[Research] Atheism on YouTube for the last ten years

Looking at the spread and negotiation of a particular controversy between atheists andstaff-photo-1 Christians, Stephen Pihlaja examines how YouTube users negotiate tensions in a particular social space and how the collapse of a recognisable context for these negotiations affect the ways in which they put forth their beliefs. Pihlaja shows how close analysis of interaction on social media can provide insights about the religious arguments and discussions develop over time.

For the last ten years, my research (Pihlaja, 2013; 2014a; 2014b; 2011) has followed atheists and Christians on social media and YouTube. As a social media site, YouTube particularly has played an important role in the visibility of atheism, providing a platform for atheists to challenge religious dogma. This has been particularly true for the American context, where many of the YouTube atheists I have research are located. In America, atheism is still viewed with suspicion, and consistently one of the most distrusted minorities. Particularly in places like the deep southern states, identifying as an atheist remains problematic. YouTube, however, has facilitated ‘coming out’ as an atheist, a topic that has been of interest to researchers in the sociology of religion (Cimino and Smith, 2011, Smith and Cimino, 2012). The interaction of the dominant culture offline, and the emerging, bullish atheist culture on YouTube has created a kind of tension, where Christians would essentially come onto the site to ‘preach the gospel’.

Initially, my assumption about talk around religion on YouTube would focus on issues of theology and religious dogma. Unexpectedly, however, fewer of the disagreements were about the proof of God’s existence, and more were about who had insulted whom. The boundaries between religious and non-religious, as Hutchings suggests in his recent blog post, are not always simple to delineate, particularly when looking at real discourse. My book, Antagonism on YouTube, (Pihlaja, 2014a) looks at how these arguments, that seemed markedly small and petty in comparison to points of doctrine and theology, developed in one particular community of users. Adapting a discourse-centred online ethnographic approach (Androutsopoulos, 2008), I analysed the development of one particular argument, an instance where one Christian user called an atheist ‘human garbage’, after the atheist had insulted the Christian user’s wife.

The argument spread when the Christian user defended calling the atheist ‘human garbage’, using a Bible passage from the gospel of John. This action resulted in several kinds of responses: first, users (both Christians and atheists) who rejected the premise entirely, saying that it was never okay to call someone ‘human garbage’, regardless of the circumstances. Second, there were users who accepted this reading of the Bible (namely Christians) and said that although it was harsh, it was better to warn people about the truth than for them to end up being judged in hell. A third response, however, was the most interesting. These users argued not that it was wrong to call others ‘human garbage’, but that the Bible passage being used to condone it was being misread. The arguments focused on the use of metaphor and how users interpreted the parables of Jesus (Pihlaja, 2013).

While the Christians in my study argued over whether or not the Bible condoned calling other people ‘human garbage’, the atheists ridiculed the arguments and made the case that even the possibility that the language could be justified using the Bible showed how corrupting religion could be. However, like the arguments among the Christians about the reading of the Bible, an argument arose among the atheists about the extent to which the example of ‘human garbage’ could be used to condemn Christianity more generally, or if indeed, this was just an example of one person misreading the Bible. The atheists then argued back and forth about whether there were ‘good Christians’ and ‘bad Christians’ (Pihlaja, 2014b). These arguments as well were instructive in showing how discussions about religion and ideology can fall into very small, interpersonal discussions.

My research has shown that religious discussions and arguments cannot be divorced from the social context in which they take place. This has grown increasingly more complicated with the development of new mobile technology and the integration of offline and online lives. My research now (Pihlaja, forthcoming, 2017) looks at the ways in which ‘context collapse’ (or the diverse audiences watching users on social media from a variety of different, disparate backgrounds) has affected how users present themselves and their beliefs or lack of beliefs online. In 2006, many users couldn’t say they were atheists in offline settings, but could do so on YouTube; now, it’s potentially much easier to declare a lack of faith, but users have a growing awareness of all the different people watching them. There is an increased awareness of the multitude of online and offline audiences and the effect of this integration on how people of faith and no faith interact with one another is an important area of research going forward.


ANDROUTSOPOULOS, J. 2008. Potentials and Limitations of Discourse-Centred Online Ethnography. Language@Internet [Online], 5. Available: http://www.languageatinternet.org/articles/2008/1610 [Accessed June 6, 2016].

CIMINO, R. & SMITH, C. 2011. The New Atheism and the Formation of the Imagined Secularist Community. Journal of Media and Religion, 10, 24-38.

PIHLAJA, S. 2011. Cops, popes, kings, and garbage collectors: Metaphor and antagonism in an atheist/Christian YouTube video thread. Language@Internet [Online], 8. Available: http://www.languageatinternet.org/articles/2011/Pihlaja/ [Accessed 6 June 2013].

PIHLAJA, S. 2013. ‘It’s all red ink’: The interpretation of biblical metaphor among Evangelical Christian YouTube users. Language and Literature, 22, 103-117.

PIHLAJA, S. 2014a. Antagonism on YouTube: Metaphor in Online Discourse, London, Bloomsbury.

PIHLAJA, S. 2014b. ‘Christians’ and ‘bad Christians’: Categorization in atheist user talk on YouTube. Text & Talk, 34, 623-639.

PIHLAJA, S. forthcoming, 2017. Religious talk online: the online evangelical language of Muslims, Christians, and atheists, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

SMITH, C. & CIMINO, R. 2012. Atheisms unbound: The role of the new media in the formation of a secularist identity. Secularism and Nonreligion, 1, 17-31.

Stephen is an applied linguist, discourse analyst, and stylistician researching and teaching at Newman University in Birmingham UK. His research focuses on the discourse dynamics of talk on the Internet, particularly in online video around religious issues. His book Antagonism on YouTube: Metaphor in Online Discourse (Bloomsbury, 2014) focuses on the ways in which Christians and atheists argue online. He is currently completing a second monograph entitled Religious Talk Online: Muslim, Christian, and Atheist Discourse on Social Media, forthcoming on Cambridge University Press.

[Event Report] Secularization, Social Movements, and Sea Turtles: Reflections on the 2016 Association for the Sociology of Religion Conference

In this event report Jacqui Frost and Amanda Schutz cover the Association for the Sociology of amanda-picjackie-picReligion’s 2016 annual meeting. They detail the launch of new research projects into Understanding Unbelief as well as offering reflections from Woodhead’s lecture ‘Is No Religion the New Religion.’ Also, they share insights from a convened joint session on what social movement theories can tell us about nonreligion.

This year’s Association for the Sociology of Religion’s annual meeting was taken place on 19th – 21st August in Seattle. The theme was Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion. As a result, there were numerous panels and presentations on the importance of increased sociological investigation into nonreligious experience and community. While there were too many great panels to recount here, including Author Meets Critics sessions for Lois Lee’s Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular and Christel Manning’s Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children, the overall takeaway from the conference was that nonreligious experience is increasingly influential and sociologists will have no choice but to engage with it going forward.

Kicking things off early Saturday morning was Lois Lee’s convened panel titled “Who Cares About Unbelief? Social, Political, and Legal Questions for the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief.” This panel came directly out of Lee’s new research initiative (with Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias, and Jonathan Lanman), the Understanding Unbelief Programme, which is offering research grants, early career awards, and public engagement funds to further scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of unbelief around the world. The panel was asked a set of questions regarding who, apart from social scientists and unbelievers themselves, might be interested in unbelief and why; in what ways the growth of unbelief will affect local communities, journalists, and public institutions; and how this growth will curb or create new social tensions. Overall, the panelists asked more questions than they answered, but the questions generated are likely to be a primary focus for many nonreligious scholars in the near future. Jessica Martinez from Pew Research Center tackled these questions from a political engagement angle, asking how changes in the religious landscape might result in changes to the political landscape. She discussed how the unaffiliated are now the largest “religious” group in the Democratic Party, but that the unaffiliated have historically been less likely to show up at the polls on Election Day. She raised questions about how the rise in atheists and agnostics among Americans will influence the 2016 election (if at all), and if the unaffiliated will become more politically engaged than they have been previously. Sociologist Rhys Williams focused on social movements and immigration, asking how unbelief might mobilize activism and foster commitment in social movements. He also asked whether nonreligious organizations and communities will be able to cultivate resources and cultural reproduction for immigrants—something that religious organizations have been so good at for centuries. Journalist David Briggs implored nonreligious scholars to help journalists get the story right by providing them with responsible summaries and statistics, and religious studies scholar Joseph Blankholm focused on organized non-belief. Finally, education scholar Alyssa Rockenbach asked how higher education influences nonreligious beliefs and behaviors. While there has been a lot of research about the “secularizing effect” (or lack thereof) that higher education has on religious students, Rockenbach pointed to the need for similar studies on the nonreligious students.

On Saturday night, the presidential address was read by Mary Jo Neitz, as president Lori Beaman was unable to attend the conference. Beaman’s written address, titled “Living Well Together in a (non)Religious Future: Contributions from the Sociology of Religion,” centered largely around the experiences of… sea turtle rescuers. Beaman’s proclamation that she will henceforth be known as the “crazy sea turtle lady” did not deter her from spending most of the allotted hour discussing people’s motivations for rescuing stranded baby sea turtles and the ways this activity has affected their lives and relationships. But what do sea turtle rescuers have to do with the study of religion or nonreligion? Beaman stressed that the “threat” of nonreligion is an ongoing and important social force, creating opportunities for conflict with an established institution. However, this division also creates opportunities for cooperation. Sea turtle rescuers are an example of cooperation: they represent a case of people overcoming worldview differences to participate in shared action that emphasizes similarities across life forms, provides meaning, and “soothes the soul.” In this way, Beaman suggests, “examining sites of action and activism can help us to better understand the contours of both religion and nonreligion.”

