Ask Professor Burge 2 – Research Questions and Answers, and Themes

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Professor Ryan Burge‘s website states: “I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science as well as the Graduate Coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. I teach in a variety of areas, including American institutions, political behavior, and research methods. My research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior (especially in the American context). Previously, I have completed an appointment as a post doctoral research fellow at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois. While there I was an adviser on issues of survey methodology and polling, as well as providing data collection and analysis.

I have published over a dozen articles in a number of well regarded peer reviewed journals including Politics & Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Review of Religious Research, the Journal of Religious Leadership, RepresentationPolitics, Groups, and Identities, the Journal of Communication and Religion, the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture and the Social Science Computer Review. 

In addition, my research has been covered in a variety of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox, 538, BuzzFeed News, Al-Jazeera, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Daily Mail, Deseret News, World Magazine, Relevant, and C-SPAN. I am the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience.

Finally, I am a pastor in the American Baptist Church, having served my current church for over thirteen years.”

Here we talk about some of the research questions, the answers, and the themes following from them.

*Interview conducted on June 17, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We will focus on three things. The research question, the research question and some of the outcomes of it, and then some of the deeper meanings of some of those thematic elements of it. What were the main research questions asked in the set of research on the various religious and non-religious groups with an emphasis for the audience today on the Nones or the non-religious?

Professor Ryan Burge: Social science is just starting to tackle the idea that the Nones are not a monolithic bloc. We break them into 3 groups. There are different types of Nones. This is based on a survey question about present religion with 11 options: Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish, and the last 3 options are Atheist, Agnostic, and “Nothing in particular.” So, how you respond to the question puts you in the None group, if you say, “Atheist,” “Agnostic,” or “Nothing in particular,” then you’re in the None category. They’re in the None category. But when we look at the differences between “Atheist,” “Agnostic,” or “Nothing in particular,” we find those groups are dramatically different from political partisanship, views of abortion, political activity, a lot of those are different on those things. Yet, we see them as a bloc as N-O-N-E-S, but they have differences based on the identification within it.

Jacobsen: Some of these demographics will have political view fallout. In that, if someone takes a religious stance, it is seen as a moral stance. That will impact social issues, political issues, and human rights issues. What were some of the findings around those differences of social, political, and human rights opinions in this research between, for instance, the atheists, agnostics, and the nothing in particulars, and, as far as I could tell, with White Evangelicals and Mormons?

Burge: Yes, on almost every measure, if we look at a public opinion question White Evangelicals are the furthest right in the religious spectrum; atheists are the furthest left on the religious spectrum. If we say to White Evangelicals, “Racial problems in the U.S. are rare, isolated situations,” 38% say this is the case. 9.6% of atheists say this is the case. You see this breakdown often. White Evangelicals take the more conservative positions with abortion, marriage, racism, and the police. White Evangelicals are the most conservative and Republican groups. Atheists are the most liberal. Agnostics are one or two steps away from them. Nothing in particular fall in the middle of the spectrum on many of the issues. Atheists are liberal; White Evangelicals are conservative.

Jacobsen: Does this play into the political context of the United States now?

Burge: The Democratic Party has a big problem now. It is the party of everyone else. Republicans are the party of White Christians. While the Democratic Party is none of the above, you’ve got Black Protestants who are theologically conservative and politically liberal. Atheists are theologically liberal and politically liberal. The theological unions are just mashed together. It is easier to be a Republican today. You only have to hit “Christian, White.” If Democrat, you have to hit all these different things. A democrat has to appeal to a wider demographic; it is harder than simply appealing to White Evangelicals.

Jacobsen: For those who are in Canada, there is a large contingent who are fans of Margaret Atwood. The first president of Humanist Canada was Dr. Henry Morgentaler almost singlehandedly won the reproductive rights for women. This is a tradition here. Also, it is a subtle and highly intelligent author’s literary works with Margaret Atwood, who has been hugely impactful. How is a religion of the various views mentioned – White Evangelical and Mormons versus atheists and agnostics – on women’s bodily autonomy and abortion? This is a political issue. Fundamentally, it is a human right issue.

