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Once Religious, Always Religious?

Why is it so hard to leave religion behind? New research offers clues.

A friend of mine once said, "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic." And he's no longer a practicing Catholic. The idea behind his saying was that religion sticks with you, even when you no longer consider yourself religious. Is this true? And if so, what makes religion so hard to shake?

John Cafazza / Unsplash
Source: John Cafazza / Unsplash

A new line of research has uncovered what is known as "religious residue:" the tendency for religious psychology and behavior to persist even after people leave religion. This work, which has sampled participants from four different countries (Van Tongeren et al., in press) and has examined both adults and adolescents (Van Tongeren et al., 2020), has revealed a few key findings:

1. Religious "dones" still act and feel somewhat religious. Even though they no longer identify as religious, formerly religious individuals (religious "dones") still reported more positive feelings toward God (both implicitly and explicitly), more religious practices, more religiously-oriented values, and even acted a bit more prosocially than people who were never religious. This suggests that there is a religious residue that sticks with people, even after they leave religion.

2. This religious residue may be because of entrenched schemas, habits, and socialization. Why does this residue effect persist? Researchers suggest three pathways: religiously-based cognitive schemas that are difficult to change, religious habits that have been practiced and engrained to become rather automatic, and the socialization of still associating with religious individuals. This triple-combo of cognition, behavior, and community gives religion so much of its staying power.

3. Religious residue may decay over time. Given enough time, the potent effect of religion might wane. The longer people had de-identified from religion, the weaker its effects. Although this has yet to be fully tested, initial evidence suggests that given enough time, some (but perhaps not all) of the residual effect of religion may wear off. However, this remains an open question.

If you're someone who has left religion and is wondering why you still think, feel, and act like your old religious self, you're not alone. Religion is a powerful meaning system, and it leaves a residue in your mind, perhaps still affecting you today. Perhaps moving forward without religion means finding new ways to find meaning in life. And although religion is a primary source of meaning in life for many people, there are numerous other ways that people find meaning: through relationships, through their career, and through an engagement with the natural world. Building new pathways to meaning will take time, and religious residue may persist, but there are new ways forward for those who have left the faith.


Van Tongeren, D. R., DeWall, C. N., Chen, Z., Sibley, C. G., & Bulbulia, J. (in press). Religious residue: Cross-cultural evidence that religious psychology and behavior persist following deidentification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Van Tongeren, D. R., DeWall, C. N., Hardy, S. A., Schwadel, P. (2020). Religious identity and morality: Links between religious deidentification and moral foundations. Manuscript under editorial review.