The next day, Ryan Cragun convened a joint session with the American Sociological Association titled “What Social Movements Theories Can Tell Us About Nonreligion.” Rhys Williams kicked off the panel by emphasizing cultural context, boundedness, and resonance, and how nonreligious movements will have to overcome the legitimacy of religion in the American context by taking on similar forms but changing the content. Penny Edgell offered both “promises and pitfalls” of a social movement approach to nonreligion. Promises include a focus on identity and the cultural work that it takes to create nonreligious identities and movements. A social movements approach allows for a de-centering of belief and a shift towards lived, institutionalized nonreligion that moves past the dead ends of the secularization debate. However, Edgell argued that not everything should be seen through a social movements lens, and she argued that social movement theories often make the mistake of seeing identity as a “thing” as opposed to a set of belief and values that change over time. She argued for more work on “indifference” and stigma among the nonreligious, both of which require more than a social movements perspective. Joseph Blankholm focused on the “messy etymology of humanism” and the ways the secular humanist movement has co-opted the term to expand what the “secular” can mean. He described the boundary work being done by secular humanist groups as they navigate tax laws and church/state battles and attempt to set themselves apart from other humanist and secular groups, as well as religious organizations.

Linda Woodhead closed the conference Sunday night with the Paul Hanly Furfey lecture titled “Is No Religion the New Religion?” which focused on nonreligion in Britain. (Woodhead also gave this lecture at the British Academy earlier this year, covered in this event report by Lois Lee.) In 1983, 31% of the population identified as religious nones; in 2013, 51% claimed no religious affiliation (more than double what it is in the US). Nones in Britain tend to be liberal and tolerant of diversity. They are more likely than the general population to be white, but there is no significant difference along lines of gender or class (again, unlike the US). Nonreligion is the norm for younger Britons, and 95% of those raised by nonreligious parents will remain nonreligious (only 55% of those raised religious remain so). Only 13% of nones (5% of the total population) are explicitly anti-theist, what Woodhead calls “Dawkins atheists.” Most nones, however, fall somewhere in the middle: they are either nonbelievers or simply not strong believers who practice spirituality in private. Woodhead suggests a Durkheimian approach for studying the nonreligious, focusing on practices relative to the sacred. But what do nones consider sacred? Woodhead notices some trends, including a lack of deference to authority: everyone has the potential to be fulfilled and to make the most of their lives on their own terms. She also described new rituals gaining in popularity in Britain, including prom, preschool graduations, and house parties. These events can be interpreted as a source of collective ritual and intimate connectedness. (Sea turtle rescuers, for instance, may see the environment as providing ritual and connectedness!) These ideals and rituals that nonreligious Britons hold sacred constitutes what Woodhead calls the “new religion.”

The conference was—like Lee writes in her own report of Linda Woodhead’s lecture—a “celebration” of a young field of study that is “really coming into its own.” With too many relevant sessions to report, see this year’s conference program for more of the latest research focusing on nonreligion and secularism. The Association for the Sociology of Religion’s 2017 annual meeting will be held August 12-14 in Montreal, Quebec.

Jacqui Frost is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on non-religious identities and communities and her dissertation is an ethnographic study of the Sunday Assembly, a nascent network of non-religious congregations. As a research fellow with the American Mosaic Project, Jacqui is involved in numerous projects exploring religious and non-religious diversity in American life, including the influence of conservative religiosity on understandings of racial inequality, the rates and patterns of volunteering among the non-religious, and the influence of different non-religious identities on social and political attitudes.

Amanda Schutz is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Arizona. Her dissertation research takes a qualitative mixed methods approach to understanding diversity in nonreligious organizations and individual involvement in such groups. Other research looks at atheist identity disclosure and gender differences in nonreligious experiences.

[Research] Leaving the French Church, 1870-1940

In this article, Nickolas Conrad explains the importance of uncovering the previously ignored voices of French freethinkers and ex-clergy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This will, Conrad suggests, help to shed light on a critical transitionary period in French history and on some of the wider factors contributing to secularization in France.photo-nickolas-conrad

In early twentieth century France, André Bourrier, a former Catholic priest who converted to Protestantism, claimed that the Catholic Church found itself at the focal point of a seismic religious crisis. Bourrier passionately believed that with the start of his journal Le Chretien francais in 1897 he had exposed what was “an exodus en masse” from the Catholic clergy. He said that the increasing resignation of priests was “the veritable signal within the ranks of the clergy” (p. 46). To Bourrier, breaking with Catholicism had become a notable cultural phenomenon. The French called the clergy who broke from the Church the évadés, “those who escaped.” At the same time, irreligious sentiments had grown to such an extent that militant anticlerical groups formed. Some called themselves freethinkers. A freethinker, usually a man and politically to the left, rejected the authority of institutionalized religion, sought to remove religion from the public sphere, and often thought religion should be buried as an archaic relic of a backward past. The évadés and freethinkers were a visible sign of the growing number of deconversions from Catholicism that contributed to France becoming one of the most secular countries in the West.

In studying the religious conflict at this time, French historians have largely neglected the testimonies of the évadés and freethinkers during Third Republic France (1870-1940). The personal accounts of évadés and freethinkers suggest that unbelief grew due to contingent political and religious crises within Catholicism. From the view of those on the ground, France did not experience slow secularization but an energizing shock. Believers wanted to see the Church reconciled with liberalism, modern knowledge, and progressive moral values. The Church’s failure to meet these challenges bolstered its opponents.

Historians have noted the irreligious accounts of French philosophers and writers; however, the story of unbelief outside of a small group of intelligentsia remains opaque. Only recently after the publication of Jacqueline Lalouette’s book La Libre-Pensée en France 1848-1940 (1997) has unbelief among the working and middle classes been addressed. She thoroughly documents the role of freethinkers in France that follows the work of Albert Bayet and Pierre Leveque. However, Lalouette, Bayet, and Leveque give a limited analysis of the reasons for the rupture with the Church. Lalouette briefly notes that freethinkers were born into freethought families, revolted intellectually, or morally rejected the idea of God (such as after experiencing the horrors of World War One).

To examine the personal accounts of the évadés and freethinkers who left Catholicism is to look at deconversion testimonies. The social scientist H. Streib (2009) defined deconversion as:

[…] a disengagement from a religious tradition which, in retrospect, is considered absolutist and authoritarian. It is an exploration of spiritual or secular alternatives, and is a change that is likely to be associated with transformation in terms of faith development. (p. 218)

Studying deconversion narratives has several challenges. Most significantly, the sources are limited; the testimonies are few and far between, especially for the lower classes. Plus, the personal accounts lack alternative accounts from contemporaries that would verify their claims. Deconversion narratives also have to be taken with skepticism. Historians have been aware of the fictive and artificial nature of narratives that fall within a few literary tropes since the work of Hayden White. Most deconversion testimonies from évadés and freethinkers fit a narrative structure of transformative crisis that resulted in enlightenment and then spiritual rupture.

Difficulties aside, the testimonies of the évadés and freethinkers provide perspective on the growth of unbelief in France. Their testimonies bring to light three significant points of crisis: moral dissonance, political conservativism, and doctrinal reform. Catholicism was morally rejected on the account of the problem of evil in the world and perceived moral transgressions. This coincides with the conclusions of Susan Budd, who analyzed freethinkers in nineteenth-century England. She argued that the general break with Christianity among the working class was primarily moral rather than intellectual and that “scientific and theological thinking seems largely irrelevant” (p. 125). There is some consensus on this point. Owen Chadwick (1975) and D.G. Charlton (1963) agree with the emphasis on moral rupture; they claim that moral discord played a primary role for both elites and non-elites during the nineteenth century. Ralph Gibson (1989) similarly argues that French people rejected the unhappy, sterile, self-denying Christian morality preached after the Catholic Reformation.

Second, the political, anti-republican conservatism of the Church inspired revolt and resistance. Freethinkers in France differed from those of England because they were deeply involved in a political struggle against the Catholic Church. Secular republicans competed with the Catholics for the souls of the faithful and the minds of the citizens (Rémond 1999). The political contest in France fed the flames of both belief and unbelief as shown in Gugelot’s work La conversion des intellectuels au catholicisme en France 1885-1935 (1998). Since 1880, momentum lay with the republicans who had united socialists, radicals, and moderates around aggressive anticlericalism. By 1905, France had made primary and secondary education free, secular, and compulsory; separated the Church and the State; and closed down numerous religious associations that put thousands of nuns and monks into the streets. The anticlericals triumphed in France.

Third, people abandoned Catholicism for being incompatible with contemporary research and science. Rejection of the Bible stood at the heart of unbelief in the nineteenth century. Catholics who sought to reconcile Catholicism with the new rationalist methods were called Modernists. The historian C.J.T. Talar (2012) defined modernism as an engagement about the credibility of revelation and the pillars of the Christian faith. The modernists held that the Bible and Catholic traditions should be interpreted through existing documents and the critical, historical method. They sought to understand Christianity with a modern historic consciousness that relativized divine truth and exposed dogma as human initiative (Talar 2012). In 1907, Pope Pius X condemned them publicly with the encyclical Pascendi due to their heterodoxy and their desire for reform.

Studying the deconversion testimonies of the évadés and freethinkers puts their voice back into the historical record. They believed they were living through a great spiritual crisis and transition. The Church could have found a way to embrace change. Instead, the Catholic hierarchy resisted reform, pushing many believers into a tenuous spirituality or unbelief and direct cultural conflict.

Nickolas Conrad is a Ph.D. candidate in Modern European History at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is currently in the last stages of his dissertation. Trained as a French historian and having recently spent two and half years living in Paris, he is interested in the intellectual and cultural history of unbelief in modern France.


Bayet, Albert. Histoire de la libre-pensée. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1959.

Bourrier, André. Ceux qui s’en vont, 1895-1904. Paris: Librairie du Chrétien Franc̦ais, 1905.

Budd, Susan. “The Loss of Faith. Reasons for Unbelief among Members of the Secular Movement in England, 1850-1950.” Past & Present, no. 36 (1967): 106–25.

Chadwick, Owen. The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century: The Gifford Lectures in the University of Edinburgh for 1973-4. Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Charlton, D. G. Secular Religions in France, 1815-1870. London; New York: Published for the University of Hull by the Oxford University Press, 1963.

Gibson, Ralph. A Social History of French Catholicism, 1789-1914. London; New York: Routledge, 1989.

Gugelot, Frédéric. La conversion des intellectuels au catholicisme en France, 1885-1935. Paris: CNRS Editions, 1998.

