None of the Above

Part 2: Interview about North America's non-religious, continued.

Posted Apr 02, 2020

The first part of this interview can be found here.

PZ: What single statistic is the most telling or noteworthy?

Phil, how can you make us pick just one?! We love numbers, and there are so many good and interesting ones in the book about religious "nones"! Rates of nonreligion by region and generation in the U.S. and Canada; rates of irreligious socialization and disaffiliation; different ways of being a religious "none"; public opinion on key socio-political issues among "nones"; and more!

But if we have to pick just a handful (can’t do just one), it would have to be the following: at the time of writing the book, there’s just under a quarter of the general adult population in both the U.S. and Canada who say they have no religion. That proportion has been climbing notably since the 1970s in Canada, and the 1990s in the U.S. Among these religious "nones," about one third in the U.S. and two thirds in Canada do not believe in God or a universal spirit.

PZ: Why are younger people opting out of religion?

In our book, we explore the different reasons driving the rise in religious "bones" in both the U.S. and Canada. Nonreligion is especially a generational phenomenon, found in higher rates among Gen X and Millennials. “Religious 'nones' comprise a larger segment of the population in the United States and Canada today than in previous generations” (p.164)

Some of this is due to greater irreligious socialization than in the past: Higher rates of younger adults have grown up in households and communities where religion is less prevalent or absent altogether, and remain removed from religion as adults. Many members of the Boomer generation especially diminished their religiosity by gradually dropping their church attendance and religious group activities.

Religious identification and occasional involvement with a religious group persisted for many Boomers (e.g., for holidays or rites of passage), as they maintained social and cultural ties to their faith tradition. Yet these ties to one’s religion also progressively lessen given that one has fewer reinforcements in society or their religious group to sustain ongoing affiliation or belief.

Simply put, as religion loses its influence in society, the social pressures to uphold religiosity at a private level, with involvement in institutional religion or otherwise, also weaken. And this dynamic is circular. As fewer people say they identify with a religious group, the social acceptance toward such a declaration increases, which in turn normalizes the “no religion” option for others.

This process was aided when Boomers with little remaining religiosity had children and raised them without explicit religious socialization. It is unlikely in these circumstances for Gen Xers and Millennials to suddenly “take up” religious affiliation or belief, if for no other reason than they lack the social environments to expose or teach them about such options.

Yet, even among younger adults who do come from more religious backgrounds, we are seeing important rates of disaffiliation during their late teen and early adult years as well. We map out four main types of reasons these individuals provide for their disaffiliation, which also tie into changes that have happened in the wider social environment:

  1. They were given the choice to leave religion, and they did.
  2. They developed belief, intellectual, or political disagreements with their religion.
  3. Close social ties drew them away from religion.
  4. They went through a life transition, such as losing a loved one or moving to a new place, that led them away from religion.

There also does not appear to be much evidence of large numbers of these disaffiliated returning to religion later in life, but more research is needed in this area. 

PZ: If people are no longer identifying as religious, are they still spiritual?

This question is a tricky one, because some scholars define spirituality so broadly that it could encompass any kind of phenomenon related to finding some kind of meaning in life, which touches almost everyone in one way or another.

But if we define spirituality more narrowly as beliefs and behaviors related to the transcendent, then the short answer is: some "nones" are spiritual, some aren’t. We find that, among those who do not have any religious belonging/identity, believing without belonging does exist and is more common than religious/spiritual behavior without belonging.

In the way we measure it, we estimate there’s about a third of religious "nones" who we could define as spiritual but not religious (demonstrate some spiritual identity and/or spiritual practices), and another 20 to 30 percent who we classify as inactive believers.  

PZ: If people aren’t religious, are they still moral?

Yes. They just attribute their morality to sources other than religion, and their attitudes about what is right and wrong often differ from those of the more religious on some key socio-political issues.

Many who are more actively involved with religion often hold a stereotypical view of these nonreligious individuals as amoral persons lost and in search of meaning—empty vessels with no proper sense of right or wrong, aimlessly and unhappily wandering the desert, waiting to be fulfilled. However, when researchers have actually interviewed nonreligious individuals, they have found that, more often than not, this view is far removed from reality.

For example, religious "none" interviewees repeatedly conveyed that they have meaning and purpose in life. Some admitted that there are times when this is harder to come by, typically associated with stage of life realities such as in their late teen and early adult years, but overall they experience meaning and purpose through their family, relationships, and jobs. Importantly, many maintain that they, not God or a supernatural being, are responsible for bringing about this life meaning and purpose.

