By Emma Young
What happens to people when they lose their religion? Do they start to think and act just like people who have never believed — or do they keep some psychological and behavioural traces of their past?
Given the number of people worldwide who report no current religious affiliation (more than 1 billion) and predictions that this will expand into the future, it’s important to explore just how homogenous, or otherwise, this group is, argue the researchers behind a new paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differences.
Daryl R. Van Tongeren at Hope College, US, and his colleagues conclude from their studies that there is in fact a “religious residue” that clings to people who cease to identify as religious. “Formerly religious individuals differed from never religious and currently religious individuals in cognitive, emotional and behavioural processes,” the team reports.
Why might such a residue exist? Because for people who are religious, the kinds of attitudes and behaviours that go along with religion are likely to be important to the way those individuals see themselves. Picture someone who grew up in a strongly Christian household, for example, with parents who promoted Christian morals, and who volunteered their time through the church. Even if that person later no longer identifies as Christian, these experiences may have enduring psychological impacts. Our social identities can change, the researchers note, but this usually only happens slowly.
For their first study, the team recruited just over 3,000 nationally representative online participants from the US, the Netherlands and Hong Kong. These people were asked about their religious identity, beliefs and practices, and the extent to which they were exposed to religious behaviours during childhood. Then they completed a (very brief) measure of their subjective prosociality (their perception of their helpfulness towards other people, for example), a scale that measured their social values, and also a test that assessed their attitudes towards God.
The team found that a sizeable proportion — 20.94% — of the participants reported being formerly religious. And, they argue, their data revealed evidence for a religious residue effect. On various measures, including religiosity, self-reported prosociality and prosocial orientation (such as wanting everyone in a group to do well, rather than aiming for individual success), currently religious participants scored the highest, followed by formerly religious and finally never religious people. This was true for each of the three nationalities sampled.
To explore this further, the team ran a second study on 1,626 men and women from the same countries. This time, there were equivalent numbers of never-religious, formerly religious and currently religious participants. And as well as repeating the steps in the first study, these people were given the option of donating a percentage of their participation payment to Save the Children, and also of volunteering to complete another short survey (they could offer anything between 5 and 15 minutes of their time).
Among those who agreed to volunteer for the extra survey, the currently religious gave up more time than both the other groups. Currently religious people also donated more of their money to charity than formerly religious people — but this group in turn donated more than the never religious. This shows that formerly religious people don’t just say they are more prosocial but act in a more prosocial way than never-religious types, the team says.
Well, this particular study seems to show that. But, remember, the participants in both these studies were all first asked about their religious identity. If, as the researchers argue, being prosocial is an important element of being religious, then currently religious, and even previously religious, participants had all just been primed to think of religion, and (whether consciously or not) everything that goes with that. Van Tongeren maintains that as the participants were asked a host of different questions, this is unlikely to be an issue. But I don’t think they can rule out the possibility that this inflated these groups’ prosociality scores.
For the final study, the team shifted to data from New Zealand collected between 2009 and 2017 as part of an annual, longitudinal national sample of registered voters. This revealed that volunteering was about twice as common among religious vs non-religious people. It also showed that the annual chance of a participant losing their religion but still spending time in voluntary or charitable work was much higher than the chance of someone losing their religion and stopping volunteering. This supports the religious residue hypothesis, the researchers argue.
But plenty of non-religious people also volunteered their time. Being the kind of person who volunteers could constitute an important aspect of anyone’s social identity, in and of itself, and so be resistant to change, whether you are religious or not. However, Van Tongeren maintains that the data provides evidence for the “lingering effects of prosociality, even after people stop identifying as religious”.