Lalouette, Jacqueline. La Libre pensée en France: 1848-1940. Paris: Albin Michel, 1997.

Lévêque, Pierre. “Libre Pensée et Socialisme (1889-1939) Quelques Points de Repère.” Le Mouvement Social, no. 57 (1966): 101–41.

Rémond, René. L’anticléricalisme en France: de 1815 à nos jours. Paris: Fayard, 1999.

Streib, Heinz et al. Deconversion: Qualitative and Quantitative Results from Cross-Cultural Research in Germany and the United States of America. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009, 218.

Turmel, Joseph, and C. J. T Talar. Martyr to the Truth: The Autobiography of Joseph Turmel. Eugene, Or.: Pickwick Publications, 2012.

White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Reprint edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.


[Methods Series] On the Virtues of a Meaning Systems Framework for Studying Nonreligious and Religious Worldviews in the Context of Everyday Life

Opening the new monthly issue of the [SSNB]-NSRN [methods blog series], Ann Taves explores one of the central questions in contemporary nonreligious studies – and a long-standing religious studies, too: how to understand and describe the object of study. Providing an overview of recent propositions arising from psychology, sociology and anthropology, she sets out a proposal for a meaning systems approach.taves

In this blog post, I want to take up the central challenge facing those who aim to study nonreligion or secularity and one that has long plagued scholars of religion — that of specifying an object of study.[i] Although several good suggestions have been made, I think we can do a better job of capturing the range of things we want to study by adapting the meaning systems (MS) framework,[ii] already in use in psychology, for our purposes. The MS framework, which was designed to encompass both religious and nonreligious meaning systems,[iii] allows us to conceptualize our object of study in generic terms. It offers a dynamic framework that has already generated a body of empirical research on the interaction between meaning systems (implicit and explicit) and meaning making in particular situations. Although much of this research has focused on how people cope with trauma, psychologists have extended it to other contexts, including conversion and spiritual transformation.[iv] Here I suggest we can build on the framework’s basic distinction between global meaning systems (GMS) and situational meaning (SM) by elaborating the concept of GMS in light of the literature on worldviews and the concept of SM in light of ‘situational’ elements, such as practices, networks, institutions, and ways of life, that are typically studied by scholars of religion under the rubric of ‘lived religion.’

The Problem

The new focus on ‘nonreligion’ helpfully expands our focus beyond the traditional focus on atheism or ‘nonbelief’.[v] In characterizing our object of study as nonreligion, we are indicating that we want to think about it – whatever it is — in relation to religion. In effect, we are setting up a comparison. But we lack two things: an overarching framework in which both religion and nonreligion fit and specific features that we want to compare. It is as if we set out to compare apples and oranges without realizing that they are both fruits or specifying which features of these two fruits we wanted to compare.

Proposed Solutions

Both Thomas Coleman and Lois Lee have made significant attempts to address this issue. Coleman et al. propose ‘horizontal transcendence’ as a way to characterize experiences that people view as profoundly meaningful and at the same time neither religious nor spiritual.[vi] ‘Experiences that people consider profoundly meaningful’ are an important feature that – I agree – we want to compare, but they are only one potential aspect of ‘nonreligion’. We need something more encompassing. Lee makes a case for ‘existential cultures’ as an umbrella term that captures theist, atheist, humanist, and other nonreligious subcultures and allows us to consider lived existential practices as well as more explicit existential beliefs.[vii] In applying this terminology, however, Lee struggled to conceptualize those she characterized as ‘anti-existential’ (or Schnell as existentially indifferent[viii]), that is, those who didn’t want to think about existential questions. Moreover, in defining ‘existentialism’ broadly in terms of ‘ultimate questions,’ she highlights a feature that – as she acknowledges — has long been associated with the concept of ‘worldviews’.

An Alternative

Although I appreciate these attempts, I think that ‘worldviews,’ as discussed in the philosophical literature, better captures the sense of the ‘big questions’ (BQs) that Lee associates with ‘existential philosophies.’[ix] Not only is the term ‘worldviews’ readily recognizable and in widespread popular use, it has generated an extensive academic discussion in philosophy and the social sciences since proposed by Kant.[x] Within religious studies, some have advocated studying religions as worldviews,[xi] and others a shift from studying religions to studying worldviews more generally.[xii] Within psychology, we find explicit discussion of worldviews in the context of terror management theory[xiii] and equivalents in existential theory of mind[xiv] and in the concept of a global meaning system within a meaning systems approach.[xv]

Although there are many different definitions within philosophy, the concept emerged in response to a desire to relativize religious outlooks.[xvi] The interdisciplinary ‘worldviews’ research group led by Apostel and van der Veken explicitly characterized worldviews as offering answers to six fundamental philosophical questions.[xvii]


Variations on these BQs have been used to structure world religions textbooks[xviii] and textbooks in the history and philosophy of science,[xix] where they provide a framework for comparison.

Although worldviews can be used to compare elaborate philosophical and religious systems, we do not need to conceive of worldviews as explicit or well developed. They can be implicit or explicit, taken for granted or reflected upon, and surfaced on a need-to-know basis, through interaction, formal dialogue, or active cultivation. Worldviews, nonetheless, still smack of ‘beliefs’ and don’t capture the range of practices, institutions, or everyday ways of life that we associate with religions and spiritualities, nor do they provide a framework for analyzing how implicit or explicit worldviews interact with these other aspects of life.

Here I would suggest that we meld the philosophical and religious discussion of worldviews with the psychological literature on global meaning systems that researchers have used primarily to study coping in situations of trauma, loss, and bereavement. This is a generic framework that can be (and has been) linked with religious meaning systems.[xx]


Although the MS literature has been primarily concerned with ‘situations’ that stand out because they are traumatic, we can think of ‘situations’ as the generic context in which everyday or lived meaning is made. The situations or events considered could range from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary, the traumatic to the ecstatic, or the mundane to the highly significant. They would, thus, include ‘experiences that people consider profoundly meaningful,’ some of which, as Coleman et al. suggested may be considered as instances of ‘horizontal transcendence’.[xxvii] Situations and events do not need to be described in the ‘thin’ terms characteristic of psychologists, but can be richly characterized in the socio-cultural-environmental terms that characterize research in history, anthropology, and religious studies.

In characterizing situations more richly, however, humanists should not lose sight of the MS researchers’ interest in dynamic processes, e.g., the role of GMS in the appraisal of situations or events, the interactions between GMS and SM in those contexts, and the way that meaning is discovered and transformed in relation to situations or events. Based on our deeper immersion in the particulars of religious and nonreligious contexts – whether historically or ethnographically – we can seek to identify the factors that make a difference in these dynamics across worldviews and cultural contexts.

Lee’s conception of existential cultures could be assimilated with this approach. She clearly views existential cultures as constituted by the meaning making processes inherent in everyday life. As she observes,[xxviii] ‘thinking of meaning making, not as a narrow, philosophical practice but as something enacted in multiple ways, small and large, in everyday life calls into question the idea that large groups of people can be easily located outside the existential cultural field’. Within both the MS and worldview literature,[xxix] there are those that would push this point farther, claiming that all organisms – not just humans — require a GMS or worldview, rudimentary as it might be from a human perspective, in order to function. If we view meaning systems this broadly, it allows us to think about them within an evolutionary framework, asking why and under what conditions humans have sought to elaborate the explicit worldviews we think of as philosophies and religions.

Further reading

Leontiev, Dmitry A., ed. 2015. Positive psychology in search for meaning. Routledge. Originally published as a special issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology.

Markman, Keith D., Travis Proulx, and Matthew J. Lindberg, eds, 2013, The Psychology of Meaning. Washington, DC: APA Press.

Ann Taves is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara where, among other things, she is designing an introductory course on “Comparing Religions and Other Worldviews” and supervising the interdisciplinary Religion, Experience, and Mind Lab Group.  She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Fits, Trances, and Visions (Princeton, 1999) and Religious Experience Reconsidered (Princeton, 2009).  Her new book, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths, is forthcoming from Princeton in October 2016.

[i] Thanks to Tommy Coleman, Lois Lee, and Ray Paloutzian for their helpful feedback and comments.

[ii] Roy F. Baumeister, 1991, Meanings of Life. Guilford; Crystal Park and S. Folkman. 1997, ‘Meaning in the context of stress and coping,’ Review of General Psychology 1, 115-144; Crystal Park, 2010, ‘Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events,’ Psychological Bulletin 136(2), 257-301; Keith D. Markman, Travis Proulx, and Matthew J. Lindberg, eds, 2013, The Psychology of Meaning. Washington, DC: APA Press.

[iii] Crystal Park, 2005, ‘Religion and meaning’, in Paloutzian and Park, Handbook. Guilford; Crystal Park, 2013, Religion and meaning, in Paloutzian and Park, Handbook, 2nd ed. Guilford.

[iv] Raymond F. Paloutzian, 2005, ‘Religious conversion and spiritual transformation: A meaning-systems analysis’, in Paloutzian and Park, eds., Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Guilford; Raymond Paloutzian, Sebastian Murken, Heinz Streib, and Sussan Rossler-Namini, 2013, ‘Conversion, deconversion, and spiritual transformation: A multi-level interdisciplinary view’, in Paloutzian and Park (eds), The Handbook of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. Guilford.

[v] Lois Lee, 2012, ‘Talking about a revolution: Terminology for the new field of Non-religion Studies’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1), 129-139.

[vi] Thomas J. Coleman III, Christopher F. Silver, and Jenny Holcombe, 2013, ‘Focusing on horizontal transcendence: Much more than a ‘non-belief’, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 21(2), 1-18.

[vii] Lois Lee, 2015, Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Lois Lee and Stephen Bullivant, in press, The Dictionary of Atheism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[viii] Tatjana Schnell, 2010, ‘Existential indifference: Another quality of meaning in life’, Journal of Humanistic Psychology 50, 351-373.

