Counting (multiple) nonreligious identities in surveys


In this post, Atko Remmel, drawing on (non)religious identification data from Estonia, explores the benefits of measuring, and accounting for, the multiple ways in which individuals might express their (non)religiosity through surveys.


In a recent Nonreligion in a Complex Future project expert panel discussion about the Canadian data on religion, titled “Religion in Decline?: Understanding New Data from Statistics Canada” (https://youtu.be/v4YuvaRUnYA?t=1900), Jack Jedwab, from the Association for Canadian Studies, called for the inclusion for multiple religious identities in surveys: “Answer more than one. I think it would change the dynamics. // It’s not gonna be comparable with longitudinal and census-to-census recording. But I do think at a certain point we need to make a jump. Take the leap. And see where we land.”

This idea is, of course, not something entirely new. There is a whole special issue on multiple religious belonging and other forms of “hybrid religiosity”. Pew Research Center conducted a study in 2016 asking about mixed religious belonging, and there was even a recent EASR conference in 2018 devoted to the topic, with a presentation by Conrad Hackett specifically on surveys and multiple identities. Still, I wanted to share some data which could shed some light on the possible landing places of such an endeavor. The data presented below is from Estonia, a tiny country (1.3M inhabitants) by the Baltic Sea, known for its far-reaching secularization – or, at least, the irrelevance of conventional religion.

Of the local longitudinal studies on religion, there are two sources. Census asks the two-part question: “Do you consider some religion your own“, and if yes, then “which one?” As the only scholar in the country interested in nonreligion, I’ve had hard time – despite the marginality of conventional religiosity and the blossoming market of alternative spirituality – pushing things towards studying the actual reality. In 2011, the census resulted in only 29% of population “considering some religion their own”, while 16% declined to answer and 54% reported “no religion”. The percentages are even lower among ethnic Estonians, of whom only 19% reported some religion – the main reason behind those relatively low numbers is a historical conflict narrative between nationalism and Christianity, and Soviet era “forced secularization” that reduced religious socialization rather effectively. Looking from another angle, the census gave “negative information” (i.e. denial of given statements instead of saying something substantial about oneself) on 70% of the population. This two-part question is designed for a context in which the majority of the population is religious, but in the case of Estonia, the “nones” already make up half of the population (like in Britain) or more. There is no point in applying studies concerning a small percentage of the population on the whole population. There are numerous possibilities of “no religion” out there, also worth counting.

Then there is a survey called “On life, faith and religious life” (LFLR, where I’ve been included as a member of an expert group helping to develop the questionnaire), conducted every five years since 1995 and financed by the Estonian Council of Churches, an umbrella organization for the local Christian denominations. For reasons unclear to me, the people responsible for finalizing the questionnaire feel that charting the theological ideal model is still relevant and beneficial both for social sciences and the churches. Here, of course, I disagree, but who pays the piper calls the tune. Yet, despite the general focus on congregation-centered form of Christianity, there have been some considerable changes in the LFLR questionnaire. Of my numerous suggestions, the topic of multiple (non)religious identities was actually included, although the list of options and specifics were developed by others. As of now, the multi-identity question has been asked twice, in LFLR 2015 and LFLR 2020.

In LFLR 2015, the questionnaire allowed participants to choose from a pre-defined list of identity labels. The question asked “Please tell us, whom would you consider yourself from the following list.” The response options to this question were: Christian; Earth Believer; Religious or spiritual seeker; Nonreligious person, who doesn’t care of those topics; Spiritual but not religious; Atheist or a denier of God; Someone else; Don’t know.[1] Then, the respondents were offered to choose an additional label if they wished to do so. As for the Jedwab’s concern about the comparability of results with the previous surveys, I think, presenting the questions in this way, without advertising the possibility of choosing the second label beforehand, means the data is still comparable with the previous waves, and the answers can be interpreted as primary and secondary identity.

The results (on only ethnic Estonians) are presented in the following cross-table. The first column indicates the distribution of primary identity labels while the rest of the columns indicate the distribution of secondary identities within the primary identity. Here the DK (the don’t know) column indicates the percentage of respondents, who did not wish to select a secondary identity.

