Formerly religious individuals are more likely to experience a lack of belongingness compared to those who were never religious, and this feeling of not fitting in predicts an increased tendency to conceal their nonreligious identity by keeping it separate from their public persona. That is the key finding from a new study published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, which analyzed data from three culturally distinct countries.
Religion is an important aspect of personal and social identity for many individuals. It has a significant influence on how people think, feel, and interact with others. However, there has been a growing trend of people disassociating themselves from religious traditions. In fact, religiously unaffiliated individuals make up a sizable religious group in North America and most European countries.
“Previous work suggests that nonreligious people who used to be religious (‘religious dones’) differ from nonreligious people who have never identified as religious (‘religious nones’) on certain psychological characteristics,” explained study author Cameron D. Mackey (@CameronDMackey1), a PhD candidate in social psychology at Ohio University
“For example, currently religious individuals have unsurprisingly positive attitudes toward God. However, religious nones hold significantly more negative attitudes toward God compared to religious dones, whose attitudes fall between those of currently religious and never religious individuals.”
“Another line of research examines social identity threat — a feeling of not belonging in a given context because of group membership. This research has found that atheists in the United States feel like they don’t belong due to awareness of stereotypes related to their identity (e.g., that atheists are immoral and untrustworthy). Because atheists feel social identity threat, they are likely to conceal this identity, especially in parts of the country where this threat is heightened (e.g., the American South, where most of the population is religious).”
“We combined these lines of research to examine two main questions: do religious dones and religious nones differ when it comes to feeling social identity threat (and consequently concealing their identity), and are there cultural differences in these characteristics?”
To address these questions, the researcher analyzed two previously collected data sets. In Study 1, a total of 3,071 participants were involved, with approximately equal numbers of men and women. The participants were recruited from the United States, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong using an online survey platform called Qualtrics. In Study 2, 1,626 participants were recruited from the same countries. The samples were representative of the population in each country.
The data sets allowed the researchers to examine the differences in social identity threat and concealment of religious identity across various cultural settings. The United States represents a religious Western context where Christianity is the dominant religion both numerically and culturally, while the Netherlands is known for its high levels of secularism. Hong Kong was included as an Eastern cultural context. It is predominantly secular, but it has a unique cultural blend of religious practices and beliefs.
The participants were asked to indicate their religious identity by choosing one of three statements: “I currently identify as religious,” “I was formerly religious, but no longer identify as religious,” or “I have never identified as religious.” This allowed the researchers to categorize participants into currently religious, religious dones, and religious nones.
Participants rated the extent to which their private religious beliefs overlapped with their public expression of those beliefs. Lower scores indicated a higher level of concealment, meaning participants were hiding their (non)religious identity to a greater extent.
In Study 2, the researchers also measured belongingness, which served as a proxy measure of social identity threat. Participants rated their agreement with statements such as “I feel like I belong” and “I feel connected with others.”
The researchers found that formerly religious individuals, compared to never religious individuals, were more likely to conceal their nonreligious identity in religious contexts. This finding expands on previous research and suggests a concealment effect among formerly religious individuals.
“Across two studies, we found that religious dones in the United States were more likely to conceal their identity and felt a lower sense of belonging, relative to religious nones in the United States,” Mackey told PsyPost. “We believe this is because formerly religious individuals in the United States still have contact with currently religious individuals, whereas never religious individuals tend to interact with other nonreligious individuals and thus feel less of a need to conceal.”
“Interestingly, we also found that religious dones and nones in Hong Kong (a secular Eastern context) also felt less belongingness, and were more likely to conceal their identities, than currently religious individuals in Hong Kong. This may be because nonreligious individuals in Hong Kong are less likely to participate in certain religious practices (e.g., visiting ancestral shrines) that are considered culturally important as well. Alternatively, nonreligious residents of Hong Kong may participate in but not believe in the theological basis of these practices, creating a disconnect between their public behavior and their private beliefs.”
The study highlights the differences in concealment and belongingness among formerly religious individuals, never religious individuals, and currently religious individuals in different cultural contexts. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“One limitation is that these results are correlational, thus limiting the ability to make claims about cause and effect,” Mackey said. “We theorized that religious dones in the United States would conceal more than religious nones in the United States because they feel less as though they belong. However, it could instead be that religious dones feel less belongingness because they are used to concealing their (non)religious identities.”
“Furthermore, more research is needed to examine whether our results would replicate in other sociocultural contexts. For example, comparing a religious country in Europe (Poland) to a secular country in Europe (the Netherlands) may be a better way to understand whether religious dones and nones in Europe conceal their identity to the same extent as religious dones and nones in the US. In this case, we would imagine that religious dones and nones in Poland would feel less belongingness and conceal more, compared to religious dones and nones in the Netherlands.”
“Finally, there is much we still don’t know about nonreligious identity in majority-Muslim contexts (e.g., Turkey) where atheism is criminalized; we would expect that religious dones and nones would feel like they don’t belong to an even more extreme degree,” Mackey added. “In Hong Kong, we found that religious dones and nones feel less belongingness, but this may not hold in other Eastern countries where nonreligion is more normative (e.g., Japan).”
The study, “The Social Pain of Religious Deidentification: Religious Dones Conceal Their Identity and Feel Less Belonging in Religious Cultures“, was authored by Cameron D. Mackey, Daryl R. Van Tongeren, and Kimberly Rios.