None of the Above

Part 1: Understanding nonreligious people in North America.

Posted Mar 31, 2020

More people are walking away from religion than ever before. Known as the “Nones,” such individuals do not identify with a religion. Many are atheists or agnostics, although certainly not all.

Two sociologists, Joel Thiessen (Ambrose University) and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme (University of Waterloo) have recently published a new book, None of the Above: Nonreligious Identity in the U.S. and Canada, examining the “Nones” in North America. I recently interviewed them about their work.

PZ: What prompted you to write this book?

The dearth of research on people who say they have no religion particularly struck us, as we were independently working on qualitative interview and quantitative survey projects respectively on Canadian religious "nones" back in the early 2010s, only to discover each other’s work in the process. We met at a conference in Ontario in 2014, and both realized our respective studies on nones could be greatly enriched by working together. This point of contact laid the groundwork to pursue collaborative work, of which this book is one aspect.

There were some key questions about religious "nones" we felt the existing social scientific literature hadn’t addressed up to that point, and that we set out to answer in our book:

  • While we know that different types of disaffiliation, as well as irreligious socialization, play a role in the rise of those who say they have no religion, we know little about the biographic pathways into becoming a religious none and how these are influenced by the surrounding social environment. In our book, we take the opportunity to develop a comprehensive model of factors that lead people to say they have no religion.
  • There is a need for a thorough model of macro-demographic trends affecting the size of the religious "none" population. In this regard, while many authors assume that the religious "none" population will continue to grow, will countervailing forces such as non-Western immigration and lower birth rates among religious "nones" slow or reverse this growth in certain areas?
  • Works on spiritual and secular meaning systems among "nones" in the United States are increasing, but few similar works exist in Canada. Do we see key differences in this regard between the two nations, and between subregions within each country?
  • Data in the United States reveal distinct sociopolitical attitudes and behaviors among religious "nones," but how does this compare in Canada, and might beliefs and practices shift as the religious "none" group grows?
  • What attitudes exist among religious "nones," religious majorities, and religious minorities, and how do these attitudes affect group interaction?

Our central aim in this book is to answer these questions by exploring the dynamics of being a religious "none" in contemporary America and Canada and how this willful distance from organized religion affects other aspects of daily and social life.

PZ: Are you religious? How do you identify?

Well, what’s so great about our work relationship and the way we approach our study of religious nones is that we actually each occupy opposite ends of the (non)religiosity spectrum.

I (Sarah) am completely nonreligious. My mum’s an atheist fed up with the Church of England; my dad a fallen-away Catholic. I was raised in a nonreligious home, and had very little contact with organized religion in general while growing up. I identify as a non-believer when I’m required to, but don’t think much about it most of the time, to be honest. I am fascinated though with understanding how religion works as a social phenomenon, and how it impacts the socio-political realities of everyday life.

I (Joel) am actively involved in a Christian congregation, and teach at a Christian university. I am the son of a Baptist pastor, and presently serve in various roles of local church leadership in a conservative Protestant denomination. While an “insider” to Christianity I, like some fellow Christians in Canada, am quick to distance myself from evangelicalism in the United States. I also value my training as a sociologist of religion to carefully and critically unpack (non)religious attitudes and behaviours, which includes speaking with and correcting many church leader perceptions of religious nones.     

The advantage of coming from two such distinct backgrounds and self-identities is that we each bring unique insight to our study of religious "nones," and the impacts that the shifting (non)religious landscape is having on different groups in society. This said, despite our different personal (non)approaches to religion, we find that we almost always agree with what’s happening on the ground with religious "nones" based on the qualitative and quantitative empirical findings we respectively collect and analyze.  

PZ: What are the main/key findings if your study?

Our main argument in the book is that there is a decline of organized religion happening in both the U.S. and Canada: a gradual decline happening in stages across time and generations and at different rates in various social, cultural, and regional contexts, leading to the rise of religious “nones.”

Yet, this form of decline does not imply the disappearance of all things religious and spiritual, as a diversity of spiritual beliefs and practices along with nonbelief and secular attitudes coexist and are constantly evolving. The decline of organized religion among large segments of the U.S. and Canadian populations also does not mean that religion is necessarily less relevant for everyday interactions and social life. If anything, that there are now large groups of religious and nonreligious individuals coexisting in both countries could mean there is a greater social divide and distance in moral and political values and behaviors along religious/nonreligious lines, as well as in interactions and attitudes between the religious and nonreligious.

The following are some key quotes from our book highlighting our main findings:

  • “At roughly one-quarter of the current population, those who say they have no religion are far more numerous in the United States and Canada than half a century ago.” (p.171)
  • “Religious 'nones' come in all shapes and sizes: involved seculars, inactive nonbelievers, inactive believers, the spiritual but not religious, and religiously involved believers.” (p.171)
  • “With the best data available to us… against the backdrop of the stages of decline framework, we suggest that both secularization and individualization and spiritualization are occurring simultaneously in the United States and Canada.” (p.172)
  • “Distinct social, cultural, and regional milieus factor into this discussion of heterogeneity among religious 'nones.' A religious 'none' growing up in a predominantly Christian environment versus a largely secular setting matters.” (p.172)
  • “We can expect, on average, there to be higher rates of inactive nonbelievers in regions with higher rates of religious 'nones.'” (p.173)
  • “Religious and irreligious groups are forming distinct subcultures and worldviews about and toward one another as well as on a range of social and civic issues. These perspectives are learned and reinforced in social settings such as the home, with one’s peers and coworkers, and in larger social institutional settings.” (p.173)
  • “We see a shrinking core (not disappearance) of active religious affiliates—a former majority in society—alongside the growth of religious 'nones,' with each group competing for social and cultural privilege, authority, and dominance to advance and protect its way of viewing the world.” (p.173)
  • “Traditional ties and obligations to religious affiliation, authority, or behavior have gradually become optional in late modern society for many individuals in the United States and Canada.” (p. 175)
  • “The proportion of religious 'nones' has grown over time across every region in the United States and Canada'” (p.179)
  • “Irreligious socialization now plays a growing role in the rise of 'nones' in both the United States and Canada'” (p.179)
  • “When we look to a range of social and moral issues, religious 'nones' in both nations are more left-leaning than religious affiliates, especially in regions with higher proportions of religious 'nones.'” (p.180)
  • “It is safe to expect sizeable proportions of religious 'nones' to remain for the foreseeable future.” (p.183)