Robert Putnam’s highly anticipated American Grace is one of several new studies that highlights America’s most widely discussed emergent religious group—the “Nones.” As Putnam and co-author Campbell describe, this group “consists of people who report no religious affiliation. … When asked to identify their religion, they indicate that they are ‘nothing in particular.’” (p.16).
A recent Pew study found that that Nones have average levels of knowledge about religion (16.6 correct answers compared to the national average of 16 correct). Yet, two much smaller sub-groups of Nones—those self-identifying as Atheists and Agnostics—are shown to be remarkably more knowledgeable about religion than those with a religious affiliation (yet Putnam also notes, “while atheism has recently gained prominence, particularly on the bestseller lists, self-identified atheists and agnostics comprise a vanishingly small proportion of the U.S. population”). These results along with trends in the growth of the Nones documented by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) have led some commentators to pose an interesting question. Does knowledge somehow lead to disaffiliation and/or secularization? Some clearly think so…
Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, responded to these Pew results in The New York Times saying, “I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”
Yet, if it were as simple as Bible study (X) leads to Atheism (Y) then Evangelical Christians in America would have likely read themselves out of existence in one or two generations. We would also expect that the Harvard Divinity School and Notre Dame’s Department of Theology would be producing many young “New Atheists” to join the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. It is clear that there are more than a few methodological flaws in Mr. Silverman’s “recipe” for making atheists.
Mr. Silverman might also think twice about his evangelization techniques after reading Pew’s other recent important study, Faith in Flux, where the researchers conclude, “Paradoxically, the unaffiliated [Nones] have gained the most members in the process of religious change despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all religious groups [only 47% of those raised unaffiliated stay unaffiliated as adults]. Indeed, most people who were raised unaffiliated now belong to a religious group.” In other words, there is a good chance that Mr. Silverman’s daughter will leave the non-faith she was raised in for a religion someday (…and luckily she already has a Bible).
Pew has also shown that the acquisition of scientific knowledge is not what has led to most of the growth in the Nones as is often posited. The Fath in Flux results indicate that “only 32% of former Catholics [now Nones] and the same percentage of former Protestants [now Nones] agree that science proves religion to be superstition, and fewer still (less than a quarter) say it was important in their conversion.”
The causality for creating Nones must be much more complex than the acquisition of any type of knowledge (flawed or not, meaningful or trivial). My own hunch is that Nones are most often created out of the context of their lives.
Earlier this year, Melissa Cidade and I used the College Student Beliefs and Values (CSBV) survey from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) to study religious changes in students attending Catholic colleges. Overall, we found that 8% of all students who enroll in Catholic colleges and universities are Catholic upon entry but then leave the faith by graduation. We found that the students who leave during college were less likely than those who stay Catholic to attend religious services frequently or to believe in God before beginning college. Thus, the students who end up leaving the Catholic faith entered already weak in practice or belief.
Once in college they then seem unprepared to deal with some of the challenges of early adulthood. We found that those Catholics who leave the faith in college are among the most likely to say their faith has been weakened in college by the death of a close friend or family member, natural disaster, or the War in Iraq. They are also among the most likely to indicate they have “frequently” struggled to understand pain, suffering and death, and have felt distant from God.
Those who become Nones at Catholic Colleges are unlikely to have made this change because of anything taught (or not taught) in class. It is not about their amount of knowledge (or lack of it) on anything meaningful or trivial. It’s more often about their experience—specifically tragic experiences early in their lives where they are unable to reconcile their faith (which had been infrequently practiced before college) with something awful that happens to them or a loved one.
Given these results, my hunch is that the Church will not prevent new Nones with better religious education alone. Instead what may be more necessary is improved ministry to young adults (the median age for those who leave the Catholic faith is 21)—especially the bereaved to help them understand and deal with the tragedies of life.
If the Catholic Church, along with other religions fail to stem the loss of the faithful to the faithless what can we expect?
Some question whether human beings can act morally without the influence of religion. That is a silly question as it is clearly possible. The more important question is how often will human beings act morally without the influence of religion? Here we can speak more in terms of probabilities and data are available.
The analysis below utilizes recent data from the General Social Survey (GSS)—which is also used widely in Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace. We compare respondents in this survey who have some religious affiliation to those who do not (Note: the analysis is limited to years in which the questions were asked. We use the most recent available data and also try to combine multiple surveys to minimize margin of error). Among those with a faith we also break out the results for Protestants and Catholics for comparison.
On measures of altruistic love the Nones underperform compared to those of faith. They are less likely than those with a religious affiliation to say they would:
- rather suffer than let a love one suffer
- that they would endure all things for the sake of the one I love
- that they are willing to sacrifice their own wishes to let the one I love achieve his/hers
- that they cannot be happy unless I place the one I love’s happiness before my own
As the figure below shows, religion falls well short of achieving the ideal result as well. All of the percentages for the religious affiliated are lower than what one might hope for. However, the difference between the religious and the Nones is consistent and clear.
