In this post Joel Thiessen discusses his research with religious nones in the Canadian context. The post includes a discussion of the perceived benefits of such a position, and how his research participants describe finding meaning and purpose in their lives.
This November marks the release of my book, The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age, based on face-to-face interviews with three groups of Canadians: active religious affiliates (identify with a Christian group and attend religious services nearly every week), marginal religious affiliates (identify with a Christian group and attend religious services mainly for religious holidays and rites of passage), and religious nones (do not identify with any religion and never attend religious services).
My interest here is with religious nones, who comprise 24% of the Canadian adult population (Statistics Canada 2013) and 32% of Canadian teens (Bibby 2011, 51). Drawing on thirty interviews with religious nones, what are the perceived benefits for identifying as a religious none? What are their beliefs about the supernatural, about meaning and purpose in life as well as the afterlife, about morality, and their aversion to religion that is forced on to others? The findings below build on observations from other NSRN blogs on a range of beliefs held by those with no religion, particularly Gleb Tsipursky’s article “Meaning and Purpose in Non-Religious Societies.”
Open-Minded and Free
The greatest perceived benefits to identifying as a religious none are open-mindedness, liberation, and freedom – qualities that interviewees do not associate with more religious folk who they believe are exclusive, narrow-minded, and intolerant (values that contravene fundamental Canadian values). Bob Kail (all names are pseudonyms) says, “I think it frees you up and liberates you to think about things in purely intellectual ways. It allows you to question things that you might not allow yourself to question if you were genuinely religious.”
Twelve of thirty believe in a deity or supernatural force though few could characterize “it” other than to distinguish it from the Christian God and to label it as a spiritual force or higher power. Most do not believe that the supernatural is actively involved in the natural world. Jasper Goltz states, “If I get cancer tomorrow, I’m not going to go and blame God … God doesn’t have an input in it … What’s meant to happen will happen.”
One third of interviewees are agnostic, though many are not clear of what this entails (e.g., I asked one individual if she believed in God and she said, “I’m not sure. I’m going to tell you the story and then you can tell me”).
Seven are atheist. Christine Graham reflects, “I’m an atheist … I don’t believe there’s anything more than science and nature.” Interestingly, some interviewees are quick to distance themselves from the American and British “polarizing and fundamentalist atheists like Dawkins or anything” – they believe such individuals and tactics are un-Canadian.
Meaning, Purpose, and the Afterlife
Interviewees overwhelmingly indicate that they have meaning and purpose in life apart from religious identification (or belief and practice, for some) and that meaning and purpose is found in their family and friends, their job, their recreational activities, and their volunteer initiatives.
On the afterlife, two-thirds of religious nones either do not believe in the afterlife or are unsure about what happens after we die. James Munns proclaims, “When you’re dead, you’re done.”
One-third of religious nones believe in the afterlife or in reincarnation and they desire to “be there” when they die, wherever “there” is. Martha Miles says, “I think heaven is just like your own personal heaven … all the people that you love are around you and they’re all happy … when we die, you go to that happy place, you go to the place before all the bad stuff happened, and you’re surrounded by people that were good.”
What is required to obtain the afterlife? Religious nones believe either that people need to live good moral lives or this is an irrelevant question because all people carry on to the next life. Madeline Vargas believes that “you can’t be … a murderer.” Carol Ward says, “I think that if you’re a good person and you treat people well, and you … are accepting of others beliefs and opinions and lifestyles, then I think you should get a chance to have the afterlife.” Rita Alexander says, “I don’t believe in sort of a hell … like the molesters … and … murderers and all these terrible people … I would like to believe maybe that when you go, everything’s erased and no one knows who you are or what you did and you get a fresh start.”
Religious nones do not believe that people need religion in order to be moral (though some appreciate how and why some benefit from religion to shape their morality). Interviewees believe in a moral code that ought to guide people’s attitudes and behaviours, defining morality along the lines of treating people kindly and with respect and not stealing, lying, or murdering. Their motivation for moral behavior is illuminating. Akin to Phil Zuckerman’s (2012, 123) finding: “religious believers … felt it was wrong to steal or lie because it was bad in the eyes of God. As secular nonbelievers, they see stealing and lying as wrong because it causes others pain or loss, and it helps foster a world lacking in trust or concern for the well-being of others.”
Aversion to Forced Religion
Finally, religious nones oppose those who push their religion on to others. Carol Ward says: “I think that once that person decides they want to be part of that religious group, then that’s fine, but I don’t believe in soliciting religion, I don’t believe in … propaganda around religion … I really don’t like when people push religion onto others. I have a really big issue with that.” Seeing themselves as “good Canadians,” interviewees do not seek to push their worldview on others just as they prefer that more religious people do not force their views on to religious nones.
Three brief conclusions stand out. First, religious nones are heterogeneous in the beliefs that they adopt. Second, religious nones are content with their life and their worldview – they do not think they are missing anything because they do not identify with a religion. Third, religious nones (in Canada at least) hold strongly to the position that religious or irreligious perspectives should not be forced on to others. These findings validate and extend the growing research discovered by many associated with NSRN, on individuals and societies that are increasingly secular and diverse; findings that I address in a distinct Canadian social climate (as opposed to American or British) in my book.
Bibby, Reginald. 2011. Beyond the Gods and Back: Religion’s Demise and Rise and Why it Matters. Lethbridge, AB: Project Canada Books.
Statistics Canada. 2013. “Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada.” Retrieved 20 May 2013 (http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-010-x/99-010-x2011001-eng.pdf).
Thiessen, Joel. 2015 (forthcoming). The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Zuckerman, Phil. 2012. Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Joel Thiessen is Associate Professor of Sociology at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). The focus of his research is religion and culture in Canada, including secularization, religious nones, nominal and regular church attenders, religious and secular socialization, and congregations. He is author of two books, The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Perspective (Oxford University Press) and The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (McGill-Queen’s University Press), along with a range of articles. He is an avid sports fan, and a drummer, and he enjoy reading biographies, traveling, and exercising. For more information see www.joelthiessen.ca.