In Conversation with Professor Sarah Wilkins-LaFlamme on Secularism, Religion, and Atheism

by | March 27, 2018

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobson: Let’s start as James Lipton says, to begin at the beginning.

Sarah Wilkins LaFlamme: Oh boy.

Jacobsen: What was a family background regarding major variables such as geography, culture, language, and religion if any?

LaFlamme: So, I’m originally from the Pontiac region of Quebec, which is about 45 minutes north of Gatineau. I lived there until about my mid 20’s, so I did my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology at university while still living at home.

Yes, so, my mom is a Brit. She immigrated in the ‘70s, early ‘70s, here to Canada. She met my dad in Toronto who’s French Canadian and they both moved up to this old farm and, well, we children called it a commune.

They called it a cooperative. Basically, a bunch of friends bought this old farm and set up this alternative, back to the land, life style. It was tame compared to some of the other groups that are out there. But it was a much more rural experience out in the countryside than most people get these days.

In terms of religion, on my dad’s side it’s the classic French-Canadian Catholic heritage.

The grandparents were mostly practicing, went to church relatively often. Took us to church as well a bit when we were really young. We can talk about this. Something that I researched when I was looking at Catholicism in Quebec in my academic work.

This was the normal progression through the generations around the ‘60s and afterward. So, the grandparents were more or less actively religious. However, among my Boomer parents, my dad was what you can call fallen away. Still identifies as Catholic, still has some core Christian beliefs in God and the afterlife I think, but never really went to church. He did not have any real, practical contact with the institution of the Church itself. However, my mother tells it that my dad’s parents, my grandparents, put pressure on my mom and dad to get us baptized.

So my brother and I were baptized Catholic. That was about the extent of our involvement, I think. My brother threatens to get married in a Catholic church occasionally.

But then he realizes how much work it’ll be to be able to get everything in order to do it: we haven’t had our first communion or been confirmed, so we’d have to go through this whole process. So, like, “Oh God no.” [laugh]

We had little to no contact with religion in that sense, and were also influenced by my mom who was coming from a traditionally Anglican family, who was more the atheist of the family to start out with.

She oscillates, like a lot of nonbelievers, between atheism and agnosticism. Refers to some spiritual power in the sky once in a while, and at other times is adamantly non-religious. She does not like the institution of the Church at all.

My mom often negatively remembers the Church of England and its “people” as trying to control many aspects of family life.

She told stories of having the vicar come by Sunday when she was a kid and tell her mother she should be having more children, donating more money, etc. Similar stories that you get from the Quebec side about how the Catholic Church used to be pre-1960’s.

So, that was my family background. I had what you would call an irreligious or non-religious upbringing. My brother and I were put in the more non-religious classes in school, so we did not have any religious teachings in school. We did not go to any religious services. So now, I identify as having no religion.

I am a non-believer. I have figured that out over the last decade or so. From what I understand, my story is pretty typical in that sense. While doing research with people who say they have no religion in Canada, like a colleague of mine out West Joel Thiessen does, who does a lot of interviews with these individuals, or when I do lots of statistical work with survey data, I’ve come to notice that the decline of religion across generations that I describe as my own story is pretty common among many individuals. And the turning point for properly becoming a nonbeliever is often in the early adult years. There is of course variation in people’s exact biographical stories, but that decline of participating in and contact with organized religion across two or three generations seems to be a recurring theme.

I am also a trained sociologist. I have done all my university work in sociology.

What’s nice about sociology, is that it is a very broad field. You can study anything really, anything that is social behavior. Anytime individuals get together, social structures are involved.

I am first and foremost a stats person. I like quantitative methods. I also twin that with an interest in sociology of religion. So, that is my main specialty, my substantive specialty, what I am an expert in, I guess, if you want.

That came about when I was in graduate school. There was a group in Ottawa who was working on Catholicism in Quebec, led by Dr. E.-Martin Meunier. This group drew my interest, because I had been told all throughout my life that Catholicism was more or less dead. And yet, this group showed me that there are still these interesting indicators, a lot of people who say they are still Catholic in Quebec even though they do not practice. This institution that is meant to be dead still has a certain influence politically and socially.

That piqued my interest. It did not come from being religious myself, it came from being told that religion was not important anymore but yet finding out that, “Oh no, when you gather real data, systematically, you do see certain impacts of religion.”

