Washington, DC: With 25% of Americans now identifying as religiously unaffiliated, scholars and pundits have written reams linking the lack of defined religious belief and affiliation to a host of modern ills: social isolation, depression, anxiety. From the New York Times’ David Brooks, who characterizes millions of secularized people as potentially “suffer[ing] from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives,” to social scientists who characterize uncertain or agnostic religious identities as “paralyzing,” “disorienting,” and “cognitively taxing,” the increase in rejection of religious certainty is often characterized as contributing to both personal and societal breakdown.
But a new study in the American Sociological Review reports that non-religious Americans just as often experience uncertainty as positive and motivating feelings, and although certainty-filled beliefs and identities are available for the non-religious, they are just as often rejected for more uncertain ones. Research by Jacqui Frost, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota, eschewed the frequent attention to politicized “New Atheist” groups, and instead interviewed members of the Sunday Assembly, a network of more than 70 secular congregations made up primarily of atheists and agnostics, as well as non-religious “non-assemblers” from the same Midwestern community.
Some individuals in the study, “Certainty, Uncertainty, or Indifference? Examining Variation in the Identity Narratives of Nonreligious Americans” contrasted their uncertainty with the “stereotype of a more…certainty-filled atheism often associated with an anti-religious and intellectualized set of beliefs and values” while others were more militant in their atheism. For most, however, the uncertainty that came with nonreligion was “freeing,” and many respondents emphasized an unwillingness to give up that freedom by coming to any final conclusions. Indeed, despite previous quantitative research that has demonstrated that agnostics and more uncertain “nones” are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, Frost found that many of her subjects’ narratives described positive associations with their lack of religion and intentionally sought uncertainty, which was experienced as a freedom from former anxieties and isolation.
Frost argues that the narratives of the non-religious provide an important setting for building new theoretical understandings of the meanings attributed to certainty and uncertainty, and that both certainty and uncertainty can be meaningful and motivating orientations to belief and identity. Although the research was primarily limited to white, middle-class former Christians, it does suggest that the role of uncertainty in individuals’ identities and beliefs is fertile ground for future study.
Additionally, “if we assume people are always seeking out new certainty, we might overlook new and emerging ways that modern individuals are making sense of their lives,” said Frost.
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The research article described above is available by request for members of the media. For a copy of the full study, contact Johanna Olexy, ASA Senior Communications Associate, at (202) 247-9873 or firstname.lastname@example.org.