In this blog Joel Thiessen and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme discuss recent findings from their research which explores Nonreligious identity in the US and Canada. In looking at how different (non)religious groups perceive each other, in particular, they discuss how religious nones tend to be more suspicious and critical of religious groups that they believe are “exclusive,” and more open to groups they perceive to be “inclusive”.
As the proportion of those who say they have no religion grows in both the United States and Canada, one question worth considering is ‘how “religious nones” perceive and are perceived by members of other religious traditions’. This question is especially significant as both countries experience increasing (non)religious diversity, particularly in regions once dominated by various Christian traditions that now find their proportionate representation of the population on the decline. This is one topic that we tackle near the end of our book with New York University Press, None of the Above: Nonreligious Identity in the US and Canada. For discussion of our other findings, see our two earlier NSRN blog posts: “The Religious Nones of North America, and the Beginnings of a Book Project” (July 2017) and “Subtypes of Religious Nones in the United States and Canada” (June 2018).
Drawing upon a range of survey and interview data, two key findings stand out in our research. First, atheists—as a subset of religious nones—and evangelicals reserve their strongest negative views for one another. This polarization is present in both the United States and Canada, but is especially pronounced in the United States. Second, religious nones generally hold more negative views toward perceived “exclusive” groups, and positive views toward perceived “inclusive” groups.
Beginning with atheists and evangelicals in the United States, we turn to our analysis of the raw data from the 2017 Pew American Trends Panel. This survey included a 0-100 feelings thermometer question based on different (non)religious groups. The higher the score, the more positive respondents felt toward the group in question. Overall, Jews (66), Catholics (65), mainline Protestants (63), and Evangelicals (61) scored the highest, while atheists (50) and Muslims (48) scored the lowest. When comparing members of different religious traditions’ perceptions toward atheists in particular, Jews scored the highest (66), followed by Catholics (48), liberal Protestants (46), and Evangelical Protestants (32). Conversely, when religious nones convey their perceptions toward other religious groups, Buddhists are viewed most positively (67), then Jews and Hindus (61), Catholics and mainline Protestants (55), Muslims (51), Mormons (50), and Evangelical Christians (45) (see Figure 5.1 from page 149 of our book, which includes details on how religious nones, marginal affiliates, and active affiliates view different groups). When we focus more directly on atheists in particular, they are most positive toward Buddhists (67) and negative toward Evangelical Christians (29).
In Canada, a 2015 Angus Reid Institute Survey asked Canadians to rate how positive (+1), neutral (0), or negative (-1) they perceived different (non)religious groups. The following scores capture the net differences across the sample. Mainline Protestants lead the way (+36), followed by Catholics (+35), atheists (+4), Evangelical Christians (+3), Sikhs (-9), Mormons (-17), and Muslims (-29). When we compare perceptions toward atheists in particular, Roman Catholics score just above neutral (+2), followed by mainline Protestants (-6), and Evangelicals in a distant last position (-50). (Limited sample size in traditions outside of Christianity preclude comment). Religious nones, in contrast, reveal more favourable views to Buddhists (+38), Hindus (+8), Jews (+6), and mainline Protestants (+5), and negative perceptions for Sikhs and Catholics (-9), Muslims (-28), Mormons (-35), and Evangelicals (-40).
Building on these survey data, in our interviews we discovered that religious nones tend to be more suspicious and critical of religious groups that they believe are “exclusive,” and more open to groups they perceive to be “inclusive.” Here we share two examples. Sandra and her husband did not expose their children to religion in the home. Sandra was offended when her daughter, a recent convert to Evangelical Christianity, returned home one day with this comment from another member in her newfound Evangelical group: “It’s too bad your parents aren’t Christian.” Sandra described this group as:
“cultish . . . blind worshipping . . . you can believe whatever you want but always keep your mind open, asking questions. As soon as anybody says to you, ‘don’t ask, just obey,’ that to me is a huge warning sign just to back away from that. It seemed to me that it was a whole lot of just worship . . . There was no critical thinking in it.”
Another interviewee, Patrick, singled out Muslims in his critique of religion:
“the Muslim can’t marry outside your religion . . . It’s like, ‘oh if I like this girl I have to become Muslim’ . . . if you’re a Muslim you can’t marry . . . like what the hell not, like what makes me not good enough anymore? Just because I’m not in the same religion . . . the Muslim is like not being able to marry outside your circle . . . and then . . . having your wife wear the shawl . . . you can see the control on the woman . . . like it’s you have to follow this, and it’s like, ‘oh, it’s . . . her choice’ . . . yeah it’s her choice because you brainwash her into thinking it was her choice.”
Patrick is not critical toward all religious groups, however:
“I mean the Buddhist . . . is something that I would identify more towards . . . because they don’t have, per se, as much written . . . and then they’re not as destructive as Muslim and Catholic . . . Like that one is a lot more peaceful and it’s like inner peace.”
In our book we unpack some of the social, cultural, and historical reasons for these perceptions of the “other,” which include considerations of how these perceptions are reinforced or challenged in various institutional settings (e.g., law, media, and education). As The Thomas Theorem in sociology reminds us, our perceptions shape our realities which then become real in their consequences. Therefore, we maintain that it is important to understand the ways that different groups perceive one another, where and why certain (non)polarizing perceptions are advanced or rejected, and ultimately how different (non)religious communities can coexist with one another in diverse and plural contexts in the future.
Keywords: atheists; evangelicals; polarization; diversity; pluralism
Joel Thiessen is professor of sociology and director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Canada. He is the author of The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age and co-author of The Millennial Mosaic: How Pluralism and Choice are Shaping Canadian Youth and the Future of Canada.
Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Her research interests include sociology of religion, quantitative methods, social change, race, ethnicity and immigration and political sociology.