[ix] Markman et al. (Psychology of Meaning, 1) acknowledge the key role that existential philosophy and psychology played in reflecting on the BQs in a nonreligious context, but indicate that, while ‘once the province of existential philosophy, existential psychology, and the related clinical literature, meaning is a word that appears with greater frequency within the social, cognitive, and cognitive neuroscience literatures’. The shift from ‘existential’ to ‘meaning’ highlights the issue of central concern for existentialists without appropriating their distinctive self-descriptions, and, at the same time, allows to us to shift our focus to processes of meaning or sense making across a wide range of disciplines, contexts, and even organisms.

[x] David K. Naugle, 2002, Worldview: The History of a Concept, Eerdmans.

[xi] Ninian Smart, 2000, Worldview: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs, 3rd ed. Prentice Hall; Mark Juergensmeyer, 2010, ‘2009 Presidential Address: Beyond war and words: The global future of religion’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78(4), 882-895.

[xii] Christa Anbeek, Hans Alma, and Saskia van Goelst Meijer, under review, ‘Contrast experiences and social imaginaries as spaces for truth-seeking’, in Guido Vanheeswijck and Hans Alma, eds. Social Imaginaries in a Globalizing World, DeGruyter; Andre F. Droogers, and Anton van Harskamp, 2014, Methods for the Study of Religious Change: From Religious Studies to Worldview Studies, London: Equinox.

[xiii] Melissa Landau, Mark J. Soenke, and Jeff Greenberg, 2013, Sacred armor: Religion’s role as a buffer against the anxieties of life and the fear of death, in Kenneth I. Pargament (ed), APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, vol. 1: 105-122.

[xiv] Jesse Bering, 2002, ‘The Existential Theory of Mind’, Review of General Psychology 6 (1): 3–24; Thomas J. Coleman III, and Ralph W. Hood, Jr, 2015, Reconsidering everything: From folk categories to existential theory of mind, Religion and Society: Advances in Research 6 (2015): 18-22.

[xv] Park, ‘Making sense’; Raymond F. Paloutzian, 2017, Invitation to the Psychology of Religion, 3rd ed. Guilford.

[xvi] Naugle, Worldview.

[xvii] Vidal, C. 2008,‘Wat is een wereldbeeld? (What is a worldview?)’ in Van Belle, H. & Van der Veken, J., eds, Nieuwheid denken. De wetenschappen en het creatieve aspect van de werkelijkheid, Acco, Leuven, 4.

[xviii] Stephen Prothero, 2010, God is Not One. Harper One; Brodd, Jeffrey, et al. 2016. Invitation to World Religions, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.

[xix] Richard DeWitt, 2010, Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science, 2nd edition, Wiley-Blackwell.

[xx] Park, ‘Religion and meaning’.  [It should have been Park 2013; I am citing the two version of her ‘Religion and meaning’ chapters in the 1st and 2nd editions of the handbooks 2005, 2013.]

[xxi] Park, ‘Making sense’, 258

[xxii] Johannes Quack and Cora Schuh, eds, forthcoming, Religious Indifferences: Between and Beyond Religion and Nonreligion, New York: Springer.

[xxiii] Schnell, ‘Existential indifference’.

[xxiv] Roxane Cohen Silver and John Updegraff, 2013, ‘Searching for and finding meaning following personal and collective traumas’, in Markman, Proulz, and Lindbergh, eds. Psychology of Meaning, APA Press.

[xxv] Dmitry A. Leontiev, 2013, Personal meaning: A challenge for psychology, Journal of Positive Psychology 8 (6), 459-470; Crystal Park and Login S. George, 2013, Assessing meaning and meaning making in the context of stressful life events: Measurement tools and approaches, Journal of Positive Psychology 8(6), 483-504.

[xxvi] Samantha J. Heintzelman and Laura A. King, 2013, On knowing more than we can tell: Intuitive processes and the experience of meaning, Journal of Positive Psychology 8 (6), 471–482.

[xxvii] Coleman et al., ‘Horizontal transcendence’.

[xxviii] Lee, Recognizing the Non-religious, 172.

[xxix] Jordan B. Peterson, 2013, ‘Three forms of meaning and the management of complexity’, in Markman, Keith D., Travis Proulx, and Matthew J. Lindberg, eds, The Psychology of Meaning, APA Press; Raymond Paloutzian and Katelyn Mukai, 2017, ‘Believing, remembering, and imagining: The roots and fruits of meanings made and remade’, in Angel, H.-F., Oviedo, L. Paloutzian, R. F., Runihov, A. L. C., & Seitz, R. J., Process of Believing: The Acquisition, Maintenance, and Change in Creditions. Heidelberg: Springer; Vidal, ‘Wat is een wereldbeeld? (What is a worldview?)’


[Research] Post-Secular as an Alternative Tool


In this post, Samantha May challenges the tendency in the disciplines of Politics and International Relations of drawing a sharp line between religion and the secular. May makes a case for scholars in the field to acknowledge much more nuanced reality between the boundaries between religion/secular and public/private. By doing so, she re-introduces the significance of post-secularism as a way of responding properly to the reality that we live in.img_0277

Religious rhetoric appears on the rise yet the divide between the secular and the religious in Western scholarship has left us bereft of useful tools of analysis. From the Archbishop of Canterbury’s meetings with Prime Minister David Cameron (Mendick, 2015) to the Republican candidate Donald Trump calling on a ban of all Muslims travelling to the United States (Pilkington, 2015), religious actors and religious categorisations are repeatedly in the public domain. Thus I call for consideration of the post-secular paradigm which can accommodate and speak to the variety of religious and non-religious positions. Without doubt, this line of inquiry has been apparent in disciplines such as Anthropology and Sociology for decades and more, yet the disciplines of Politics and International Relations (PIR) have remained resistant to the reality of public religion specifically because it challenges the public/private divide which rests at the center of dominant PIR theories.

Post-secularism is an important theoretical position to engage with in PIR precisely because it allows a space for the religious and non-religious to create a dialogue where both positions are respected and neither relegated to archaic practices or private, marginalised domains. It essentially speaks to the empirical reality of our times where both the religious and the non-religious coexist and are mutually dependent even simply in terms of the dichotomy of ‘secular’ makes no sense without its oppositional other ‘religion.’ Additionally it can help us to understand the fluid nature of religion and religious practice which can no longer be contained coherently in the ‘traditional’ boxes of recognised world religions but blur the boundary between the spiritual and the profane. Post-secularism not only adds to the established critiques of secularisation theories but offers an alternative position which allows us all to take seriously religious sentiments and grants the possibility of increased understanding of our contemporary political world. Methodologically post-secularism invites a mutli-disciplinary approach to understanding global political events broadly that can combine existing work from a variety of the social sciences in additional to theological and religious debates. Post-secularism thus opens the gateway for PIR studies to re-engage with religion in the public sphere.

The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, stated that Muslim refugees threaten Europe’s Christian identity (Traynor, 2015). I do agree with the Hungarian PM that remembrance of our Christian history – the good, the bad and the ugly- is imperative, but perhaps for different reasons than Orbán may defend. To forget impoverishes our understanding, of self, history and the presence of the past. Forgetting endangers repeats of the past which include the crusades, the religious wars in Europe, the witch trials, the ghettoisation of Jewish communities and Jewish programs amongst a plethora of other examples. To forget our religious history creates an assumption that religious violence has always been carried out by ‘Them’ and never ‘Us’. Perhaps more importantly forgetting skewers our memories of the enormous potential religion has for the common good, charitable systems, interfaith dialogue, peace and reconciliation and so on and so on. However, the forgetting of our Christian past cannot be blamed on the Other – the responsibility is Ours.

As many scholars have already articulated, secularism can take many forms. Secularism in Britain has been associated with an accompanying normative and ideological process whereby to be secular was to be non-religious (i.e., rational and modern) (Asad et al., 2014: p.vii). The ideological assumption to this notion of secularisation is that religion is ‘backward’ and thus to retain religious beliefs somehow flies in the face of modern science. Thus to publically discuss religion and religious history in everyday life becomes a social faux pas. The consequences of this normative process have been the growth of a generation largely ignorant of the (debated) ‘Christian’ identity of Britain. The point being, that if non-Christian refugees were indeed a threat to Europe’s ‘Christian’ identity, as Orbán suggests, there would need to be a real understanding of what Christian values and practices actually are throughout the population.

Neither should it be assumed that the history of ‘Christian’ values are shared by all of society. A recent YouGov poll indicated that only 32% of the British population believes in a God (Jordan, 2015). The line that religion in general is in decline in Britain (and Western Europe generally) provides the only piece of evidence that secularism- understood here as a decline in religious belief – is a real phenomenon. Yet, what is considered as “religious” perhaps needs redefining in our contemporary society. The same YouGov poll found that 20% still believed in a higher power albeit not a “god”. Another YouGov poll found that while less than half of the population considered themselves ‘religious’ 1 in 3 (34%) believed in the existence of ghosts (Dahlgreen, 2014). The dichotomy between what is secular and what is spiritual is increasingly (if always) blurred and fluid. According to Asad et. al ‘“secularism does not merely organize the place of religion in nation-states and communities but also stipulates what religion is and ought to be…’ (2013: p.ix).

Post-secularism here should not be understood as the absence of secularism but simply that the religious, the non-religious, the spiritual and the secular coexist and are best thought of as ‘overlapping’ (Falk, 2014: p.34). No longer can we claim with any empirical evidence that religion or belief is absent from the public domain, though its nature may have changed. Post-secularism as both a theory and a methodology assists my own work regarding Muslim charities in the UK and the consequences of political policy as it allows religious practice and theological concerns to be taken seriously which in turn challenge pre-conceived assumptions regarding the motivations of charitable giving, and the distribution of alms: which more dominant theories in PIR cannot accommodate while maintaining the public/private divide and marginalising religion and belief to ‘private’ practice.

Post-secular theory can be considered in at least two ways: the first being simply the recognition of the resilience of religion in the public sphere and the second as a radical critique of secular theory and the emergence of a new intellectual paradigm that questions the empirical reality of the public/private divide (Mavelli and Petito 2012: 931). Importantly, it allows us to understand that neither belief nor non-belief is the default option for individuals in society. A range of options are now available so that non-belief, religion, and spirituality are all now legitimate options amongst many others (Wilson, 2014: p.222). Rather than using the dichotomy of either religion or secularity, post-secularism allows the codependent language of ‘both’/’and’ (Wilson, 2014: 234). As Mahmood has argued, ‘The secular and the religious are not opposed but intertwined both historically and conceptually such that it is impossible to inquire into one without engaging with the other’ (Mahmood, 2013: p.140). Post-secular theory thus allows the breakdown of opposing dichotomies of religion and secular. This then provides a useful tool to examine the abundance of differing perspectives in a world where religion refuses to disappear and is shaped and re-shaped by its co-dependent, the secular.