I followed that through, followed that for the DPhil, and then when I got my job here at Waterloo. I was hired mainly for the stats side of things, so I can teach statistics. However, sociology of religion is my substantive area, what I write papers about, do conferences on.

Jacobsen: If you were to summarize the work, for instance, in the dissertation at the University of Oxford, what would you consider the main or bigger research question? What would you consider the main or bigger finding from that research question?

LaFlamme: Yes, I am especially interested in social differences between people who are religious or more actively religious and those who are not. So, that is my general interest.

I have applied that in several ways. I’ll give you a few examples. In places where organized religion has been on the decline for many decades, if not centuries—so some European countries, Canada is starting to get there—I studied how there is a larger gap in moral attitudes, what people think is right and wrong, between the remaining core of people who are actively religious and the majority who are not. The actively religious are now a minority, but they are still there.

In these societies, there is a majority of individuals completely removed from all forms of organized religions, so in terms of their belonging, and they are not part of any church or religious group in terms of their practice. They do not have any formalized religious practice.

In contexts where you find these larger secular groups, they tend to be on average more liberal and much more left in terms of their attitudes towards same-sex marriage and abortion, compared to places where they form a smaller part of society.

However, members of remaining religious groups remain relatively conservative on average. So, you have this widening gap between the two. I was looking at this, I guess, polarization of a certain kind.

Another example of my work being, in Canada, that religious affiliation and level of religiosity are still important in who we vote for, at least at the federal level.

We hear a lot about politics and religion in the USA, but we do not hear about it so much in Canada. However, it is there. People who are more actively religious are much more likely to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada.

And those who are less religious, in English speaking Canada especially, they tend to vote NDP. Sometimes they will alternate, sometimes they will vote Liberal, but they tend to stick to the left of the spectrum.

That is an effect that is becoming stronger over time. So, in the early and mid 20th century, there used to be a big difference between Catholics and Protestants, who they would vote for. Catholics tended to vote more Liberal, Protestants more Conservative. That affiliation effect has all but disappeared since the 2000s. However, instead you’ve now got this gap between those who are more religious and those who are less religious.

So, that is what I am interested in: how who you are in terms of your religion impacts other aspects of your social life.

I also look at caregiving activities. I also have a working paper now on these moral attitudes, but with a greater focus on Canada. I could go on all day about my research and findings.

To summarize it all up, even though we live in a context that can be defined as more secular, as people who are now non-religious form a bigger part of society than they used to and religious institutions do not play the same social role that they used to; even in this context, individual’s religiosity, religion or non-religion are still important. It is important in a lot of ways.

In terms of their interactions with others, people who are non-religious tend to hang out more with non-religious people for example. That influences their worldview, how they see the world. I have got a project on that coming up. Vice versa, religious people tend to hang out more with people who are actively religious.

It does not mean that there is always this huge divide between both groups. Members on each “side” do interact with one another on occasion. And there are also lots of people in the middle of the spectrum, somewhere in between being actively religious and an adamant atheist.

Sometimes, they do share the same views and behaviour. Sometimes not. That is what I investigate, what I’m interested in.

Jacobsen: When it comes to politics and religion, the poisonous topics to talk about at the dinner table.

LaFlamme: The ones we are not supposed to talk about.

Jacobsen: That is right. How much are attitudes in politics influenced by attitudes in religion? So, I do not mean what you have already stated in terms of voting patterns.

But I do mean in terms of the policy recommendations and the social attitudes that might follow from them.

LaFlamme: There is probably a much bigger impact than people are willing to admit in Canada or even know about. Probably not as drastic as in the United States.

There are faith-based lobby groups, and faith-based groups providing services in civil society that we often assume are being provided by the State, such as immigrant settlement for example. I don’t think it’s as bad as Marci McDonald makes it out to be in her book “The Armageddon Factor,” but it is there.

At the individual level, religion and religiosity are important for some attitudes and behaviours, but not for everything either. Things like attitudes towards the economy, how the economy should be regulated, or attitudes towards the environment. Those are attitudes where religion has a bit of an impact, but does not come into play as much.

But on other things, anything to do with the social conservative movement, such as attitudes towards abortion, same-sex marriage, gender roles, there people’s religion and non-religion come into play more.

