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Curious Reads: Dones and Nones
Religion leaves a mark, even on the deconverted.
Hello friend, Liz here.
#1 Today’s “top of the fold” story is the “Dones,” by which I mean the once-devout who are now done with their religion.
A study recently published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality by researchers Aaron T. McLaughlin, Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Kelly Teahan, Don E. Davis, Kenneth G. Rice, and C. Nathan DeWall took a hard stare at the deconverted and the formerly-religious.
Their hypothesis was that these folks, so often lumped in with the never-religious, might actually straddle the currently-religious and the never-religious in important ways, an in-between sociological group.
So the team asked study participants who had self-identified as “done” with some aspect of their religion to write short essays about their religious experiences. And then they analyzed data from 643 “dones” in the U.S., Hong Kong, and the Netherlands to see what characteristics “dones” might share.
Here’s the study, a summary, and a podcast interview with the study authors at Christianity Today’s Better Samaritan podcast.
Here are the highlights:
Why were the respondents leaving religion as they knew it? The reasons ranged widely: intellectual dissonance, trauma, personal adversity that caused doubt, and social reasons.
About half of the sample (51.8%) reported leaving for intellectual reasons or because they outgrew their faith. Roughly a fifth of the sample (21.9%) reported religious trauma, such as the hypocrisy of the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Others (14.9%) reported leaving religion because of personal adversity, such as an inability to make sense of the tragic death of a child, or social reasons (11.4%), including a religious community’s being unwelcoming.
“Dones” also seemed to split naturally into two groups—the “Discontinued” and the “Still-Practicing.”
The “Discontinued Dones” were those who walked away from their religion in every way. These folks had shut the door on their former beliefs and practices, perhaps even developing negative associations with God, their own religious past, and any religious people they still knew. These might also be called the deconverted.
(Notably, the “discontinued” had the best mental health outcomes of all those people studied.)
The “Still-Practicing Dones” might be called the “quiet quitters” of church. They were more likely to retain some remnant of religion—to believe in God, say, or to affiliate with religious people, or to attend or practice religious rituals. But there was some aspect of religion that conflicted with what they believed or who they were, so they stepped backward from certain parts of their religion.
(These folks had much poorer mental health outcomes, perhaps due to the unsettled nature of not belonging neatly into a group.)
Regardless of which category the surveyed fell into, religion left a psychological mark, a sort of "religious residue effect,” often exhibited in the “dones” keeping a similar moral framework and “pro-social behavior” that resembled religious attitudes and actions.
Why is religion so sticky?
Religion provides a strong cognitive framework, one that’s not easy to shake. [And] …people — religious or not — tend to form habits that are difficult to break. If frameworks are the cognitive reason, habits are the behavioral reason why dones continue religious behaviors. (As an example, Van Tongeren points to friends who are no longer religious but who still habitually pause before a meal. “Even though they don’t practice religion, their initial instinct when they sit down is either to pray or wait for someone to offer a blessing.”) [Last,] religious residue tends to stick because of people’s social communities. Even when people de-identify as religious, they often maintain a similar community, which means they may find themselves doing religious things, talking with other co-religionists, and using language that’s familiar to their previously-religious self.
What can we take away from this study?
I find it fascinating how formational religion is, how comprehensive in shaping personhood.
Religion shapes patterns of thought, patterns of behavior, and patterns of community-building. Even after a deconversion (full or partway), all three values continue as fundamental to a person’s sense of identity and purpose.
Also, I have to confess that I saw myself in the category of “Still Practicing Done.” After many years of deconstruction and reconstruction, I find myself in this middle space. I no longer fit within evangelicalism (nor do I want to, really), but I also do not neatly fit in mainline Christian spaces.
I left my ACNA Anglican church about a year ago. In its place, I’ve floated between episcopal services, post-evangelical nondenominational services, and the farmer’s market (skipping the Sunday emotional roller coaster altogether).
Lately, I’ve found a Methodist congregation which seems like a promising community, a place to which I might possibly maybe belong? But that’s still unsettled.
Overall, what’s been most humbling and challenging about this past year of churchgoing is that I have discovered I occupy a hybrid Christian identity, much like my experience of being a TCK, a third culture kid.
In other words, I do not truly belong anywhere.
Are you familiar with the idea of the “TCK” (Third Culture Kid)?
I became a “TCK” when my parents picked up and moved the family from the East Coast, USA, to Switzerland during my senior year of high school. Uprooted from American culture, my school and friends, my primary language and place, and all activities which gave me identity (student council, yearbook, marching band, Madrigals, youth group, sports, etc., etc.,…), I floundered. I went through my first ever bout of depression, pining for my former homeland and the familiarity it contained.