Burge: In the United States, we had this interesting thing happen. In the 1970s, abortion was something Republicans and Democrats agreed on it. Even religious groups agreed, for instance, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Evangelical organization in America today. They said, ‘We don’t love the ruling. But it is a decision a woman needs to make with her doctor.” It has been ‘weaponized’ or utilized as a wedge to push Evangelicals to the edge with the ‘powers that be.’ With abortion, we se an interesting thing. Religious people are less willing to extend abortion rights. But the share of Republicans who are in favour of abortion in the case of rape and incest is lower than it has ever been. It used to be 85%. It is still relatively high at roughly 70%. While at the same time, the Democratic Party driven by irreligious people without any religious affiliation have become more permissive of abortion in any circumstance, e.g., doesn’t have the money, doesn’t like the man, etc. We have seen them become more supportive of abortion across the board. It is important to understand this across political life in America. A lot of Evangelicals are pro-life. Very few Americans, only 1/3rd of Evangelicals in American want to make abortion completely illegal. So, the majority of White Evangelicals are okay with abortion in some circumstances. It is the loudest voices on abortion are the most extreme voices on abortion. Those ones opposed to abortion in any circumstance are the ones making the most noise. The reality: White Evangelicals are opposed to abortion. The caveat is they have a nuanced view, while being right of center. While your atheists and agnostics are in favour of abortion across the board, even for not having enough money or not wanting more kids, things like that.

Jacobsen: How does this 1/3rd compare to atheists, agnostics, and Black Protestants?

Burge: [Laughing] Super interesting, Black Protestants’ views on the Bible are almost the same as White Evangelicals. The Democratic Party is so interesting because it has to appeal to Black Protestants who are also opposed to same-sex marriage while appealing to atheists and agnostics who are in favour of same-sex marriage. It is hard to appeal to Black Protestants who are important in Democratic politics, while saying to atheists and agnostics, “We are the party for you.” Groups vote for the democrats because the Republicans are a worse option for them, whether Black Protestants, atheists, or agnostics. The Democratic Party doesn’t do this perfectly on every party, whether economics or social justice, because it becomes the party of default; they’re not Republicans. It makes it hard to run for president.

Jacobsen: What does this mean in terms of the deeper themes coming out of this research? What are we taking home if this was an academic presentation, as the message?

Burge: Speaking academically, we need to sit down and think carefully as to what it means to be an atheist and to be an agnostic. They are relatively small, about 6% of the population each. To take on the “atheist” label, it means to take on all the baggage. Americans have very negative views of atheists. In fact, there are on the most disliked groups in America today. Americans like Congress more than they like atheists.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Burge: To take on the label, it means that you’re willing to take on all the junk going on with the negative things. In America, I have not seen polls on this. My thinking would be agnostics are disliked, but not as disliked as atheists are, for instance. We need to think carefully about what makes people go all the way and say, “I am an atheist.” We know; they are a very special American. They are very educated, have high incomes, are very engaged politically, and are very liberal. I would say this is a potent cocktail if you’re a Democrat in America today running in an urban district with a lot of atheists. It becomes a voting bloc for you. You can rely on it. As they grow in size, and as the stigma goes away, as it is, it means those people will have an easier time getting elected saying that they are atheist and getting people to vote and campaign for them. It is not something that we have seen before in American politics. Not a single politician has ever run for Congress and won on the backs of atheists and agnostics. We will see this moving forward because they are more vocal, larger, more active. We will see candidates realize this is the way that they get there. It is big from an academic standpoint and a policy standpoint. We will see a shift in American politics with openly atheist candidates who will try to appeal to atheist voters. Something that we haven’t seen before.

Jacobsen: Sir, thank you for your time.

Burge: Absolutely.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

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Image Credit: Ryan Burge.

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