Elizabeth Drescher, PhD

I Am A Disgrace to Journalism (Or Maybe Not So Much…)

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Old Man Yells at CloudA month ago, on the National Day of Prayer, I wrote an article in the Washington Post, “What the ‘Nones’ Teach Us on the National Day of Prayer.” The article piqued the ire of a couple self-described Nones/Atheists, including one Gil Gaudia, PhD, who wrote the following comment (then, when I didn’t respond, made sure to email it to me again):

Your slanderous article about “Nones” is a disgrace to journalism, philosophy and morality. You have mischaracterized the vast majority of people who call themselves “Nones” and certainly the group of thirty-five or so senior citizens in the community where I reside in Eugene Oregon who meet weekly to discuss the issues you claim to be knowledgeable about. Your description of “praying atheists and agnostics” is ludicrous on its face and demonstrates that you simply make it up as you go along. You should be ashamed to call yourself a commentator on religious or nonreligious matters, because it is obvious that the word research means to you about the same as my plumber saying, “I heard that it will be a cold summer this year. 

You say “My research shows that prayer stands alone among traditional practices like attending church and reading scripture,” but you don’t say how you conducted your “research” or who the subject population was. 

Just exactly what do you mean by “prayer” and how would anyone with even a modicum of scientific acumen admit to such an inane practice? To ascribe it the Nones that I know and interact with regularly is an insult to all atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, secular humanists and other non-theists, and a display of gross incompetence and ignorance on your part.

I usually don’t respond to comments on news sites unless someone’s pointed out a factual error (which happens more than I wish, but did not in this case) because I feel like I’ve already had my say in the article. I leave the comment space for readers, from whom I often learn a great deal. Indeed, as I’ll discuss shortly, reader comments have changed my research on Nones in important ways. But, setting aside good Dr. Gaudia’s over the top invectives, his comments reflect more common confusions about Nones and about different kinds of scholarship and writing. So it seems it might be a good idea to respond in some measure. I can’t address all of his complaints in a blog post, but I’ll try to address those that speak to more general questions and confusions.

First, the demographic data on which I base my research is well-known and highly credible. It comes from the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (2008), the American Religious Identification Survey (2008), and the Pew “Nones on the Rise Study” (2012), among others. All of these show, first, that relatively few—about 20 percent—of whose who answer “none” when asked with what religion they are affiliated or with which they identify, are unbelievers. Indeed, in the most recent Pew report, four in ten of those who self identify as “Atheist” or “Agnostic” report some level of belief in a divinity, including, say the Pew folk, 14 percent of Atheists. Much of this empirical research has been confirmed in the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the U.S. government, which was recently analyzed by researchers at UC Berkeley and Duke University (2013). Go figure.

Source: Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, "Nones on the Rise," October 2012. Available online at http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

Source: Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, “Nones on the Rise,” October 2012. Available online at http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

My own research is more ethnographic than empirical in nature. That is, I listen to people’s stories and sometimes observe how they practice their spirituality. I have also conducted narrative surveys that allow people to offer written responses to a number of questions about their religious or spiritual perspectives. In light of this research, my hunch, having spoken to many self-described Atheists who retain some sort belief in some sort of supernatural, transcendent reality that influences humanity and creation in direct or indirect ways, is that they aren’t meaning to offer “insult to all atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, secular humanists and other non-theists … [in a] a display of gross incompetence and ignorance.” Rather, in some cases, they value how the label stands ideologically and politically in relation to various religious or spiritual designations. Maybe they don’t entirely understand the complicated historical, political, and lexical meanings of the term, it’s true. Often, it seems, when someone tells me she or he is an Atheist, it seems to mean something along the lines of, “I really don’t want to talk about what I believe, and people leave me alone on that count if I say I’m an ‘atheist.’” Sometimes, too, it means, “I was thinking of myself as an Atheist when you first asked me, then I kind of changed my mind.”

This raises two important points that Dr. Gaudia, and perhaps many others, misunderstand about research on current or historical cultural phenomenon and, further, about religious identity in the current age. With regard to the former, as a researcher, when I ask people how they describe themselves in religious, spiritual, or philosophical terms, I accept the descriptions they offer as valid for them. That is, I don’t say (though sometimes I want to, and I gather that Dr. Gaudia would expect me to), “You know, if you believe in God or prayer or whatever, you really aren’t an Atheist. Stop saying that!). I note what they say, and what they think it means, not what I might think it should mean. It’s an interview, not a quiz.

This is the difference between a theological or philosophical assessment, which would ask if the prayer practice is valid within a particular tradition, and a social or cultural study, which asks what people do when they say they pray and tries to determine how that contributes to changing meanings of the term and associated practices in the wider culture. Lots of people are confused by this distinction, so Dr. Gaudia might be excused for his ignorance on this count (though that would be easier if he were less, you know, nasty).

