Can You Ever Completely Give Up Your Religion?

Comparing the formerly religious with those who never believed.

Posted Feb 16, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

I like to joke that I gave up religion for Lent one year and just never went back to it. But in reality, my separation from the Catholic Church was a more gradual process.

As a child, I accepted with blind faith everything the priests and nuns taught me in parochial school. In high school, however, the logical inconsistencies of the Catholic faith and the moral inconsistencies of Catholics' behavior began to trouble me. By the time I was sixteen, I was convinced there was no god, but I still remained active in the Church, even though I was just role-playing.

When I went off to college and was free of my Catholic family and friends, I started down the path as a “Roamin’ Catholic,” and I’ve never gone back. But the Catholics have a saying: “If we have a child till seven, we have him for life.” They had their claws in me for twice that time, and I still have the scars after four and a half decades as a freethinking atheist.

So, can you ever completely give up the religion you were raised in? Or will your thoughts and behaviors forever be tainted by this childhood indoctrination? This is the question that Hope College psychologist Daryl Van Tongeren and his colleagues explored in a study recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Van Tongeren and his colleagues start with the observation, confirmed by plenty of previous research, that religious and non-religious people tend to think about morality differently. Specifically, religious people usually think about moral issues in absolute terms—if a certain action is wrong, it’s wrong in all circumstances. In other words, they think of morality as a list of thou-shalt’s and thou-shalt-not’s.

In contrast, non-religious people are more likely to consider moral issues in relative terms. That is, they deem a particular action as right or wrong depending on the circumstances. Typically, they ask if anyone is harmed by the action, and if so, whether there is more harm or benefit.

However, as the researchers point out, the term “non-religious” lumps together two different types of people. First, there are those like me who gave up their religion in adolescence or early adulthood. And second, there are those like my children, who grew up with no religion at all.

Very likely, there will be some “religious residue” in the moral thinking of those who abandoned their religion after childhood. This religious residue effect is specifically what Van Tongeren and colleagues tested for in a series of three studies.

For each of these studies, the researchers recruited a number of people who were currently religious, formerly religious, or never religious. The participants then read a series of moral statements and indicated the degree to which they endorsed each.

As expected, the results showed a “stair step” pattern in which the currently religious participants tended toward absolute morality and the never religious toward relative morality, while the formerly religious stood between the two. This robust pattern of results across three studies provides strong support for the religious residue effect. In other words, just because you give up your religion, this doesn’t mean you completely abandon your old ways of thinking about morality.

But where does this religious residue effect come from? Van Tongeren and colleagues propose two possible sources, which they tested in the second and third studies.

One source of religious residue could be from continued affiliation with religious people. When people give up their religion, they’re usually still situated within a social network of friends and family members who continue to believe. These ongoing interactions could then reinforce thought patterns that the novice non-believers are trying to distance themselves from.

The influence of social networks was tested in the second study. As predicted, the researchers found that non-believers who had maintained close ties with religious family and friends displayed more absolutist moral thinking than those who had fewer ties.

Another source of religious residue could come from ingrained habits of thinking. Early childhood is the formative period in which we learn our language and culture, and our personality and attitudes are largely shaped during this time as well. Even when we intentionally reject the religious teachings of our childhood, we’re still greatly influenced by implicit attitudes that we’re but dimly aware of.

The third study tested the influence of habitual ways of thinking. As expected, those who had only recently abandoned their faith exhibited moral reasoning similar to that of religious persons. However, the longer the time that had passed since people had given up their religion, the more their moral reasoning took on a relativistic perspective.

In sum, both social influence and habitual thinking play a role in creating the religious residue effect. After all, the link between religious belief and moral thinking may not be immediately obvious to formerly religious persons. However, as they interact with other non-believers and read up on arguments for atheism, they also encounter the reasoning behind relative moral thinking. In other words, former believers are often caught between their old social network of believers and their new social network of non-believers, and it takes time for new patterns of thinking to take shape.

In conclusion, there’s some truth to the Catholic adage that if they’ve got you till seven they’ve got you for life. While it may be easy to reject the logic of your religion’s doctrines, it’s far more difficult to eradicate habitual ways of thinking, and many new non-believers find it hard to completely extricate themselves from the social influence of religious friends and family. The influence of childhood religious indoctrination can take many years to change.

References

Van Tongeren, D. R., DeWall, C. N., Hardy, S. A., & Schwadel, P. (2021) Religious identity and morality: Evidence for religious residue and decay in moral foundations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Advance online publication. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/014616722097081