Asad, T, Brown, W, Butler, J & Mahmood, S. 2013.Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech, Fordham University Press, New York.

Dahlgreen. W. 2014. ‘”Ghosts Exist”, say 1 in 3 Brits’, YouGov, https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/10/31/ghosts-exist-say-1-3-brits/

Richard Falk. 2014. “Achieving political Legitimacy in the Twenty First Century: Secular and Post Secular Imperatives” pp.41-48 in pp13-38 (eds) Mavelli and Petito, Towards a Post Secular International Politics: New Forms of Community, Identity and Power, (Palgrave Macmillan; Basingstoke).

Jordan, W. 2015. ‘A Third of British Adults don’t believe in a higher power’, YouGov, https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/02/12/third-british-adults-dont-believe-higher-power/

Mavelli and Petito. 2012. ‘The Post-Secular in International Relations: An Overview’, Review of International Studies, 38.5.

Mendick, R. 2015. ‘Archbishop of Canterbury spoke with David Cameron and to the House of Lords regarding plight of Syrian Christian refugees’, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/11860902/Archbishop-warns-Cameron-over-Syrian-refugees.html

Pilkington, E. 2015. ‘Donald Trump: ban all Muslims entering U.S’, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/07/donald-trump-ban-all-muslims-entering-us-san-bernardino-shooting

Traynor, I. 2015. ‘Migration Crisis: Hungary PM says Europe in grip of Madness’, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/03/migration-crisis-hungary-pm-victor-orban-europe-response-madness

Wilson, E. K. 2014. “Faith-Based Organisations and Post Secularism in Contemporary International Relations” in (eds) Mavelli and Petito, Towards a Post Secular International Politics: New Forms of Community, Identity and Power, (Palgrave Macmillan; Basingstoke).

Samantha May is a Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen and award holder of the Leverhulme Early Careers Fellowship for the project entitled: “ Zakat in the UK: Islamic Giving, Citizenship and Government Policy”.

[Book Review] American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems

In this post, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi reviews Joseph Baker’s and Buster Smith’s latest book American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems (New York University Press 2015).


Americans have never ceased to amaze foreign observers with their high level of belief in souls,benny-bh spirits, and gods. Pew Research Centre (2014) found that nearly 9 in 10 (89%) Americans believe in ‘God or a universal spirit.’ Nevertheless, over the past few decades a significant rise in the proportion of Americans who were investing less and less in religious affiliation and beliefs has been noted. Kosmin and Keysar (2011) showed that the proportion of unaffiliated Americans has been growing since 1990. A few have even embraced the clearly unpopular labels of atheists or agnostics, despite Smith’s (2015:229) acknowledgment of the stigmatized and deviant status of atheism in America.

What the book is really about is secularity, the state of being secular, because ‘secularism’ usually refers to a vision of a world less affected by religion, and the authors indeed use the term secularity a few times. So the book is about secular Americans, from the unaffiliated to the atheists.

What is the theoretical framework? Baker and Smith state: “instead of a binary distinction, religiosity and secularity should be understood as poles of a continuum, ranging from thorough irreligion to zealotry” (p.  6). Moreover, “We consider theistic dis- or nonbelief to be the most salient marker of one’s secular identity. That is, self-identifying  as someone who does not believe in god is a more prominent marker of identity than saying one is not affiliated with an organized religion” (p. 16).

There is indeed a clear behavioral dividing line between spirit world adherents and non-adherents, and research indicates that the one question “Do you believe in God?” does a good job in separating two distinct populations.

I find myself really puzzled by another statement:  “Although criticism of religion is central to understanding secularism, restricting secularity today to opposition to religion denies secularists’ potential for edifying and positive values, furthering the polemical claim that to be secular is necessarily to be immoral” (p. 6). First, the rejection of belief in spirits is not criticism, but a total disengagement. Baker and Smith later report that 63% of atheists in one sample were uninterested in religion (p. 100). Second, the reference to “edifying and positive values” sounds like apologetics. The findings reported in the book demonstrate that the less religious and the irreligious are likely to be more politically progressive, but that will not persuade those who think they are immoral.

Is there a unique American secularization? The authors describe American freethought, starting in the eighteenth century, and offer a chronology of the ups and downs of religiosity in the United States, leading to the Great Abdicating after 1990. They connect the Great Abdicating to the 1960s counterculture and changes in the US family, together with political polarization and the “Culture Wars”. They do report a correlation between growing political polarization and the percentage of the unaffiliated in the population, as well as the tendency for the unaffiliated to vote Democrat in presidential elections (p. 79).

In their historical survey, they neglect the struggles over the secularization of public space and public education. Until 1934, playing baseball on Sunday was a major issue, and the elimination of Sunday blue laws is still continuing. Another aspect of the Culture Wars was the secularization of education, starting  already in the nineteenth century with  elite academic institutions  (White, 1896), and  then affecting all universities, colleges, and public schools in a trickle down process  (Hofstadter, 1963). Does anybody remember that until 1960, the American Baptist Convention considered The University of Chicago an affiliated institution?

It should be emphasized, something that the authors do not do, that after 1960 public education was completely secularized through legal rulings. Engel v. Vitale (1962), which disallowed prayers, and  Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), which disallowed Bible reading, could be compared in their impact to the 1954 Brown decision, related to the same social and historical forces. Similarly, recent challenges to the teaching of evolution followed the great historical loss by the Religious Right over religious activities in the schools. McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982), Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), and Kitzmiller, et al.  v. Dover School District, et al. (2005) became milestones in public secularization. Legal rulings do not change public opinion in many cases, but these symbolic (and concrete) victories added to the growing confidence of secular Americans.

Despite American exceptionalism, Baker and Smith show that the United States fits the worldwide correlation (p.74) between secularity and the Human Development Index (p. 203). What happens in North America is part of a global trend. The political context of secularity, which is discussed at length in the book, is also not unique to the United States.

The authors doubt the universality of sex differences in secularity, and  state  that “among Western populations, women are disproportionately prone to religiosity, in spite of the patriarchal power structure of most organized religions” (p. 141). However, a recent Pew report compared men and women on religiosity around the world, with data collected in 192 countries. It included 631 comparisons. There were 393 with no significant differences, 238 significant differences with women scoring higher, and just 4 with men scoring higher (Pew, 2016). So women’s higher religiosity may not be just a Western phenomenon, and the same goes for women’s lower secularity.

The book offers a wealth of writing genres, unlike a typical sociology text. It presents survey data together with vignettes and case studies, such as that of  Lester Young Ward, one of the pioneers of US sociology (pp. 26-34), and quotations from W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. There are also interviews, one with David Tamayo, Leader of Hispanic American Freethinkers (pp. 126-131), and then two interviews with secularists who tried to get elected to political office, which is next to impossible in the United States. My only complaint is that the book has 47 pages of detailed footnotes. The academic convention which expects the reader to tolerate this division of attention is unrealistic. Most of the material in the footnotes is interesting and important, and should be included in the main text.


Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Knopf.

Kosmin, B.A.  & Keysar, A.  (2011).  AMERICAN NONES: THE PROFILE OF THE NO RELIGION POPULATION. (with Ryan Cragun and Juhem Navarro-Rivera). http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/NONES_08.pdf

Pew Research Center (2014). Importance of Religion and Religious Beliefs. Pew Research Centre, November 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/chapter-1-importance-of-religion-and-religious-beliefs/#belief-in-god

Pew Research  Center (2016). The Gender Gap in Religion Around  the World.  PEW RESEARCH CENTER, March 2016. http://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/22/the-gender-gap-in-religion-around-the-world/

Smith, J (2010). Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism. Sociology of Religion. 72 (2) 215-237.

White, A. D. (1896/1993). A history of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi earned a Ph.D.  (clinical psychology and personality)  from Michigan State University in 1970. Since then, he has been the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of  22 books and more than 300 reviews, articles, and book chapters, focusing on personality development, history of psychology, the psychology of religion, and politics. Among his best known works are Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity  (2015), Psychoanalysis and Theism (2010), The Psychology of Religious Belief, Experience, and Behaviour (with Michael Argyle, 1997), and Despair and Deliverance (1992).

[Blog Series] Using Neuromodulation to Change Belief – and Unbelief

Valerie van Mulukom introduces cognitive research exploring how religious beliefs can be modulated. She shows how reframing such research as stimulating of ‘unbelief’ open new avenues for new ways of exploring the nature of unbelief and its similarities and dissimilarities to religious and spiritual beliefs.

Recent technological advances have made it possible to influence brain processes through Valerie van Mulukom_005 - storneuromodulation. This is a technology which influences neurons in the brain through either focused magnetic fields (such as in transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS for short) or a weak electrical current emitted by electrodes placed on the skull (transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS for short). TMS can induce or impede action potentials in neurons, thus stimulating or inhibiting brain regions, while tDCS modulates the neuronal excitability of the target area – this can be positive, when the neuronal excitability is increased, or negative, when the neuronal excitability is decreased.[i]

There are early records of using electricity to influence brain activity: in the 11th Century, a physician called Ibn-Sidah suggested that a live electric catfish could be used for the treatment of epilepsy.[ii] The use of electrical currents for neurostimulation as we know it now did not occur until the turn of the century, however. While most of these early neurostimulation studies focused on the motor cortex, research has since then expanded to questioning whether we can also modulate higher cognitive processes such as beliefs.