Differences are not limited to beliefs and the hypothetical but to reported behaviors as well. In terms of social action, such as giving food or money to a homeless person, doing volunteer or charity work, or being honest and returning money to a cashier after getting too much change, the Nones again perform below the levels of religious Americans. The gap is not massive but again consistent. It is also clear in these results that religious affiliation alone again does not inspire people to the ideals that their faith may call them to.
Still not convinced? Here are three more figures showing findings related to empathy.
The Nones are less likely to feel protective of people being taken advantage of and less likely to have tender, concerned feelings for those who are less fortunate than them.
Two other GSS questions in the reverse direction create more consistent results. The Nones are less likely than the religious to say statements about not feeling pity for someone treated unfairly and not feeling sorry for people having problems do not describe them very well.
The results of the final empathy figure indicate that one may be less likely to expect a helping hand from one of the Nones than someone who is religious.
A skeptic might interject at this point with the argument that Nones are just being more “honest” and that religious Americans are responding in a way that is more consistent with the expectations their religions have on them. Perhaps. Experimental evidence would be useful in confirming (or disconfirming) the patterns observed in the survey data. But I know of no evidence that indicates Nones might be more honest than religious or less susceptible to the pressures to appear like a “good person.”
And of course there is no shortage of anecdotes about horrible things religious people have done and saintly deeds by people without a religious faith. Yet individual exceptions do not invalidate larger trends and patterns. And there is more…
As indicated in the HERI data it is also clear that the Nones, on average, have experienced more trauma and tragedy in their lives than those with a religious affiliation. As I have hypothesized these negative experiences may in part explain why and how these people came to be Nones.
Luckily tragedy and trauma are relatively rare on an annual basis in a population of more than 300 million. However, these events are slightly less rare for the Nones than the religious. Those without religion are more likely than those with an affiliation to say that in the year surveyed they have been arrested, had a drinking problem, or had serious trouble with a spouse/partner or a close friend.
As shown below, a third of Nones say they have felt they were going to have a mental breakdown at some point in their life and nearly one in five (18%) say they have felt that they had a mental health problem at some point. Religious Americans are less likely to indicate either. More so the religious are more likely than the Nones to say they are “very happy.”
Even though Nones are slightly less likely than religious Americans to indicate they live in or near areas they consider unsafe, the Nones are significantly more likely than the religious to report that they have ever been beaten or punched or threatened with a gun or shot at. A majority of the Nones (55%) report a physical assault and more than one in four report an incident with gun. Nones are literally more likely than the religious to have seen their lives flash before their eyes.
As one might expect a life more likely to include these traumatic experiences could alter perceptions of human nature. Thus, it is not surprising that Nones are slightly less likely than those with a religious affiliation to trust others as shown in the figure below.
Nowhere is the slightly more nihilistic point of view of the Nones more prevalent than in their attitudes regarding life issues. Perhaps this is an effect of living a less than wonderful life? (from their perspective of course... sometimes everyone need a Clarence to point out meaningfulness). Nones are much more likely than those with a religious affiliation to support abortion on demand, embryonic stem cell research, and suicide if someone “is tired of living and ready to die.” The one exception is with the death penalty for convicted murders where Nones are generally less supportive of this institution than those of religious faith (the difference between Catholics and Nones is within the margin of error).
These findings are not unique. In fact Putnam devotes an entire chapter to “Religion and Good Neighborliness” in American Grace mostly using more comprehensive data from the survey conducted for the book. Here he concludes, “Religious Americans are generally better neighbors and more active citizens. ... It is religion's network of morally freighted personal connections, coupled with an inclination toward altruism, that explains both the good neighborliness and the life satisfaction of religious Americans” (p. 492). Yet, Putnam also poses the all important question of correlation or causation as well in this chapter.
It is true that Nones are by no means a demographic random sample of the U.S. adult population. As one can see below Nones are slightly younger than Catholics and Protestants and Nones are also disproportionately male. In a related manner they are less likely to be married and have children (also note that 22% were raised Catholic).
So is it a lack of religious affiliation or the fact that Nones are disproportionately young males that can explain the results shown in the figures above? Here comes the science/statistics....
Results from a series of regressions are shown in the table below. Entries with a * represnet a statistically significant relationship. The columns represent the effect of being a None, next of age, and finally of being male. Thus, these regressions test for the effect of being a None while controlling for the effects of age and gender. Generally the effects of religious nonaffiliation remain consistent with the figures shown above with the exception of having being arrested. This is more often a result of being a young male.
There are many implications for the results above and those in Putnam's American Grace. If current trends continue and Nones become an even larger share of the population, whatever remains of the neighborly, altruistic, and civic culture of the United States may deteriorate further. However, in every recipe there is a chance to alter the chemistry...
What if religions in America could do a better job at helping young people understand tragedy and help them cope with loss and disappointment? Perhaps if religious discourse today, which often focuses a lot on sinfulness, could also include a means of combating sadness fewer of the flock would be lost?
Give it a try. If you see a None you know this Christmas ask them how they are doing. Listen and help as you can. Be the Clarence they may have always needed in their life.
Top photo courtesy of shimelle at Flickr Creative Commons.