To come back to vote choice, religion is still one of the major sociodemographic factors in voting. Province of residence is still the strongest sociodemographic effect at play: what province or region you live in still has the strongest impact on who you vote for. But religion often comes second only to province of residence. It is still more important than age, still more important than social class, still more important than gender. It is there, even if we don’t hear a lot about it.

I met with a really interesting group at Cardus back in November in Ottawa, which is a more Christian-funded, faith-based think tank. We had a whole day of workshops on the perception of religion in Canada and the role faith plays in society.

And while I was there, I realized, “Oh wow, okay…These guys are here in Ottawa. They probably do not have as much impact as when the Harper government was in power, but they do have some political clout.” And they are one of many such groups in Canada.

There is also, at the grassroots level, a lot of volunteer faith-based groups, groups that are helping, providing certain social services that the government is not providing, or not fully funding.

Here in southern Ontario for example, there are a lot of faith-based immigrant settlement groups who are volunteers, who help new arrivals settle, and make sure they’ve got housing, make sure they’ve got the right language skills, and so forth. A lot of the key players are volunteers from Christian organizations and churches.

That is the reality here in Canada. It is a fascinating reality.

Jacobsen: If we take a neutral perspective from that last statement, and we take the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, then we look at the campaigning of some religious groups. Some non-religious affiliated groups.

Across the country. In other words, all territories and all provinces. What campaigns tend to be more affirming of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? What ones tend to be non-affirming of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

LaFlamme: You ask an interesting question, because pretty much no group is going to admit that they are not affirming the Charter in this day and age. It is a series of values that is so taken for granted in our society that it is hard to criticize them. Even more so in English-speaking Canada. In Quebec, linguistic rights and the rights of the linguistic community have some weight to them, when compared with the rights of the individual in the Charter, but even in Quebec Charter rights are paramount; just in Quebec there seems to be more willingness to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of a more individual-based rights system that we are currently in. That we’ve been in since especially the ‘80s.

As for no group willing to admit that they go against the Charter, let me give you an example. The right to religious freedom can be interpreted and applied in a number of ways in Canada, especially when it comes to the role of the State and the visibility of religion in public spaces.

To ensure an individual’s religious freedom, many Western states, including here in Canada and its provinces, will try and remain neutral regarding religion, and have a long history of doing so. However, different States have different definitions and approaches to this neutrality. Some, like in France, feel that this neutrality entails all forms of religion, especially visible forms, should be removed from anything that is public, including public spaces. However, others feel that this is a hindrance to religious freedom. In other contexts, like in many places in Canada, State neutrality is not defined as the State and public spaces being totally devoid of religion, but rather as giving equal footing or at least equal opportunity to all religious and non-religious groups.

Most in Canada will agree that our State should be neutral in terms of religion and non-religion, and that everyone’s religious freedom and freedoms of speech and thought should be protected. However, the ways that this is put into place, what that practically ends up looking like on the ground, and even how these rights are defined exactly can vary between groups, regions and decades.

And that is probably where you’re going to see divergences and disagreements. We had the case recently where the Liberal government said that they weren’t going to fund programs organized by groups who did not share the Liberals’ current pro-choice values on abortion. A form had to be signed or something. And a lot of faith-based groups and individuals who are providing services came out as uncomfortable about this; felt it infringed on some of their Charter freedoms.

On top of that, our system is one in which all freedoms in the Charter are more or less given equal weight. So even when you agree on how we should go about defining and protecting these rights, then there can be disagreements on which ones should be given priority if needed.

Jacobsen: Every society has certain tacit or implicit values, which for want of better terms, can be called sacred or non-negotiable. What ones are the sacred and nonnegotiable values in Canada? That both the secular and the religious can agree on together.

LaFlamme: That is interesting. I’ll say a few things on that. The field of studying non-religion and secularity, the cutting edge of it now, at least in academia, is looking into what we are calling substantive secularity.

So, for the longest time when we were studying non-religion, we would study it by showing what it was not. So, it would be like, “Okay, so these people do not go to church, they do not belong to a religion.”