There are only a handful of studies where neuromodulation was used to try modifying belief. A number of these concern general mechanisms of belief, such as a study by Takeo Tsujii and colleagues.[iii] They demonstrated that stimulating the inferior frontal cortex through TMS affects the belief-bias effect, which occurs when people reject valid arguments with unbelievable conclusions and endorse invalid arguments with believable conclusions. Consider the example: ‘No mammals are birds. All pigeons are mammals. Therefore, no pigeons are birds’. While the beliefs represented are incongruent with beliefs about the world, the reasoning in this example is actually correct (‘No B are Z. All P are B. Therefore, no P are Z.’). In their study, Tsuji and colleagues found that stimulation of the right inferior frontal gyrus  enhanced the belief-bias effect, whereas stimulation of the left inferior frontal gyrus eliminated the belief-bias effect.

Elsewhere, Colin Holbrook and colleagues from the University of California used neuromodulation methods in a study on explicit religious belief assessed through the Supernatural Belief Scale.[iv] They used a TMS technique called theta-burst stimulation to decrease religious beliefs following a reminder of death.[v] Typically, a mortality reminder or a similar threat increases conviction in religious beliefs; however, when activity in the posterior medial frontal cortex was decreased through TMS, this resulted in decreased conviction in religious beliefs, in particular for positive religious beliefs (such as God, angels, Heaven, as opposed to the Devil, demons, etc.). The posterior medial frontal cortex was targeted as it has previously been implicated in shifts in ideological commitment or abstract beliefs following threats, functions which in this study were impeded by inhibitory TMS.

Two other studies by Crescentini and colleagues suggest that neuromodulation can be used to either increase or decrease religious belief. In the first study, activity in the inferior parietal lobe (IPL) was inhibited through TMS, after which the participants’ religious and spiritual beliefs were measured through an implicit association test (see Blog article by Järnefelt on implicit measures).[vi] They found that the temporary inhibition of the IPL increased implicit religious and spiritual beliefs. They chose this region of the brain because previous research noted its involvement with the awareness of the self and body in space, including the sense of self-transcendence, which many psychologists and neuroscientists claim to be an important mechanism underlying religious and spiritual beliefs.

In the second study, they used theta-burst stimulation TMS, but contrary to the previous findings, when activity in the IPL was inhibited, participants’ religious and spiritual beliefs were unchanged. However, when excitability of the IPL was increased, this decreased implicit religious and spiritual beliefs. While the differences in findings between these two studies need be explained (possibly through the differences in neuromodulation methodology), together these initial findings suggest that religious beliefs, at least when measured implicitly, can be modified to some extent by either inhibiting or exciting a region of the brain.

Together these studies suggest that neuromodulation can induce changes in beliefs. The majority of the studies used TMS, and in particular inhibitory TMS. A number of questions remain, and they point to questions of significance for the study of ‘unbelieving’ as well as religious and spiritual forms of believing: How long lasting and powerful are the effects of neuromodulation on belief, and what does this tell us about the stability of belief and unbelief between contexts and over time? Can neuromodulation turn an atheist into a devout believer – or a religious individual into an ardent atheist? Or do articulate forms of ‘positive atheism’ also provide opportunities for self-transcendence so that some forms of unbelief behave similarly to religious and spiritual belief? What brain regions need to be targeted to achieve these changes, and what does this tell us about the nature of belief and unbelief? Can tDCS, a more affordable method of neuromodulation, induce the same effects as TMS in studies on belief?

This is a promising new brave world of research in the science of belief and unbelief. We look forward to what further insights it will bring on the nature, mechanisms and modification of both.

[i] Some of the other main differences between these techniques are that TMS produces more discomfort than tDCS, which makes it harder to create appropriate control trials. Moreover, TMS is expensive, whereas tDCS can be administered with less sophisticated devices, which are more affordable and readily accessible (some can be purchased online for less than 300 USD).

[ii] Kellaway, P. (1946). The part played by electric fish in the early history of bioelectricity and electrotherapy. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 20, 112-137; cited in Brunoni, A. R., Nitsche, M. A., Bolognini, N., Bikson, M., Wagner, T., Merabet, L., … & Ferrucci, R. (2012). Clinical research with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS): challenges and future directions. Brain stimulation, 5(3), 175-195..

[iii] Tsujii, T., Sakatani, K., Masuda, S., Akiyama, T., & Watanabe, S. (2011). Evaluating the roles of the inferior frontal gyrus and superior parietal lobule in deductive reasoning: an rTMS study. Neuroimage, 58(2), 640-646.

[iv] Jong, J., Halberstadt, J., Bluemke, M. (2013). Foxhole atheism, revisited: the effects of mortality salience on explicit and implicit religious belief. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 983–989.

[v] Holbrook, C., Izuma, K., Deblieck, C., Fessler, D. M., & Iacoboni, M. (2016). Neuromodulation of group prejudice and religious belief. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(3), 387-394.

[vi] Crescentini, C., Aglioti, S. M., Fabbro, F., & Urgesi, C. (2014). Virtual lesions of the inferior parietal cortex induce fast changes of implicit religiousness/spirituality. Cortex, 54, 1-15; Crescentini, C., Di Bucchianico, M., Fabbro, F., & Urgesi, C. (2015). Excitatory stimulation of the right inferior parietal cortex lessens implicit religiousness/spirituality. Neuropsychologia, 70, 71-79.

Dr Valerie van Mulukom received her PhD in Psychology from the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her PhD focused on the cognitive neuroscience of memory and imagination, research which she has since applied to religion and belief. More specifically, she did research on memory and religious rituals as a postdoctoral researcher at Aarhus University, Denmark, and research on memory and group bonding as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, England. Currently, she is a research associate at the Brain, Belief and Behaviour group at Coventry University, where she focuses primarily on (un)belief and imagination. She is also interested in creativity and narratives, and plans to extend her work in those directions in the future as well.

[Blog Series] Honest Answers to Awkward Questions

In this installment of the SSNB/NSRN Methods Blog series, psychologist Will Gervais introduces us to the unmatched count technique for survey research.  This technique is designed to allow survey takers to give more honest answers to awkward questions (e.g. Do you believe in God?) and to allow researchers to make more accurate population level estimates of socially sensitive phenomena (e.g.  the prevalence of atheism). 

You’re sitting at home one night watching Rick and Morty or House of Cards, or whatever you’re into. GervaisThe phone rings. Someone wants to ask you some questions for a survey. As a benevolent human being, you agree to participate. The nice person on the other end of the line asks you a series of questions: age, gender, ethnicity, voting preferences. And then…

“Do you believe in God?”

You give an answer and move on. Eventually, the survey ends. You go back to watching interdimensional travel or political machinations or whatever.

The people on the other end of the line compile and aggregate your answers with the answers from many others, probably at least a thousand and balanced across demographic categories to be nationally representative. Then a report comes out claiming that 10-11% of people in the US don’t believe in God (Gallup, 2016). You’re one data point in there, somewhere.

So far, so good.  Or is it? I would argue that your answer to that question might not accurately tell us whether you believe in God, and, consequently, those national percentages might not be accurate.

Let’s say you said “No, I don’t believe in God.” Given the significant stigma against religious disbelief in the US, I would be inclined to say you probably don’t believe in God. But if you answered that you do believe in God, I can make at least two distinct inferences from your statement:

  1. You believe in God.
  2. You actually don’t believe in God but aren’t comfortable telling a stranger that you don’t believe in God.

In other words, nationally representative telephone polls are probably biased when it comes to socially sensitive questions, including belief in God. Answers reflect both actual beliefs and also tendencies to consciously or unconsciously give the “right” (nice, friendly, socially acceptable) answer.

This sounds straightforward, but scientists like myself and many others who are trying to understand how religious beliefs evolved, are culturally transmitted, and affect people’s lives are in a pickle. Nationally representative polls ostensibly give us the best evidence out there about what people do and don’t believe. But we (should) also know that self-reports need to be taken with a grain of salt. Psychologists, sociologists, and others have grappled with this problem for decades (e.g. Roese & Jamieson 1993).

One school of thought says that we should turn away from self-reports and try to develop implicit measures of cognition that can tell us a lot about people’s underlying psychological tendencies,  which presumably affect explicit beliefs at some point (see Järnefelt’s previous post).

Another school of thought says that we can still ask people about their beliefs, but we should do so in a way that gives people an “out,” by which they can tell us about their beliefs in an indirect way, with pressures to appear socially desirable somewhat mitigated. There are a number of these methodological tools out there, and my current favorite is the unmatched count technique (Raghavarao & Federer 1979; Coutts & Jann 2011). It’s a way to (hopefully) get less biased population estimates of the prevalence of things that people don’t want to tell strangers over the phone.

The technique goes like this. You randomly split your sample into two groups. Let’s call them the Baseline Group and the Experimental Group. You give the folks in each group a list of statements and you ask them to tell you how many of them are true statements about them. Nobody has to tell you which statements are true about them, just how many in total. Most of the statements are the same across groups, but the Experimental Group gets a bonus statement, which is your key item of interest. Like so:

Baseline Experimental
How many of the following statements are true for you? How many of the following statements are true for you?
1. I own a unicycle 1. I own a unicycle
2. I have been to Delaware 2. I have been to Delaware
3. I brush my teeth regularly 3. I brush my teeth regularly
4. I like the beach 4. I like the beach
5. I have a university degree 5. I have a university degree
Answer: 1  2  3  4  5 Answer: 1  2  3  4  5  6

Because the first five options are identical, any difference in average scores between the two groups should reflect the proportion of people in the experimental condition for whom the BONUS STATEMENT is true. For example, if the bonus statement was “I have walked on the moon,” we would expect that the averages in the two groups would be identical. After all, nobody in our sample (presumably) has walked on the moon. If the bonus statement was “I was born on Earth,” we would expect the average Experimental score to be 1 point higher than the average Baseline score, as presumably everyone in our sample was born on Earth.

The benefits of the technique shine through when you include a socially sensitive item as the bonus statement.  If the bonus statement is “I have smoked crack cocaine” and the Experimental score is .14 higher than the Baseline average, we can indirectly infer that 14% of people in our sample have smoked crack cocaine. That’s why adding that particular bonus statement led to a score .14 higher on average. Crucially, not a single participant in this study has to tell us that they have smoked crack, and we can’t “out” any crack users. We just make indirect population level inferences.

