The Religious Nones of North America, and the Beginnings of a Book Project

How are ‘nones’ different in the US and Canada? Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme and Joel Thiessen introduce their new 2- year project for answering this question. 

Nearly one-quarter of Canadian and one-fifth of American adults say they have no religion in recent US and Canadian General Social Surveys, with even larger figures present among North American teens and young adults. As scholars explore this growing phenomenon on either side of the 49th parallel,[i] little has been done to compare religious nones in Canada and the United States. Joel Thiessen from Ambrose University and I are teaming up to tackle this topic over the next couple of years in the form of a book project. Specifically, we want to use our existing quantitative and qualitative data to address how religious nones in Canadian and US regions compare in terms of their population size and demographics, in how they became religious nones, in their spiritual and secular practices, in their socio-political attitudes and behavior, as well as how they feel and act towards more religious individuals. As we complete our data analyses and our book chapters begin to take shape, we plan to share some of our key findings, along with the trials and tribulations of the book writing process, with you the readers of this NSRN blog.

Today’s entry is the first in what we hope will be four such contributions to this blog. As a first phase in the project, Joel and I are currently preparing a book proposal over the course of this spring and summer 2017. Joel is currently in the process of brushing up on the existing literature in the field, with many new works on non-religion and secularity having been released over the last couple of years,[ii] and many more on the way from a new generation of scholars in the fields of sociology of religion and religious studies. Meanwhile, at my end I have begun putting some numbers together on non-religion in North America, based on secondary analyses I am conducting with the Canadian and American General Social Surveys from 1971 (US)/1985 (CND) to 2014, as well as some other existing survey datasets. With statistical data, the goal is not only to conduct analyses in order to obtain findings on population trends and relationships between key variables, but also to present these findings in a way non-expert readers can understand (and will find somewhat interesting).

Data visuals are an important tool to help us with this presentation, and of the data visuals I have been working on so far for Chapter 1 (one of our sample chapters), the following map (Figure 1) of the percentages of religious nones in North American regions is my favorite. I am not a specialist in map creation, so I called on some of my colleagues in demography to help me out. Here at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, we have a Geospatial Centre where researchers can bring their findings (in this case, the percentage of religious nones by North American region) and get help in using software to build a map for their results.

Figure 1: Percentage of Religious Nones in North America, by Region, 2010-2014 averages

 

Sources: 2010-2014 CND GSSs; 2010-2014 USA GSSs; 2011 CND NHS (for Northern Canada). 2010-2014 averages, weighted to be representative of general populations.

Figure 1 is still a work in progress, but the map does help us visualize the higher percentages of religious nones in certain key North American regions (darker shades of blue), notably Northern Canada and the Pacific Northwest. This regionalism in the prevalence of non-religion has been shown and commented on in previous studies for the US and Canada separately.[iii] Figure 1 indicates that this regionalism is still present today when we look at averages across the 5-year 2010-2014 period, and that it crosses national borders: for the most part, higher rates of non-religion are found in more western regions in both the USA and Canada. The pioneering history of the West where specific churches never gained as strong a foothold and dominance compared with the East as well as a cultural context influenced notably by large waves of Chinese and Japanese immigration are considered contributing factors to this western irreligious experience in North America.[iv]

These findings are the first among many more that Joel and I hope to share with the readers of the NSRN blog over the next couple of years as our book develops. Until next time!

Map making at the University of Waterloo’s Geospatial Centre. 14th of March 2017.

 


[i] See notably Baker and Smith 2015; Drescher 2016; Hout and Fischer 2002; Lim, MacGregor and Putnam 2010; Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme 2017; Wilkins-Laflamme 2015

[ii] See notably Beaman and Tomlins 2015; Garcia and Blankholm 2016; LeDrew 2015; Lee 2015; Manning 2015; Zuckerman, Galen and Pasquale 2016

[iii] See notably Baker and Smith 2009; Block 2017; Marks 2017; Veevers 1990

[iv] Block 2017; Marks 2017


REFERENCES

Baker, Joseph O’Brian and Buster G. Smith. 2009. “The Nones: Social Characteristics of the Religiously Unaffiliated.” Social Forces 87(3): 1251-1263.

Baker, Joseph O’Brian and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: New York University Press.

Beaman, Lori and Steven Tomlins, eds. 2015. Atheist Identities – Spaces and Social Contexts. New York: Springer.

Block, Tina. 2017. The Secular Northwest: Religion and Irreligion in Everyday Postwar Life. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Drescher, Elizabeth. 2016. Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. Oxford University Press.

Garcia, Alfredo and Joseph Blankholm. 2016. “The Social Context of Organized Nonbelief: County-Level Predictors of Nonbeliever Organizations in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 55 (1): 70-90.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67: 165-90.

LeDrew, Stephen. 2015. The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

Manning, Christel. 2015. Losing our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents are Raising their Children. New York: New York University Press.

Marks, Lynne. 2017. Infidels and the Damn Churches: Irreligion and Religion in Settler British Columbia. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Thiessen, Joel and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme. 2017. “Becoming a Religious None: Irreligious Socialization and Disaffiliation.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Online advanced access available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jssr.12319/full

Veevers, Jean E. 1990. “Canadian Regional Differences in Religious Unaffiliation: The Catholic-Protestant Factor.” The Canadian Journal of Sociology 15 (1): 77-83.

Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2015. “How Unreligious are the Religious ‘Nones’? Religious Dynamics of the Unaffiliated in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Sociology 40 (4): 477-500.

Zuckerman, Phil, Luke W. Galen and Frank L. Pasquale. 2016. The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. New York: Oxford University Press.


Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada. She completed her DPhil in sociology at Nuffield College, University of Oxford (2010-2015). Her research interests include sociology of religion, quantitative methods, social change, race, ethnicity and immigration and political sociology.

Joel Thiessen is professor of sociology and director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Canada. He specializes notably in the sociology of religion and non-religion. Dr. Thiessen obtained his MA and PhD at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

 

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