Door County Hiking Companion, September 2015

Door County Hiking Companion, September 2015

Well, sir, here's to plain speaking and clear understanding.
 - Gutman, The Maltese Falcon

We live in the description of a Place, and not in the Place Itself. - Wallace Stevens

Communities of Value Among the Nonreligious

Sociologists have long known that in the American context, participation in local religious communities is associated with individual well-being, in part because of the networks of friendship and social support that congregations provide. Due in part to these same relationships, local religious communities also foster volunteering and community involvement. Religious identification also provides many people with a sense of meaning and purpose, anchoring their identity in a late-modern context that can foster anxiety and uncertainty.

The rapid decline of organized religion in the United States has reconfigured the social landscape. Almost a quarter of Americans overall — and about 35% of those under age 30 — now claim no religious identity, and each new cohort is less religious than were their parents’ generation. And among the non-religious there is a great variety, with some claiming very strong identities defined as not religious (e.g. atheists), while others claim a “spiritual” identity and hold on to some religiously-inspired ritual practices while distancing themselves from organized religion (the spiritual-but-not-religious) and others are “believers” who do not “belong” to any religious group. Others, including some of the agnostic, do not seek the certainty of a fixed religious or non-religious identity, while others (the “nothing in particulars”) seem genuinely indifferent to both religion and non-religion. At the same time, there is a growth in organizations mobilizing the non-religious for political action (e.g. the Secular Coalition of America) or inviting people to “come out as atheist” (e.g. the Richard Dawkins Foundation). Some non-religious leaders want to draw the non-religious into church-like fellowship, founding new organizations like the Sunday Assembly, while older groups like the Unitarian Universalist church create new promotional materials advertising that they are a welcoming community for atheists.

My next research project will examine Americans’ participation in what I call communities of value — local, face-to-face groups that people join to express a valued identity, religious commitment, or philosophical commitment. The project will account for the variety among the non-religious, as well as the emergent and complex nature of non-religious beliefs and commitments in a time of historic transition. The research will focus on understanding how participation in local communities of value shapes civic engagement, volunteering behavior, and well-being among both the religious and the non-religious.


In 2003 I worked with colleagues Doug Hartmann and Joe Gerteis here at the University of Minnesota and fielded a national survey for the American Mosaic Project, a study that examined how racial and religious identities shape conceptions of citizenship, national identity, and views of minority groups. This research led to a series of publications that explored Americans' attitudes toward racial and religious minorities, including one of the first studies of anti-atheist sentiment to be conducted since the 1970s.  The project web page contains links to publications using the 2003 survey data along with a link to the data file and codebook.  In 2014, working with some of our former graduate students, we fielded a followup survey that explores some of the same topics as the original research but also expands our inquiry, with more questions about attitudes toward religious outsider groups and public religious expression, as well as asking questions about a broader range of ethnic minority groups.  Preliminary findings from the 2014 survey, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Edelstein Family Foundation, can be found here.  


When presented with the opportunity to discuss contemporary social controversies, do individuals engage in a "culture war," driven by a sharp left-right political divide? Or is there common ground?  How do religious discourses and cultural frames shape the capacity of individuals to have civil and constructive conversations about social controversies?  My colleague Kathleen Hull and I have received a National Science Foundation grant to answer these questions.  We fielded 36 focus groups in three metropolitan areas (Boston, Houston, the Twin Cities) and are in the process of analyzing the data in 2012; a followup project in 2017 fielded 12 focus groups in and around the Twin Cities.  One of our first papers coming out of the data examines the cultural schemas of law, science, and religion and questions whether the dominant sociological framework of modernization theory helps us to understand when and how religion comes into conflict with legal or scientific claims.  Another paper examines how the use of storytelling in group settings helps to avoid conflict rooted in a left/right ideological divide and focus discussion on practical and moral consequences of specific policy options.

Night Falls, Many Glaciers, Glacier National Park, taken by P.E.

Night Falls, Many Glaciers, Glacier National Park, taken by P.E.