In terms of belief in God, picture the following example:

Baseline Experimental
How many of the following statements are true for you? How many of the following statements are true for you?
1. I own a unicycle 1. I own a unicycle
2. I have been to Delaware 2. I have been to Delaware
3. I brush my teeth regularly 3. I brush my teeth regularly
4. I like the beach 4. I like the beach
5. I have a university degree 5. I have a university degree
6. I do not believe in God
Answer: 1  2  3  4  5 Answer: 1  2  3  4  5  6

If we observe a difference between the average scores of both groups, this can tell us indirectly what proportion of our sample doesn’t believe in God. And—unlike with the telephone poll—not a single person has to out themselves as an atheist to a stranger over the phone.

So, what does this method tell us about belief in God and how can it help our scholarship? Maxine Najle and I have data from a nationally representative sample of people in the US. The paper is still in the sausage-making factory that is academic publishing, and we are collecting additional data to double check our results, so we unfortunately can’t release the full results just yet. But don’t be all that surprised to see a new paper claiming that Gallup telephone polls might be underestimating the number of atheists in the USA by tens of millions.

While obtaining more accurate population-level estimates of the prevalence of atheism is beneficial to a range of scholarly endeavors, it is of paramount importance for the testing and development of existing and emerging theories of religion (Boyer 2001; Norenzayan 2014; Norris & Inglehart 2004), as they make different predictions about how prevalent atheism should be and in which environments it should flourish. The unmatched count technique can be a very useful addition to our methodological toolkit for addressing such questions.


Boyer, P. (2001).  Religion Explained:  The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Coutts, E., & Jann, B. (2011). Sensitive questions in online surveys: Experimental results for the randomized response technique (RRT) and the unmatched count technique (UCT). Sociological Methods & Research, 40(1), 169-193.

Gallup. (2016). Religion. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/1690/Religion.aspx

Norenzayan, A. (2013) Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. (2004). Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Raghavarao, D., & Federer, W. T. (1979). Block total response as an alternative to the randomized response method in surveys. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series B (Methodological), 40-45.

Roese, N. J., & Jamieson, D. W. (1993). Twenty years of bogus pipeline research: a critical review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 114(2), 363.

Will Gervais (Assistant Professor, University of Kentucky) is an evolutionary and cultural psychologist who is interested in why people believe what they believe about the world. His research focuses on the cognitive, evolutionary, and cultural forces that facilitate supernatural beliefs—and how these beliefs, in turn, affect cognition, evolution, and culture. Specifically, a lot of Will’s research focuses on atheists: who are they, why are they atheists, how many of them are there, and how do people view them? A comprehensive understanding of human nature needs to account for religion, and a mature science of religion needs to account for religious disbelief.

[Blog Series] Creating Data about Nonreligious Belief

Abby Day is a leading sociologist of ‘belief’. Here, she sets out what working with ‘belief’ as a significant category of self-understanding can achieve, for religious ‘unbelievers’ as much as for ‘believers’. She encourages the use of analytical tools that respond to the complexity and multidimensionality of belief, and introduces her own seven-point method as one such approach.AbbyDayweb


‘What do you believe in?’ This was the opening question in my interviews research on belief, and it provoked a variety of responses – some perplexed, some religious, some not sure and some, defiantly, nonreligious.[i] Although my intention when creating those interviews was not to test Lois Lee’s definition of ‘nonreligion’ as being a state in relation to or with religion[ii] (she had not yet completed her research at that stage) it is, in retrospect, a question that could serve well in that endeavour. In this blog I will outline two main methodological issues that are raised when researching belief, and how nonreligion may spill out of the data being created.


Data are mute


One of the most common mistakes researchers in human sciences make, using qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods, is to state that ‘the data’ are saying something. Data say nothing. The researcher says it all through the subjective experience of conducting research; and all research in human sciences[iii] is subjective from the moment the research question is formed, through the research design, to the questions being asked and the conclusions drawn. I often wonder why, if 15-year-old kids can understand this, more mature researchers sometimes do not. I’m thinking here of ‘Jordan’ whose answer to my question ‘what do you believe in?’ drew us in conversation to his startling statement that he was a Christian, but believed in nothing. I was only surprised because my Christian-centric idea about belief carried with it all the heavy baggage of creeds, tenets, and words that seemed to define it.

People like Needham (1972) and Ruel (1982) already understood the Christian, unstable and non-generalizable roots to such notions of ‘belief’,[iv] and their solution was to avoid using the term altogether. In many ways, however, this response is to throw out the proverbial bathwater, since a conversation about ‘belief’ can bring up all the interesting, unstable and sometimes Christian-centric ideas that can richly inform our exploration.[v] From our conversations, I argued that Jordan was saying he was Christian because he was wanting to identify with his English culture, which for him (and for many others, I was to find) was constituted partly by a dominant Christian history. The data never ‘said’ that; I needed to, as Malinowski puts it, be an ethnographer who ‘has to construct the picture of the big institution, very much as the physicist constructs his [sic] theory from the experimental data, which always have been within reach of everybody, but needed a consistent interpretation’.[vi] My interpretation helped me revisit, redefine and nuance the notion of ‘belief’.

Most large surveys measure ‘beliefs’ without the surveyor having the possibility of engaging in such a conversation. This demonstrates that the survey designers assume the term is sufficiently stable and means the same thing to everyone for their methodology to be instructive. And so, for example, they ask people if they believe in life after death, assuming a sort of religious interpretation of heaven or hell. If people say ‘yes’, the surveyors may claim that the ‘data’ show a religious orientation without realising that the question itself is immersed in subjective ideas about what constitutes religion. Most people probably do believe in something like life after death, but they may not couch it in such religious terms. What they believe in, my qualitative studies suggest, is often related to the idea or experience of a spirit world, rather than a notion of an afterlife grounded in the theistic traditions that so often govern our thinking. That is why it is perfectly reasonable for an atheist to believe in life after death.

Nonreligious identification does not necessarily (or even frequently, perhaps) imply a state of materialism; it implies only a state of being other than religious (by somebody’s measure), just as atheism is not necessarily a state of being unspiritual, but a state of being other than theistic. Many nonreligious and nontheistic people in my study believed in ghosts, the continuing presence of deceased relatives, aliens and all sorts of interesting ‘other worldly’ entities and states. Many had even sensed such entities, leading me to create an idea of the sensuous social supernatural. Such categories cut across pre-conceived notions of ‘belief’ and ‘unbelief’, and allow us to build more complicated, and less binary models for understanding believing and believers as part of people’s lived lives.

Methodologically, realising that data don’t ‘speak’ – or, at least, that they are part of a broader conversation in which the researcher has played a determining role – is important because it creates a constant state of tension, uncertainty and, ideally, reflexivity in the researcher. For the study of nonreligious belief, this realisation can also free researchers from the strictures of preconceived concepts of what ‘unbelief’ entails, whilst still allowing us to work with those concepts constructively instead of discarding them altogether.


Beliefs are the stories we tell


One of the most productive ways of working with a more complicated notion of ‘belief’ is to explore what people tell us about believing. People have beliefs because those beliefs say something about them. In many places in the world, ‘believing in’ something or someone is a critical part of their identity. For example, when we want to express our love or support for someone, we tell them ‘I believe in you’. When we want to make a stand for values that orient, or we would like to think orient, our behaviour, we say ‘I believe in that [social justice, fairness, equality and so on]’. That beliefs are not usually seen as ‘facts’ to be proven is their purpose and strength. That is why it is so important for some religious people to depart from belief, to say that they do not believe in God, but know or experience God.

If beliefs are wrapped up in identity, then the only way we will get at them is to prompt people to tell us about themselves, to tell us stories. These ‘belief narratives’, as I like to call them, are stories that are sometimes clear and sometimes messy, and they can provide insights into at least seven aspects of what people believe in:

  • the content of their beliefs,
  • how they practise them,
  • where they got them from,
  • how salient they are to them,
  • what the function is for them,
  • when they exist for them,
  • and where.

Provoking these kind of multi-dimensional stories can lead us into a better understanding of the substance and contours of religion and nonreligion. It is how I discovered that people who said they were not religious in our interview could also be the same people that ticked the ‘Christian’ box on the national census. I created a category of nonreligious Christians who were, in three of the seven aspects (content, practice, source) I analysed above, nonreligious. The only time Christianity arose was when it had a certain salience and functioned to claim a kind of identity that was performed in the time and place of filling out a national census form. Keeping with Lee’s definition, the identity of nonreligion was only sparked when explicitly linked to a religious category by an instrument that forced a choice. That had all sorts of ramifications – some theoretical, some ethical, and some practical.[vii]

Researching such matters may be, at least at first, a little messy, but such are the matters themselves. Analytical tools that aim to disaggregate different elements of believing and to understand their complicated relations to religion, nonreligion and areligion, too, are necessary to grapple with this messiness. Messiness is not the same as meaninglessness. To many people, when they matter they really matter, mess and all.


Dr. Abby Day (Abby.day at gold.ac.uk) is Reader in Race, Faith and Culture in the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, where her teaching, research, writing and supervisions cover sociology of religion, media and religion, and critical criminology. Past Chair of the Sociology of Religion Study group in the British Sociological Association, her work focuses on improving the academic and public understanding of complex religious and non-religious identities, from ‘Christmas Christians’ to ‘Friday Muslims’. These manifestations are often tied to national, ethnic, gendered and historical identities.


[i] Abby Day, 2013 [2011]: Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Lois Lee, 2015. Recognizing The Non-Religious : Reimagining The Secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

[iii] This frequently also applies to natural science, as Latour argued (1993. We have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), but I am restricting my argument here to human sciences.

[iv] Rodney Needham, 1972. Belief, Language and Experience. Chicago: Chicago University Press; Malcolm Ruel, 1982. “Christians as Believers.” In Religious Organization and Religious Experience, ed. J. Davis, 9–32. ASA Monograph 21. London and New York: Academic Press.

[v] Day, 2013 [2011], Believing in Belonging.

[vi] Bronislaw Malinowski, 1961 [1922] Argonauts of the Western Pacific. New York: E.P. Dutton: 93.

[vii] Abby Day and Lois Lee, 2014 ‘Making Sense of Surveys and Censuses: Issues in Religious Self-Identification: Introduction,’ Religion, 44:3, 345-356.


