"Small Empty Church During the Day" by Connor Cunningham / CC BY-SA 4.0

Leaving Religion Does Not Mean Leaving Society

Jun 23, 2020

By Ryan P. Burge and Paul A. Djupe

Since the beginning in this country, it has been socially desirable to be religious. Americans have positive feelings toward religious people, on the whole, and negative feelings toward those who reject religion, which puts pressure on individuals to at least pretend to be religious. That was the landmark claim by Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves in 1993 (“What the Polls Don’t Show”), that survey estimates were above what actual attendance figures show. A PRRI study examined this in another way, showing higher attendance rates for telephone polls, when respondents talk to people, versus self-administered surveys done online. The overwhelming impression one gets from reading scholarly research on this question is that the non-religious exist outside of society. The nones effectively surrender the ability to participate in polite society on account of their beliefs.

There’s another story, though, that suggests just the opposite. Djupe’s grandparents (Rev. Walter and Esther Johnson) refused to eat at restaurants that served alcohol, even when traveling and it was the only establishment for miles. Indeed, for some religious groups alcohol served as a barrier to society, one they would not cross. There’s a very interesting study in the BJPS showing that the repeal of Sunday Blue Laws (prohibition of liquor sales on Sunday) ate into church attendance (which then drove down voter turnout). Religious groups have at least some tendency to cloister together socially, some much more so than others. We can view behavioral rules about dancing, drinking, and clothing as ways in which religious groups create social boundaries with society. They may have many friends, but they are bounded by church membership.

Can we find any evidence for these two stories? Fortunately, a set of questions from the General Social Survey fit the bill perfectly, allowing us to map a bit of the social worlds of different religious groups. These data give us a sense of how social people are as well as how they are social.

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