At some point, we said, “Well, that’s great, but what are they? What do these people share in terms of values, in terms of worldviews? There is something interesting there.” Often, people who are religious, for whom religion has played a big role in their lives, do not fully understand that it is possible to live a meaningful life without having any traditional religious beliefs or practices. They tend to see the non-religious as vessels devoid of anything substantial, wandering the desert aimlessly, simply waiting to be filled.

Jacobsen: Seekers.

LaFlamme: Yes, seekers basically, right? And many who study religion, in the past and even today, are guilty of holding that fundamental assumption about non-religious people. An assumption that faith is fulfilling an essential human need, that it is an essential part of what humans are, and so non-religious individuals should be defined principally by what they are missing.

There are seekers out there, non-religious individuals looking for or to return to a faith group and beliefs. I do not want to say that that is completely wrong. However, a lot of people are non-religious, and are perfectly happy with that, have other things in life; find meaning in other ways. Religion does not even come into their brain. They lead their lives in different ways. Scholars and researchers are finally beginning to properly pick up on that, and are gaining more interest in it. Are there values shared by everyone, religious and non-religious alike, and what are these values? What are the values that differ between the religious and non-religious, and why?

More secular individuals and States are not simply devoid of moral attitudes and values traditionally associated with religious groups; they have their own alternative values and approaches to life, shared by many or most of them and that they think are superior. It’s often easier to pinpoint those values that differ between the religious and non-religious, because they’re often the ones we hear about, that cause flare ups. That example I gave earlier on of the Liberal government threatening to not fund programs run by groups that do not share pro-choice values is one such case.

Because when a way of thinking or a value is shared by almost everyone, we do not think about it a whole lot. It does not cause a problem; it does not cause debate. It’s just taken for granted as that’s the way the world is. In that sense, shared views and values are almost harder to observe and study from a social scientific standpoint.

We all live in a consumerist society that is more based around the individual now than when my grandparents were growing up for example. The Charter of human rights and freedoms is not contested by most groups now. It is accepted, celebrated, seen as right and just and taken for granted at times. That was not always the case. You see that among a lot of Canadians regardless of whether they are religious or not, there are some core fundamental things that I think most people share in our societies.

Like this, this striving for happiness, this importance of family and of certain responsibilities. Those are things that everyone shares. Ok, maybe not everyone, but most people share, across that religious/non-religious spectrum.

And then there are other things that cause tension, like certain attitudes towards certain moral behaviours. What is considered leading a good life? That can differ between people who are more actively religious and less religious.

Also their general worldview and understanding of how the world works and what led to the world we now live in. That can cause real tensions sometimes. But other times, people seem to be able to live peacefully with those differences just fine.

Canada is an interesting example because there are tensions. There are differences, but overall things are going well in Canada. There have been no civil wars nor mass genocides surrounding these issues in recent memory.

I am glad you asked that question because sometimes we are more interested in the differences, what drives us apart, but there are a lot of things that we share, and we seem to be able to do it relatively well in Canada.

There are issues, but nothing has caused a fundamental rift in society yet – and looking forward,  probably won’t, at least for the foreseeable future.

Jacobsen: Why do the non-religious lean politically and socially left? Why do the traditionally religious lean right?

LaFlamme: I do not have all the answers for you, but one factor I focus on has to do with contact with the religious institution early on in life, during childhood.

People who are actively religious as adults tend to have been actively religious as children: socialized religiously. That is a strong effect. I can show that with statistics. Again, I am talking in trends: there are some exceptions to the rule, but it’s pretty rare for someone who attends religious services as an adult to have come from an irreligious background.

And during their formative childhood years, individuals who are in contact with religious groups and institutions are learning about issues, making up their minds about things and developing the way they see the world at least in part based on the teachings of these groups. Not all religious groups in Canada have more conservative doctrine, the United Church of Canada being a prominent counterexample to this, but most religious groups are going to be teaching more what we consider conservative attitudes towards things like same-sex marriage, abortion, gender roles, sexuality, etc. The more traditional family values, about what a normal family and what a normal individual within that is meant to look like. They are teaching those values at a young age. Then later on, as people grow up, those values tend to be reinforced when they stay connected to a religious group. By people within that congregation or group, their family, more often in that congregation or group as well; their network of friends is usually at least in part of that group; Their congregation is in touch with like-minded individuals, and so forth.