Primary IDSecondary ID
%ChristianSeekerEarth believerSBNRNot religiousAtheistOtherDK
Christian26% 29%16%15%5%1%2%33%
Seeker7%9% 9%48%0%0%7%27%
Earth believer6%13%8% 34%13%16%0%16%
SBNR27%7%14%15% 21%9%2%31%
Not religious24%6%0%4%30% 29%1%29%
Atheist7%2%0%12%33%29%0%24%
Other2%9%9%0%18%9%9%45%
DK2%0%0%0%0%0%0%0%100%

As a result, 70% of respondents chose multiple identities and only 30% were content with only one label. Assuming that these labels indicate how people see themselves and their life orientations – even if they are not “active” identities and are just labels taken during the surveys as it usually is with the nonreligious identities – the outcome is rather interesting. The seekers emerge as the most religious (no overlap with secular identities like not religious and atheists), while there are even some atheist Christians, indicating some form of “cultural religion” (Kasselstrand 2015). The overlap of Earth Belief with nonreligious identities was somewhat expected, expressing the influence of national myth critical of Christianity. From the perspective of nonreligion, there is a very small overlap with primary secular and secondary “religious” identities, such as Christian or seeker. The 2% of atheists who also identify as Christians probably points to something that might be called “cultural atheism”.

In the next wave, LFLR 2020, the question about identity was posed slightly differently, presenting the possibility of choosing multiple identities already from the start: “In the following people with different religions and worldviews are listed. Please indicate which one of them would you consider yourself. You can choose multiple answers”. The list was: Believer, Spiritual but not religious, Religious or spiritual seeker, Nonreligious, Indifferent towards religion, Atheist or a denier of God, and None of the above – the last one here excludes even the nonreligious labels.

The results, again representing only ethnic Estonians, are as follows:

 TotalBelieverSeekerSBNRIndifferentNonreligiousAtheistNone
Believer13% 10%10%1%0%0%0%
Seeker11%11% 15%1%2%1%0%
SBNR29%4%6% 6%9%4%1%
Indifferent24%1%1%7% 26%13%2%
Nonreligious23%0%1%11%28% 18%1%
Atheist10%0%1%11%30%41% 0%
None9%0%0%2%5%1%0% 

The column “Total” represents the percentage of identities chosen, and since multiple answers were possible, its sum exceeds 100% level. The other columns indicate the percentages of overlapping identities with the identity in the first column. In this case, only 16.7% of the respondents selected more than one identity label – 13.1% chose two, 3.2% three and 0.4% four identities. Similar to the previous wave, nonreligious identities overlap with other nonreligious identities and “religious” identities (seekers and believers) keep mostly among themselves, which suggests that people are quite sure that their general life orientation falls into the religious or nonreligious category. Further, there seems to be a rather clear separation between religious and nonreligious orientations. The middle group of the SBNRs, however, is open to both religion and nonreligious orientations.

I think the most interesting result of this table is that it indicates the perception of these labels in association with the concepts of “religion” and “secularity”. I have arranged the labels according to their bigger overlaps (marked red) – and the result is an identity scale from believing (i.e. Christianity) to atheism, with the fuzzy group of SBNR in the middle. Despite the critical voices of academics (including mine) that curse the categories of religion and secularity as artificial, offering random identity labels inevitably regenerates the tripartite system of “religion”, “secularity” and their fuzzy middle due to the popular discourses on religion and secularity surrounding these labels. Truly annoying. This also gives a possible answer to the question, whether the “indifferent” should be considered a part of the religion-nonreligion continuum or separate from the whole system. According to this result, they are somewhere in the middle, but leaning towards secularity.

Conclusively, I think, the leap towards the multiple (non)religious identities is justified since there are many people who feel constrained by only one option, so it corresponds to the reality we are trying to study. The data presented above are very specific and far from perfect, but according to these examples I think the solution of primary and secondary identities works better as it offers a possibility for comparison with the earlier survey waves and, in a way, creates power relations between the labels which helps to interpret them.


[1] These long and clumsy labels were developed because of the widespread “religious illiteracy” and the lack of actual religion-related identities. Of the list, I think, only Earth Believer needs an explanation: this refers to a neo-pagan movement called Maausk (literally: Earth Belief), which is presented as a continuation of ancient Estonians’ animistic faith and contrasted to Christianity brought by “fire and sword”. Therefore, Earth Belief has connotations with “nonreligiosity”, but also with “environmentalism”.


References:

Kasselstrand, Isabella. 2015. ‘Nonbelievers in the Church: A Study of Cultural Religion in Sweden’. Sociology of Religion 76 (3): 275–94. https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srv026.

On Life, Faith and Religious Life. Survey data, http://www.ekn.ee/inc.uudis.php?id=523 (27.01.2022)

Religion in Decline?: Understanding New Data from Statistics Canada. Nonreligion in a Complex Future project expert panel discussion, https://youtu.be/v4YuvaRUnYA (27.01.2022)


Atko Remmel is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tartu and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Tallinn, Estonia. He has published on antireligious policy and atheist propaganda in the Soviet Union, (non)religion and nationalism, secularization and religious change, historical and contemporary forms of (non)religion and spirituality, including nature-focused existential cultures. He has carried out fieldwork among nonreligious population in Estonia and on Estonians’ relationship with nature.

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