Ye of Little Faith
The nation’s unbelievers
The closest thing to a Bible that my atheist father ever gave me was a copy of Atlas Shrugged. “This will teach you how the world works,” he said on the morning of my eighteenth birthday. My agnostic mother, who’d always disapproved of his embrace of Objectivism, looked away as I turned Ayn Rand’s 1,000-page tome over in my hands. Over the next several months, I read it secretly, so as not to upset her. (She’d be glad to know I was never fully convinced by its arguments; my dad, I hope, would just be happy I gave it a chance.)
According to None of the Above: Nonreligious Identity in the US and Canada, my irreligious upbringing makes me a “cradle none,” different from the “nonvert,” who was raised religious but apostatized later in life. I am also an “inactive nonbeliever.” I don’t attend organized gatherings in service to my non-belief, but “involved seculars” do. “Inactive believers” have faith in God (so much so that they can skip organized worship), while “involved believers” fill the pews. And then there are the “spiritual but not religious,” who make up a small but growing fraction.
Categorizations abound in this book, written by Joel Thiessen and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, sociology professors at Ambrose University, in Calgary, and the University of Waterloo, respectively. While laden with statistics, graphs, and prose that has the personality of drywall, it contains a number of fascinating insights — insights that are all the more relevant given the pandemic. Where do Canadians and their American cousins place their faith during a crisis? How many might gaze skyward as others squint into microscopes?
Among the first things that Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme point out is that the two actions would not be mutually exclusive. Rather than position science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould suggested some twenty years ago, they contend that the social acceptance of irreligiosity in Canada and the United States allows for a diverse set of beliefs and secular attitudes to coexist. Indeed, 64 percent of Canadian and American irreligious persons (or “nones”) actually fall under the “believing without belonging” category. Such people believe in the supernatural or the transcendent, which can include spirits, angels, or miracles, yet they do not affiliate with an institution. That said, this is generally a temporary stage, a “stepping stone” toward not believing at all.
Similar trends have been playing out on both sides of the border. According to data from Canada’s 2016 General Social Survey, 23 percent of us have no religion, compared with 1 percent in the 1950s and 4 percent in 1971. Up to 22 percent of Americans also declared no religion in 2016, compared with just 5 percent in 1972. Paradoxically, such declines make religion as a whole more visible, since the coexistence of large religious and non-religious groups heightens the contrast. Hostility between the two camps can follow, as we have seen to varying degrees in both countries — but especially in the U.S.
The book’s statistical analysis is punctuated by face-to-face interviews, which Thiessen conducts in Alberta. We meet thirty subjects, including Patrick, an Eastern Canadian who was “forced” into Catholicism as a child but who has since apostatized; Dustin, an atheist software developer with similarly minded parents; and Tracie, a thirtysomething marketing professional with an Anglican mother and irreligious father. While generally brief, these personal testimonies help give a face to the data.
Religion has long monopolized the spiritual and the extraordinary. For many non-believers, severing the connection between religion and the “out-of-body” is an intentional destigmatization; they may value spiritual excursions but not the baggage that so often comes with religion. For this reason, Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme and their interviewees take great pains to distinguish between the numinous and the religious.
None of the Above has to grapple with an archetypal argument of the devout: that morality stems from religion. This is a fallacious assertion, Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme argue back, and they use data to prove it. Only 1 percent of non-believers identify religious teaching as the source of their morality, but the vast majority agree that violent crime is generally wrong and that helping the needy is generally good (the same proportion as among those with religious beliefs). In fact, for all but “involved believers,” the main source of morality is a combination of “practical experience and common sense.” Here the authors could have cited Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: one cannot name an action performed by someone who believes in the divine that could not just as easily be performed by someone who doesn’t, but one can easily name wicked actions performed in the name of religion.
Despite the increased separation of church and soul, None of the Above unearths a contradictory phenomenon: “stalled none growth.” Since 2010, religious nones have plateaued at some 24 percent of the population in both Canada and the U.S. Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme offer a few hypotheses to explain the flatlining, involving rates of religious affiliation among immigrants, lower fertility rates among nones, and a return to religion by some after leaving it. Unfortunately, a lack of data prohibits deeper analysis. This is a pattern throughout the book; the authors frequently note that they will have to wait for future data, especially from the 2021 long-form census, to see trends in religion and irreligiosity more clearly. Of course, the validity of census data is questionable, as groups that are disproportionately religious, including some communities of colour, are among the most reticent to participate. (While we await the count in Canada, the decennial census in the U.S. is under way, but results are uncertain given political infighting, COVID‑19, and the White House’s refusal to bail out the postal service.)
Ultimately, much of None of the Above reads as an attempt to classify those who resist classification. For many nones, the lack of religious involvement reflects individualism and a revulsion against conformity and groupthink. While Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme recognize that “the individualist ethos is more common among religious nones,” they skip over the irony of their larger exercise — an irony that gets at a broader dilemma in secular studies. Researchers want to understand the non-religious by what they are, not by what they aren’t; they want to move away from “subtraction stories,” as the philosopher Charles Taylor put it. For their part, Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme contort the data into pretzels to account for every possible form that a “none” can take. But in doing so, they gloss over that smallest minority — the individual.
That’s one Randian principle, at least, that’s stuck with me. But amid the pandemic, the tension between individualism and groupthink has only heightened. We’ve seen it with protests that call for the premature reopening of the economy — asserting the right of the individual to risk his or her own life (and, by extension, the lives of others). We even saw it with Ivanka Trump, who journeyed from Washington to New Jersey for Passover, despite warnings against non-essential travel from her father’s own administration. Yet “non-essential” is non-specific. Many would argue that no authority can, or should, decide what is and is not “essential” for any given person. Many others, in response, would appeal to “common sense,” yet another non-specific term. Books like None of the Above help us cut through the foggy definitions, whether by looking up, down, or somewhere in between.