The opposite is true for non-religious people. They tend to grow up in settings where the more conservative views of religious groups are not taught at all or as much; they go to more secular schools and universities where views that we consider more left of the spectrum are taught more and reinforced more, they surround themselves with like-minded friends who reinforce their views even more, and so forth.

As a sociologist, I consider that socialization process, especially during someone’s formative years of childhood and early adulthood, as crucial in shaping what they think and how they act. I am not of the Dawkins school, for example, that seems to put all the weight on biological factors, to consider non-believers and their views as more “evolved” in terms of brain development and our species in general.

When you’re a kid, you learn things from your environment, including your social environment. And those things are hard to unlearn and often remain with you. Current-day religious individuals often come from social environments where right-wing/conservative views are more the norm; non-religious individuals, often from social environments where left-wing/progressive views are more prevalent. You still have free will and are not completely determined by your social environment, but it does play a role, it does influence you.

It is not biological. It is not innate. It is something you learn. It is the social context that builds it. We happen to be living in an era when, for a lot of people, the social environment is not being influenced and constructed by leaders and members of religious groups as much as it once was. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t social milieus where this is still the case, Trinity Western University and other Canadian Christian universities being examples here. Those in these milieus share certain views of the world that at times are quite different from our own, to put it mildly. But overall, we’re in a more secular social environment than was once the case.

Jacobsen: When it comes to those moral values stated at the earlier part of that response, examples of traditional family values, opposition to gay marriage, opposition to women’s reproductive health, abortion rights, assisted dying, and so on, what, based on the research, do these groups or individuals report as their reasons for the opposition to those things or the affirmations of those values? In other words, what is the source of them, e.g. the community, the text, and so on?

LaFlamme: Good question. I work a lot with survey data where we ask what you think, but not why you think it. So, survey data classically asks what are your attitudes, not why do you have these attitudes? We don’t manage to get into the “why” so much. That’s where qualitative methods come into play in the social sciences.

One form of qualitative research is where you sit down with someone and then go into the depth of their reasoning and why it is that they hold these attitudes. I do not do this kind of research myself, but I do have colleagues and read from others who do.

You usually get a series of factors that individuals themselves identify. So, they will often identify these attitudes, such as being against abortion, being against assisted dying, and so forth as part of their core, fundamental belief of what they think is right, their value of life.

They define life as beginning at conception and that should go until the end of your days without you intervening, or a doctor intervening, in that process.

Some will link that to their beliefs in the transcendent. “God created this, and so it should be this way.” Others will not necessarily be able to think it through that well. Maybe, they haven’t thought about it as much and so will answer, “Well, because that is how it has always been”, or “That is what I believe.”

These are some of the reasons individuals identify themselves. Those are interesting. They are important. However, what I am interested in, especially as a quantitative sociologist who can look at people’s answers to different questions, is to see if there are links between their answers without them actually knowing about it.

Individuals might not associate their high levels of religiosity with their anti-abortion attitudes. But I can see that when I look at association patterns with statistical data. So, I can see that, “Hey, even though you’re giving different reasons for this, and those might still be valid and interesting, I can also see this other link that you tended to go to church a lot as a kid.”

And it is within many religious groups where they tend to teach these sorts of attitudes. So, yes, there are a variety of reasons. And yes, I am especially interested in the reasons we cannot see as much and what impact they then have on social interaction with others.

Jacobsen: Now, given the specialization in the sociology of religion, do any personality or individual differences of psychology with regards to personality play into any of the research for you? This is a quick primer question, yes or no.

LaFlamme: Yes.

Jacobsen: In other words, the big five and intelligence. Do these factor into it?

LaFlamme: The psychology of religion approach is more to look at these personal characteristics. Personality traits, to see how they link with religion. I am not big on that. I am not a huge fan of psychology in general to be honest.

Although there are some interesting findings, I do not want to put them down. However, as a sociologist, I am much more interested in the impact of what’s around you in terms of the social reality and environment around you. And how that has an influence on who you are and what you do; on your personality and your attitudes and social behaviour.

I do not know the literature so much specifically on the links between the big five personality types and religion, although I do know there is literature out there on it for anyone who’s interested.

I am a little bit more familiar with the psychology literature on the links between higher levels of intelligence and non-religion. I have seen some of it and have had some discussions with colleagues on it. I hear a lot about it from the New Atheist side of things. However, I’ll use it as an example to show you its differences from the sociological approach.

