religious vitality in twentieth century America than the supply side approach does. It would be interesting to see religious historians and social scientists alike tackling the “rise of the nones” as a distinctly post-Cold War phenomenon. In fact, it isn’t difficult to consider ways in which the going explanation of reactionary politics could complement a post-Cold War theory of religious decline. Perhaps after America’s communist foe disintegrated as a godless superpower American civil religion became so fractured that it has become easier for Americans to both shed their religious identities and to question various ongoing relationships between God and government that still persist. If that is true one might also reconsider Luft’s advice to atheists and their culture wars foes. If American religion thrived throughout the twentieth century in no small part due to a form of institutionalized religious nationalism then Luft’s advice would itself be upside down.

*UPDATE: Barry Kosmin has also commented on this correlation in Free Thought Today but from a socio-economic angle, suggesting that post-Cold War prosperity and national security could be linked to secularization (in line with Norris and Inglehart’s “existential security” thesis). But then what do we make of continued disaffiliation post-9/11 and now in the wake of the Great Recession?

What is the Sociotheological Approach to Religious Violence?

If you are curious you better listen to the interview I recorded with Mark Juergensmeyer in November for the Religious Studies Project‘s podcast series. I asked Prof. Juergensmeyer to talk about global religious violence and to explain the “sociotheological approach,” and he was gracious enough to do so for 30 riveting minutes. Here is a synopsis:

Over the course of the last few decades religious violence has become an increasingly salient topic of public discourse and particularly in its global manifestations. In the social sciences these discourses focus primarily on explanations of violent acts that are driven by the socio-political contexts enveloping them. Mark Juergensmeyer argues that such explanations only tell part of the story, however, since some actions are motivated by a religious vision, like the vision of “cosmic war.” Talking to Per in this podcast Juergensmeyer explains how a “sociotheological approach” is particularly well suited to the task of understanding religious violence by engaging the worldviews of violent actors directly and taking their theological concerns as seriously as their political ideologies.

The podcast can be heard in its entirety here. If you find it interesting or helpful (or even if you don’t) I suggest listening to some of the others in the series, which include interviews with Grace Davie, Tariq Modood, Robert Orsi, David Morgan and others. Enjoy.

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.

Is Homo Religiosus the New “Noble Savage?”

Yet another twitter stream, this time a conversation about some of the implications of the increasingly popular academic narratives around “desecularization” and  “post-secularity.” I will continue to update this if any more tweeps chime in. Like last time this is for posterity and such…

EDIT: For shame! I referred to homo religiosus as homo religious in my tweets and copied the mistake into the original title of the post. I stand corrected (and so does the new title)…

To be continued…

Has Financial Distress Always Been Bad for Religion?

The summer issue of Sociology of Religion just came out and one of the five articles deals with the increasingly popular topic of religious disaffiliation in the United States. Ever since the General Social Survey and the American Religious Identification Survey showed the rate of disaffiliation double over the course of the 1990s sociologists have been busy interpreting the trend and unpacking its implications. So what news is there to report from Nicholas Vargas’ “Retrospective Accounts of Religious Disaffiliation in the United States: Stressors, Skepticism, and Political Factors“? Here’s the abstract:

According to two recent reports, between 15 and 18 percent of Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, up from 7 percent in 1991. Using Wave 1 of the Portraits of American Life Study (PALS), I find that 13 percent of religiously affiliated Americans seriously considered leaving religion altogether between 2003 and 2006. However, less than half went on to actually disaffiliate by 2006. This study examines four key issues associated with both considering and actually leaving religion and investigates differences between religious stayers and leavers. In particular, I examine the potential influence of political attitudes, religious skepticism, life stressors, and sociodemographic characteristics. Results of binary and multinomial logistic regression analyses reveal that each is associated with considering and leaving religion, but not necessarily in uniform and expected directions.

Of the 13 percent who seriously considered leaving religion in 2003, 38 percent did so by 2006. To Vargas, who continually refers to that percentage as “only about 40%”  this figure was apparently unimpressive, but my reaction was quite different. Having 40 percent of the people who experience doubt about their established identity decide to abandon it, seems quite significant. Of course Vargas does suggest that some of the stayers may be what Lim, MacGregor and Putnam have called “liminars”–people who switch in and out of religion often.* Perhaps some of the leavers are too and if that were the case it would explain why he considers the 40 percent less significant than I did, but I can’t be completely sure.  I also don’t know of any other panel studies that measure religious switching in conjunction with religious doubt. Are there any? If there are I’d love to see them, and if not that’s another good research project for someone else to tackle.

Of course Vargas also dug deeper and found correlations between religious skepticism, personal stressors and political factors, and switching out of religion. Religious skepticism is, perhaps unsurprisingly, significantly correlated with both considering to leave and leaving religion. The same is true for holding political positions that are at odds with those espoused by religious institutions. But perhaps much more surprisingly, to me at least, were the correlations between leaving religion and personal stressors. Those who experienced a recent breakup or a death in the family were not any more likely to contemplate leaving religion, and showed an inverse correlation (though not statistically significant) to actually leaving religion. In other words it’s possible that these stressors increase the chance that people stay affiliated. But the third stressor, experiencing a personal financial crisis, was a completely different story. If you had a recent financial crises you were more likely to contemplate leaving and much more likely to actually leave. Here’s how Vargas explains the finding:

…in comparison with the explicit religious theologies and rituals surrounding death, there are fewer predifined contexts under which religion applies to financial crisis. There is not a deep religiously entrenched story or explanation given for those who experience financial hardship. If one loses a home or job, it is not believed to be “in a better place.”

In the end, Vargas even argues that people “may come to find significantly less utility in religion after a financial crisis.” Why exactly is that? And aren’t there actually religious stories that deal with financial hardship–Job’s theodicy comes to mind for instance? And furthermore don’t religious institutions often work to fight poverty and to help those in financial need? And when religion helps people cope with death is it really as simple as people believing that loved ones are “in a better place?” I would think it has more to do with the support they get from the community. Is that support not there when people fall on hard times, or is it that people are too ashamed to accept it? Perhaps they are so embarrassed by sudden financial hardship that they can’t even acknowledge their need, and hence wont have any support offered to them. These are important questions for us to answer, and as Vargas indicates there is much more we need to learn about this topic. It strikes me, though that community leaders of all kinds (religious and secular) ought to take particular notice of this problem. Sudden financial hardship might be forcing people away from established support networks but shouldn’t it do the opposite?

UPDATE: 10/15/12 Jeff Sharlet has published a similar reading of  the economics of disaffiliation in the Revealer today based on the recent Pew Forum report, “‘Nones’ on the Rise“.


*Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann McGregor, and Robert Putnam. 2011. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion 49(4):596-618.

Attending without Adhering: What Some Nonbelievers Get up to on Sundays

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?

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