Thus, having conducted in depth, narrative surveys with more than a thousand people across the country, and having interviewed a few dozen people in considerably more depth, what I’m able to see is certain patterns in how religious identifications and other definitions vary from the more formal, academic definitions that Dr. Gaudia believes I have flagrantly disregarded. (Well, to be fair, I have kind of disregarded such definitions, because my research is not about how well people conform to standard definitions. But I don’t think I’m full on “flagrant” about it.)

Now, many Nones do report praying on a regular basis, including no small number of those who self-identify as Atheist or Agnostic. The most recent Pew report shows more than 40 percent of Nones overall praying at least monthly, including close to 20 percent of those in the Atheist/Agnostic category. In a survey I conducted in 2012, “prayer” was among the top practices that the unaffiliated ranked as “spiritually meaningful”—the only traditional religious practice that made it to the top of the list. Like many people, perhaps—although I hope with fewer preconceived notions about an ironic, almost papal inerrancy about my own perspectives than Dr. Gaudia seems to maintain—I was curious about what it would mean for someone who says she is “atheist” or “agnostic” or “unaffiliated” in some less specific way to “pray.” But, initially, I had bracketed unbelievers out of my study.

I was actually tipped to the modest pervasiveness of prayer and other “spiritual” practices among self-described unbelievers themselves by Atheists and Agnostics themselves, however, after a December 2012 article in Religion Dispatches that offered a short reading list on Nones. In response to the piece, a number of (generally very polite and respectful) Atheists and Agnostics contacted me to ask why I hadn’t included any titles on their “spirituality.” This actually shifted my research away from a more exclusive attention to so-called “religious Nones”—the unaffiliated who claim belief in God or a higher power—to include the narratives of non-believing Nones. Again, rather than evaluating their self-descriptions as “valid” or “invalid” by my definition of “atheist,” “secular,” “humanist,” “freethinker,” “unbeliever,” “skeptic,” and so on, I aimed to listen to theirs and to better understand how they understood “spirituality” and existential meaning-making more generally from the point of view they claimed. I’m facilitating conversation, not conducting midterms.

This confirmed for me a second key point that many people, including no few researchers such as those at the Pew Forum, Gallup, the Barna Group, the GSS, and so on often forget: late modern religious identification and affiliation is not fixed or durable in the same way it has been in previous generations. That is, in a world in which people no longer die before they’re 50—when most of us will live well into our 70s and 80s or beyond—an identity as a Catholic, or an Evangelical, or an Atheist is less and less likely to last a lifetime. For one thing, as Charles Taylor has described as the particular mode of “secularity” that characterizes the present period, we “live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on” (A Secular Age, 11). For another, we simply have more time to think about those “different construals,” to try them on at least notionally, at different times in our lives. Indeed, under the influence of cultural epistemologies and associated practices in the current Digital Age, we might shift identities and affiliations from one week—or day—to the next.

So, the person who answered “Atheist” when asked about her religious preference in a survey on Tuesday, may by Friday be intrigued by Kabbalah. This is no mere fickleness, but rather a real change in how people approach meaning-making in the present day. Religious and spiritual identity are more provisional, more strategic, more malleable over time. Including self-identified Atheists and Agnostics in my work on the spiritual lives of Nones has allowed me to see what I think are much more significant patterns in American religiosity from the ground up than I would had applied rigid, fundamentalist, definitions of “Atheist” and “prayer” that, say, Pat Robertson and Dr. Gaudia might apply. I’ll have much to say about this in Choosing Our Religion when it’s released next spring. It’s not the sort of material that one covers in an 800-word article for a general readership news outlet.

Now, responding to Dr. Gaudia has required a very, very long blog post, and I appreciate your attention if you’ve made it this far. Indulge me for one final note on what I suspect are the “Nones” of Dr. Gaudia’s more local, Pacific Northwest experience. For some time, the Pacific Northwest was known a “The None Zone.” Well before the blossoming of religious unaffiliation and disidentification in the rest of the United States, some 30 percent of the population in the region identified as “humanist” or having “no religion,” with more than 60 percent claiming “no religious affiliation,” according to a fine collection of academic essays edited by Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk (2004) that drew on data primarily from 2001 and 2000, and slightly earlier.

I expect that Dr. Gaudia and his None community in Eugene have a very different experience of unaffiliation than do the more recently going population of Nones elsewhere in the country. Which is to say, when we look outside the window, most of the time we don’t see the world, we see our world.

Author: Elizabeth Drescher PhD

I am a scholar, writer, and speaker on religion and spirituality in everyday life today and in the past.

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