The first question that comes to mind when I hear about these findings is: what are you considering as intelligent? How do you define intelligence? How are you measuring it? Because some intelligence tests are more American or Western centric. They measure some interesting things about you, but especially measure how hooked into that culture you are.

Or are you talking about someone like me who is a university professor, considered more intelligent than someone who is not, even though my knowledge is specialized to a very specific subdiscipline and series of topics?

I do not like that. In the sense that I have trained, yes, I can think at a university level. I do science. But, I am hopeless when it comes to fixing something around the house. Whereas someone, some of my friends for example, who did not go to university are nevertheless manual “thinkers” and very smart about how things practically work. The manual side of things. What do you mean when you talk about intelligence? It puts the correlation between intelligence level and non-religion into perspective a bit.

Another example related to this: universities in Canada are quite secular on average. We do have some Christian universities, but for the most part, when you go to university, you usually do not talk about or even practice your religion so much. Even if you have a religion, university does not usually reinforce religion in any way. Some religious individuals even get told off or shunned by a lot of their peers.

I saw this a lot when I was in Oxford. One of my American friends was open about the fact that he believed in God. When he stated this, there would often be, like, 20 people who would exclaim “What do you mean?!” They’d try to debate him and convert him to atheism, which I thought was a bit drastic. But intelligence is often thought of in our society as linked to higher education, as coming from university training. And universities also happen to be more secular social environments on average. So what is really at play? Intelligence, or the characteristics of the social environment? It’s often hard to distinguish the two with survey or experimental data.

You find more non-religious people in universities in Canada. However, if you go and look at examples of Christian universities, in Canada and the US, you also find intelligent people who are religious as well.

I am not saying psychologists are wrong. I just don’t use their approach. I do not look at the personality traits of the individual, but I am especially interested in everything else that constructs that around them. Other people, interactions with other people. Interactions with social institutions and society. So, that is what I focus on.

Jacobsen: When it comes to religion and politics, you noted the top sociocultural predictive variables, in terms of what they will be. What are the two most predictive variables, or factors, that the whole field widely accepts as nonnegotiable. The data is so good.

Where the two variables predict if someone will be non-religious or religious?

LaFlamme: Great question, I’ve got an answer for you. I’ll provide a little bit of context first though. This is something that is taken for granted in social sciences, but I want to make sure we are on the same page.

So, when we work with human behaviour, we are talking in terms of probabilities, not determinism. What’s amazing about humans, is that they have free will. You’ll find patterns, but any individual can deviate from those, an exception to the rule. Once they are aware of those patterns, they can also adjust their behavior accordingly.

For me, that’s what‘s fascinating about studying humans and social behaviour; what you don’t get when studying atoms or things, what you don’t get so much of in the natural sciences.

That was the context. Now for my actual answers. First, if you are a man, you are much more likely to be non-religious in Canada and in most Western nations. Second, if you are younger, you are much more likely to be non-religious in Canada and in most Western nations.

There is a strong generational effect. That one you probably saw coming. That thing from earlier on about, we are in a context where religious socialization does not happen for a lot of people nowadays.

There is a weaker presence of religion in the social environment and that is having an impact on people of all ages. However, it is especially influential for people who are born and raised in this more recent context.

So, us Millennials versus say my grandparents or my great-grandparents. That is probably one of the strongest effects on non-religion in Canada.

You also see a gender effect across pretty much all Western nations regarding non-religion. That is one we are currently having more trouble explaining. Again, there are lots of women, I am an example, who are nonbelievers. However, on average, proportionally, there are a lot more men who are nonbelievers.

Men seem to like the label of atheist more as well. They will use it to describe themselves more often, compared with female nonbelievers. A lot of women may not believe in God, but they won’t call themselves atheists. They might call themselves nonbelievers like I do, or use some other term, or just answer “meh.” [laugh]

I rarely call myself an atheist; occasionally when I’m trying to make a point to an Evangelical colleague or something, but it’s pretty rare. Whereas not all men, but a lot of men, who are nonbelievers will adopt that atheist label more often on average.

