Will the real non-religious please stand up?

[also cross-posted on American Grace Blog]

Saguaro research team members Chaeyoon Lim, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam have an academic article out in the new issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion called “Secular and Liminal.”

In the study, using our two waves of Faith Matters panel data on religion (and other relevant data), they find that about 30% of Americans who appeared to have “no religion” when we surveyed them in 2006, claimed a religious affiliation in 2007 (just 6-9 months later), although their beliefs and practices had not significantly changed.

They point out that these “liminals” (with one foot in and one foot out of religion) aren’t captured by any one-shot survey of religiosity since by definition, liminals only show up when one can compare the religiosity of an individual at time1 and time2.  These liminals, as one might expect, are more religious than the truly and consistent secular Americans, but less religious than the truly and consistent religious Americans.  And in examining the social consequences of religion, the liminals exhibit less strong relationships with these social correlates of religion than the truly religious. They are yet another manifestation of the increasing American religious fluidity that is explored and described in American Grace.  [For more on American Grace, see the American Grace Blog.]

Abstract: This study examines the stability of religious preference among people who claim no religious preference in national surveys (i.e., religious nones). Using data from the Faith Matters Study, General Social Survey, and American National Election Study, we show that about 30 percent of religious nones in the first wave of the survey claim an affiliation with a religious group a year later. The percentage of religious nones remained stable in the two waves because a similar number of respondents moved in the opposite direction. Using various measures of religiosity, we show that most of these unstable nones report no significant change in religious belief or practice. We call them liminal nones as they stand halfway in and halfway out of a religious identity. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings on the controversies surrounding the rise of religious nones in recent years.

Cite: “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones” by Chaeyoon Lim, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(4):596–618, December 2010

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