[Blog Series] You Get What You Ask For: The Importance of Question Wording in Surveys

In the latest instalment of the NSRN/SSNB Methods series, sociologist Ryan T. Cragun considers bad, better and best ways of asking interview questions about religious affiliation and belief.

Ryan - publicity photo - upper body

There isn’t a perfect way to ask people about their religious (non)affiliation or their (non)belief in a god or higher power. But there are wrong ways, and there are better ways. In this blog post, I don’t suggest that there is one right way to ask about these issues, but want to raise the issue of variations in question wording so those studying the nonreligious and nonbelievers are aware of the ramifications that result from subtle differences in methodology.

How Not To Ask Questions


One of the most instructive ways to think about good questions about nonreligious identity, non-affiliation and non-theism is to understand bad questions – or how not to ask about these things. Everyone is susceptible: the following example comes from WIN/Gallup International, which bills itself as ‘the world’s leading association in market research and polling’.[i] But even these ‘leading’ market researchers and pollsters make some of the most fundamental errors in researching and reporting nonreligion.[ii]

Here is how WIN/Gallup International asks about religious affiliation:

Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not would you say you are: a. a religious person, b. not a religious person, c. a convinced atheist, d. do not know/no response.

The problems with this question are legion, but they illustrate some commonplace issues in survey research in this field.

Firstly, the researchers fail to realize that there is a difference between ‘believing’ and ‘belonging’. Religious affiliation (or ‘belonging’) has to do with an individual’s sense of connectedness or alignment with a religious (or nonreligious) tradition. Belief in a god or higher power can be and often is correlated with religious affiliation, but it is not a religious affiliation. Belonging (e.g. are you a religious person) and believing (e.g. are you a convinced atheist) are confused here.

Related to this, the question also falls foul of warnings against double-barrelled questions, or questions that ask about two separate and distinct issues simultaneously; these are strongly discouraged by principles of good survey design.[iii] Another example of a double-barrelled question would be something like, ‘Please choose yes or no for the following question, ‘Are you a Christian and a good person?’ The respondent could be a Christian and a bad person. Ze[iv] could be a good person and not a Christian. But ze could also be both or neither. The problem is that this is really two separate questions.  WIN/Gallup’s question is double-barrelled as it asks about both believing and belonging. It only adds insult to injury that the question is only double-barrelled for those who do not believe, because belief or ‘convinced theism’ is not an option  – something that is methodologically dubious, and likely to have the effect of minimizing the number of people who indicate they are atheist and/or nonreligious.

The question also violates the principle of exclusivity, that is, that each respondent should only fit into one category; respondents cannot choose ‘not a religious person’ and ‘a convinced atheist’, even though most atheists are also not religious. The effect of this is, again, to reduce the number of people in the nonreligious and atheist categories. The question also violates the principle of inclusivity, that is, that there should be a category for everyone. What if a respondent is an agnostic who visits random religious organizations, but only on holidays? Where would that person fit?  Or what about the increasingly common, ‘spiritual but not religious’?  Where do they fit?

Finally, the question also uses a modifier on ‘atheist’ that reduces the odds of people choosing that option, but there is not a comparable modifier for being a religious person (e.g., ‘a convinced religious person’).

In short, this question is a model case of how not to ask questions about religious believing and belonging. It does everything wrong.

How to Ask Better Questions


So that’s how not to ask questions. How can we do better? For one, a general takeaway from the WIN/Gallup question is that researchers (and others) can build specific arguments about trends in believing and belonging (not to mention behaving) by choosing carefully how they word the questions they ask.

The details of the wording matter too. The following survey questions, all from major US surveys, illustrate this, since each asks questions about religious affiliation and belief in a higher power or god in different ways, and each gets slightly different results.

Since 1972, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked participants the following question to capture their religious affiliation:

What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?

Pew’s question (specifically from 2014) is slightly different:

What is your present religion, if any? Are you protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?’[v]

Finally, Gallup also uses different wording:

What is your religious preference – Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, another religion, or no religion?[vi]

The resulting portraits of religion affiliation in the US for 2014 are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

While there are differences, most are not that large. Gallup appears to be under-representing the nonreligious, estimating that group at just 16%, while the other two surveys estimate they are above 20% of the population, a difference of potentially tens of millions of Americans. The other sizable difference is the varied percentage of Protestants in the three samples, though most of this difference is accounted for in the percentage of Christians in Gallup. Data from years prior to 2014 (and since) suggest that either the way Gallup asks about religious affiliation or Gallup’s sampling methodology is resulting in lower estimates of the percentage of nonreligious Americans than is the case in the other two surveys. Of note, all of these surveys now include the option of ‘nonreligious’ or the less preferable ‘nothing in particular’.[vii]  This was not always the case.  As late as 2005, Gallup did not include this option and in surveys prior to the change, their estimate of the percentage of the US population that was nonreligious was proportionately even lower compared to the GSS and other national surveys than it is now. More accurate estimates of the nonreligious appear to require the inclusion of this option in the question.

There are bigger differences when it comes to belief in a god or higher power. The GSS presents respondents with a variety of response options and asks them:

Please look at this card and tell me which statement comes closest to expressing what you believe about God.

  • I don’t believe in God,
  • I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out
  • I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind
  • I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others
  • While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God
  • I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it

Pew and Gallup take a different approach on this topic. Gallup uses a single question (though with a variant for one half of the respondents):

Do you believe in God? OR Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?[viii]

Pew uses a Yes/No question initially:

Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?

It then follows up to clarify, asking participants:

How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?

I show the results in Figure 2 below, having done my best to overlay Pew’s and Gallup’s response options with those of the GSS.

Figure 2

As Figure 2 indicates, how you ask the question matters a great deal. If you ask only a yes/no question, like Gallup does, it appears as though 86% of Americans believe in a god or higher power. That is a full 20% higher than what Pew and the GSS estimate.

Even Pew, with its two part approach, reduces the possible response options as it groups belief in a ‘God’ with belief in ‘a universal spirit’— not a small oversight, as the GSS estimates that 12% of adults in the US believe not in a personal God but in a Higher Power of some kind.

The dichotomous response options in Pew and Gallup also hide a considerable amount of nuance that is revealed in the GSS around agnosticism. The GSS estimates that 6% of Americans are agnostics; technically, Gallup and Pew do not capture agnostics, though I grouped Pew respondents who indicated their certainty of belief in a god or universal spirit as ‘not at all certain’. It’s not a perfect match, but that is precisely the point – Gallup and Pew are not actually capturing agnosticism in a clear way.

In general, comparing these instruments shows that overly general questions can be misleading. Detail from the GSS suggests that Gallup’s simple ‘yes/no’ question actually inflates the number of people who believe in a god or higher power by forcing those who doubt to opt into belief, and forcing those who truly aren’t sure if they believe to indicate they do not.

If, instead, a survey researcher wants to illustrate the nuance that exists in belief in gods or supernatural powers, they should opt for questions with multiple response options. It might even be helpful to add even more options within the ‘I know God exists’ category, such as ‘I believe in God, but no longer think God is active in the world,’ ‘I believe in a god, but it’s complicated,’ ‘I believe in many gods,’ etc.[ix]

This blog has focused on a limited set of US-based surveys, but similar effects have been found elsewhere.[x] What this work shows is that scholars interested in studying nonreligious and nonbelieving individuals need to recognize that how questions are framed will influence the results they get. There are many ways to ask about religious belonging and believing, and most of these aren’t intrinsically wrong or right – so long as the data are analysed and interpreted in a way that is sensitive to what the question is doing. On the other hand, some questions are very, very wrong, and scholars should be at pains to avoid them.

Ryan Cragun is an associate professor of sociology at The University of Tampa. His research focuses on Mormonism and the nonreligious and has been published in numerous professional journals.  He is also the author of several books.

[i]           http://www.wingia.com/en/news/losing_our_religion_two_thirds_of_people_still_claim_to_be_religious/290/

[ii]           Of note, the same question wording is used in the World Values Survey.  For an extended discussion of how question wording can affect perceived levels of religiosity in a population, see: Bruce, Steve. 2002. God Is Dead: Secularization in the West. London: Blackwell Publishers.

[iii]          Converse, Jean M. 1986. Survey Questions: Handcrafting the Standardized Questionnaire. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

[iv]          ‘Ze’ is a gender neutral pronoun, along with ‘zer,’ which is the possessive version of the same.

[v]           Note that Pew conflates belonging (religious affiliation) with belief as well, as they include atheist and agnostic among the options, even though those are not religious affiliations.

[vi]          Note that Gallup’s question has changed substantially over time; they added ‘no religion’ as an option in the question starting in 2006. See: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx

[vii]         Phrasing nonreligion as “nothing in particular” makes it seem as though this is just a casual and fleeting identity that is of little importance.  While that may certainly be true for some, for others, exiting religion is a monumental struggle (see: Cottee, Simon. 2015. The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam. London: Hurst.).

[viii]         http://www.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx

[ix]          Lois Lee recommends similar ways of extending survey options in her excellent article from 2014: Lee, Lois. 2014. “Secular or Nonreligious? Investigating and Interpreting Generic ‘not Religious’ Categories and Populations.” Religion 44(3):466–82.

[x]           On discrepancies between census and other survey data in the UK, see Voas, David and Abby Day. 2007. Secularity in Great Britain. In B. A. Kosmin and A. Keysar (eds). Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives. Hartford, CA: ISSSC, 95–110, and Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2011; for a detailed analysis of the effects of question wording, also in the UK case, see Field, Clive. 2014. Measuring religious affiliation in Great Britain: the 2011 census in historical and methodological context. Religion 44 (3): 357–82. DOI:10.1080/0048721X.2014.903643, and other contributions to Day, Abby and Lois Lee. 2014. Making Sense of Surveys and Censuses: Issues in Religious  Self-Identification. Religion 44 (3): 345–56. For discussion of the World Values Survey, see Egbert Ribberink, Peter Achterberg, and Dick Houtman’s earlier contribution to this blog series, Measuring Atheism: Differentiating Non-religiosity and Anti-religiosity.