And in general men tend to be less involved in organized religion than women. You see that especially in contexts where religion is not as socially acceptable or celebrated as it used to be. Back in the day when it was prestigious to be in church and to be involved in a church, men tended to do it more, you didn’t see the gender effect so much.

However, in a context where we’re indifferent, or its less prestigious to be involved with a religious group, men tend to fall away quicker than women. The explanations for that are still being developed or trying to be figured out.

Again, I am not a fan of innate biological explanations. I do not think it is because women have this somehow biological difference that makes them more prone to religion. I think that is crap. However, I do think it is something about the way they are raised, or the roles expected of them that make them see religious involvement as more worthwhile and worth keeping a hold of, possibly creating stronger links to their family heritage for example.

The fact that women are still expected to be more involved in child rearing in North America and other Western societies may have something to do with it: is it something about what and how they want to pass something on to their children?

Do they see the network, the community, the ties in the congregation as something worthwhile, more than men do? Women tend to be more willing to invest more in these types of relationships. Researchers are in the process now of trying to figure it out.

Any good-quality survey data you take, if you ask a thousand people how religious they are for example, you’ll always find that gender effect. In Canada, in the USA, in most European nations, and so that is an interesting one. That is an effect not everyone on the ground is aware of.

You probably might have noticed it though. Probably at a lot of your gatherings and activities with atheist groups and organizations, there might often be proportionally more men than women.

Jacobsen: I talked to some of the people that are in the leadership. They’ve noted there are more men than women.

LaFlamme: Yes, there is this anecdotal evidence, and then when you look at it systematically, with the systematic collection of good-quality data as we are meant to do in science, you also see it.

Whether or not that is going to last, as we move away from organized religion more and more, we’ll see. Again, religion is not going to disappear altogether, but you do have a large group of people who are less religious now than was once the case. If that group continues to be composed of disproportionately more men than women, we’ll have to see.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Wilkins-LaFlamme.

LaFlamme: Cool! Well, thanks, Scott. We are always happy as academics to talk to you, because yay(!), someone’s interested in what we are doing!

Jacobsen: [Laughing] That is funny.


For more information, please see below:

Peer-reviewed journal articles

Thiessen, Joel and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme. 2017. “Becoming a Religious None: Irreligious Socialization and Disaffiliation.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 56(1): 64-82.

Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2017. “Religious-Secular Polarization Compared: The Cases of Quebec and British Columbia.” In a special issue of Studies in Religion, co-edited with Micheline Milot, 48(2): 166-185.

Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2016. “Secularization and the Wider Gap in Values and Personal Religiosity between the Religious and Non-Religious.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 55(4): 717-736.

Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2016. “The Remaining Core: A Fresh Look at Religiosity Trends in Great Britain.” British Journal of Sociology 67(4): 632-654.

Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2016. “The Changing Religious Cleavage in Canadians’ Voting Behaviour.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 49(3): 499-518.

Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2016. “Protestant and Catholic Distinctions in Secularization.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 31(2): 165-180.

Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2015. “How Unreligious are the Religious ‘Nones’? Religious Dynamics of the Unaffiliated in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Sociology 40(4): 477-500.

Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2014.Towards Religious Polarization? Time Effects on Religious Commitment in US, UK and Canadian Regions.” Sociology of Religion 75(2): 284-308.

Other articles and blogs

2017. “The Religious Nones of North America and the Beginnings of a Book Project.” Peer-reviewed blog post for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network’s Blog. July 2017.

2017. “The Canadian Religious Landscape.” Peer-reviewed blog post for EUREL – Sociological and Legal Data on Religions in Europe and Beyond. June 2017.

2017. “The Religious Nones in Canada.” Podcast for the New Leaf Network:

2016. “The New Religious Context: A Greater Divide between the Religious and Non-Religious in Attitudes Towards Public Religion.” Post for the LSE Religion and the Public Sphere Blog.

December 2016.

2016. “The Remaining Core: A Fresh Look at Religiosity Trends in Great Britain.” Post for the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog. November 2016.

2016. “The Religious Nones of British Columbia.” Authored article for the 2016-2017 CSRS newsletter. September 2016.

2014. “Religious ‘Nones’ generally have more Liberal Family Values in Areas of Greater Disaffiliation.” Peer-reviewed blog post for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network’s Blog. November 2014.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

Category: People Tags:

About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.