Survey findings by the Angus Reid Institute (2015, 14) reveal that those who “reject” religion are the most likely to attribute things like their own efforts (93 percent), chance (47 percent), or luck (35 percent) to determining their life outcome, versus God (8 percent). Other interviewees offered more general statements that “everything happens for a reason,” without clearly delineating who or what is the source of life’s connections. Further, when asked if they think they lack meaning, purpose, or direction in life because they do not identify with a religion or are not actively involved with a religious group, nearly all religious "nones" categorically responded no.

Of course, thinking about meaning, purpose, and understanding on the one hand and turning to religion for answers on the other are two different things. How do the nonreligious interpret and find meaning in the world around them? Science, scientific knowledge, and curiosity seem to play a big role in many of these individuals’ worldviews.

As an indication of this in existing survey data, most nonreligious have a more positive view of the role of science in our lives. Eighty-five percent of the 136 respondents in the 2010 American GSS who say they have no religion and either do not believe in God or do not think there is any way of knowing disagree or strongly disagree that modern science does more harm than good, compared with only 55 percent among those respondents who are certain God exists. Seventy-five percent of the 102 nonbeliever or agnostic "nones" in the 2008 American GSS disagree or strongly disagree that we trust too much in science, compared with only 29 percent among those who are certain God exists.

For many nonreligious, especially self-identified atheists, science already has most of the answers to the ultimate concerns, such as where life comes from, what the meaning and purpose of life is, what it means to lead a good life, what happens to us after we die, and so forth. For the answers that science does not already have, either there is confidence that science will have them in the not-so-distant future or there is belief that the answers are just not worth having in the first place.

This does not mean that all nonreligious individuals have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of how every physical, biological, and social process works in the world around us, but many of them do hold the view that it is these processes, and only these processes, that are fundamentally at play. To what extent a more scientific worldview is held by most or only some of the nonreligious is a question at the cutting edge of the research being conducted in nonreligion and secular studies.

Secular humanism and morality appear to be another source of guidance for many of the nonreligious. For these individuals, although religion is one possible source of morality in our society, it is not the only source, and morality and religion do not necessarily go hand in hand. Not all people involved with a religious group are moral persons, some doing things that most would consider evil or bad, and most nonreligious people are not amoral persons. Most seem to go by the Golden Rule, treating those around them as they would themselves, as a way of understanding what a good person is. This can be done either through their daily interactions with others or in some cases by being part of larger social justice and welfare initiatives.

However, many "nones" disassociate the Golden Rule from Christianity and religion. They see this way of interacting with other individuals as predating religion, as something that humankind has developed over time due to its biological and social necessity for human survival and flourishing—religion just being one manifestation of this and one way (not always the best way) of passing on this rule to the next generation.

Despite the sources of morality often being different, especially between the actively religious and those less or not at all involved with religion, views of what is right and wrong—of what people should or should not do, or what should or should not be allowed in society—often converge among "nones," the marginally religious, and the actively religious.

For example, a vast majority of individuals, regardless of their religious or nonreligious background, agree that committing a violent crime is wrong. At the other end of the spectrum, most people believe in helping others in need. These shared views about much of what is fundamentally right or wrong allow Canadian and American societies to function, for the most part, fairly well on a day-to-day basis: most people understanding and respecting most laws and rules in order to coexist relatively peacefully.

This said, there are a number of sociopolitical issues on which many "nones" have distinct opinions about what is right and wrong compared with more religious individuals. We explore notably attitudes towards same-sex marriage, abortion, gender roles, government aid to the disadvantaged, government spending on the environment, and immigration. "Nones" tend to be further left on the political/ideological spectrum in the United States, Canada, and across much of the Western world on these issues.

These findings remind us that conceptions of morality are not neutral or objective. Rather, different groups socially construct what they believe to be moral and thus believe and behave accordingly, also reflected in how groups perceive and interact with other social groups.

PZ: When you compare and contrast “nones” in the USA and Canada, what most stands out?

Religious "nones" grew earlier and more rapidly in Canada than in the United States.

Canadians generally seem warmer toward atheists and cooler toward conservative-leaning religious groups (mainly Evangelicals) than those in the United States.

Even though the proportion of religious "nones" is now very similar in the U.S. and Canada (just under a quarter of the adult population), spiritual activities (such as prayer) and beliefs (such as in God) are still more prevalent among "nones" in the U.S. than those in Canada.

Religious "nones" in Canada are even more left of the political spectrum on most issues than "nones" in the U.S.

Some regional distinctions are more important here than national ones. For example, the Pacific Northwest region in both countries (British Columbia in Canada, and the states of Washington and Oregon in the U.S.) shares more in common in terms of its high rates of religious "nones" and its very left-leaning socio-political attitudes.