But when I returned to midwest America for college, I suddenly found I’d become an odd bird here, too. Home was not home, not really. I did not fit as I used to.
I went through culture shock on both ends, leaving and returning.
The theory behind the TCK is that the child leaves the first native culture to move to another culture, the second. Yet due to their psychological flexibility, the child learns both cultures, creating a hybrid of the two that only the child inhabits. The child lives in the third culture, fitting into neither of the first two entirely. The cultures become conjoined within the child.
The experience of the TCK child is a uniquely lonely experience and one not even shared by the parents, who still primarily identify with their native culture. The child does not really belong in either culture singly, but in both cultures. Or rather, the child belongs to the third hybrid culture, a culture of one.
I find the experience of the “TCK” to be a poignant metaphor for many of us former/post/ex- evangelicals who have left church as we know it, yet still find ourselves with a residue of our devotion.
Maybe we still believe in God, “still love Jesus,” still associate with friends from our old church/es, still pray, still treasure certain Bible stories, still miss the feeling of swaying in a pew to the lazy strums of a guitar while so many other voices fill the air between earth and heaven.
But we have made a hard fork. We’ve left behind the politics of our religion, perhaps the cultural models or identity beliefs, perhaps the people we once knew. Perhaps we’ve even drop kicked the Bible into the stratosphere. (I wouldn’t blame you if you had.)
We are an in-between people; but this is a hard place to stay.
I’m dying to know: which category do you resonate with? Are you a religous “none”? A religious “still”? A religious “done” (and which one of the dones)?
To all of us who are here, lounging in the discomfort of unbelonging, I want to offer a word of comfort: you are not really alone.
If this study proves anything, it surely proves that. There are many of us who occupy the liminal floaty space between the various expressions of Christianity. Yes, it’s lonely. Yes, Sundays REALLY REALLY REALLY suck. Yes, your in-laws or parents or siblings or friends may not understand.
But you are not alone. I’m here, for one. And I have a hunch God is here, too, at the margins with those of us who feel like outsiders. Because God is always with the outsiders.
Without fail, to whom does Jesus show up in the Gospel stories? To the drunks, the sex workers, the doubting and rejected, the ones without 401Ks and with unclean records, the bleeding and the perpetually in pain. There’s Jesus, breaking boundaries again, his disciples often grumbled… before they recognized that they, too, were weirdos. (Which is why Jesus picked them. Duh.)
If you counted up Jesus’s minutes on earth, they would heavily favor the (supposedly) unworthy who belonged nowhere.
Would I then be forgiven for concluding that God must like us best? ;-) Or, at least, that God likes us? And doesn’t God liking us make all the difference?
Thanks for reading.
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
P.S. I’ve got some stuff going on!
I published in Sojourners: “Why Was the Bible Banned in Utah?”
And I’ve been interviewed a couple of places, like the podcast Heal + Go Public with Carin Huebner, “How Unchecked Male Bias Causes Harm in the Church w/ Author + Activist Liz Charlotte Grant” and the podcast A Certain Wandering podcast with Michael Lecy, “Cosmic Stories in Particular Ways—a conversation with Liz Charlotte Grant.”
I’m also starting a fun IG Live series where I’m chatting with writers who garden in their gardens.
First up: (TODAY at 3PM EST) on obsessively growing tomatoes and how to escape family obligations by disappearing into nearby greenery.
Then, next week, I’m talking with(Tues., Sept. 5 at NOON EST) all about how to talk psychobabble to our pet chickens.
More Curious Reads
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Just for fun, here’s a brief modern history of the monster. —the Conversation
the Empathy List is a one-woman show supported by generous readers like yourself. If you like this post, subscribe! And maybe even sign up to buy me a monthly coffee if you have the budget to spare. ;-)
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#4 Speaking of Trump, who the hell is Vivek Ramaswamy? (A brief bio at The Guardian) And why is Trump considering him as a running mate?—Axios
(Pssst, fun fact: Harvard alum Ramaswamy thinks college applicants should be evaluated by admissions departments not only by their grades and standardized test scores, but also by how fast they can run a mile. So, the man is not only anti-woke; he’s also anti-fat……..🙄)
#5 It’s hard not to root for a guy who stole millions from billionaires, even if he did get caught. —the New Yorker
Have you heard that India made history by landing a rover on the South Pole of the moon, where scientists suspect ice may exist? (Water in space is, of course, a big deal.) You can watch the rover descend… or you can just watch the surface of the moon itself via satellite as a form of cheap therapy. ;-)
From an essay byabout the study for the John Templeton Foundation: “Here’s How Religion Imprints Us—Even When We Walk Away.”