Religion and the Threat Effect

Let's say you're a progressive who isn't religious, and you aren't afraid to say so. You've long since cast off the beliefs your parents held, and you never find yourself in a house of worship unless someone you care about is getting married or getting buried. You move to a new town and find that, as in many places, most of your neighbors are churchgoing folk. When one of these neighbors asks you what church you and your family belong to, you say without hesitation, "We don't belong to a church – we're not believers."

Before you know it, everyone on the block has heard about you and your brood of apostates. Just what effect are you and your family going to have on your neighbors? A new awakening, in which passionate but respectful discussion leads everyone to examine their own beliefs and find new shades of grey they didn't think about before? When election day rolls around, will your neighbors give more consideration to those Democrats you keep talking about?

Maybe not. In an article published last year in the Journal of Politics entitled "Religious 'Threat' In Presidential Elections" (you can read a version here), political scientist David Campbell of Notre Dame describes how evangelical voters are affected by the demographic makeup of their environment -- but not in the way you might think. Building on the "racial threat" hypothesis -- which states that as the number of African-Americans in a community increases, the more likely white voters are to support conservative candidates and oppose policies that benefit African-Americans -- Campbell set out to see whether he could identify a similar effect among evangelical voters. It turns out that, even when you control for factors like party identification, the more secular people there were within a county, the more likely that people from evangelical denominations living there would vote Republican.

In other words, the more that evangelicals saw non-religious people around them, the greater the likelihood they'd walk a straight line from the church door to the voting booth and pull the GOP lever.

The reasons why aren't too tough to discern. The encroachment of secularism seems to push at least some evangelicals to identify more closely with their own religious tribe, and to vote accordingly. One secular person in your town is a lone lost soul; ten are a threat to your way of life. The closer the Other comes and the stronger it seems, the more intensely one's identity becomes defined by a group. And it's no coincidence that the party to which evangelicals run is positively consumed with stirring up fear of the Other, whether it happens to be blacks, gays, or immigrants in a given election. Campbell quotes Christian Smith, author of the 1998 book American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving:

American evangelicalism, we contend, is strong not because it is shielded against, but because it is -- or at least perceives itself to be -- embattled with forces that seem to oppose or threaten it. Indeed, evangelicalism, we suggest, thrives on distinction, engagement, tension, conflict, and threat. Without these, evangelicalism would lose its identity and purpose and grow languid and aimless." [emphasis in original]

The idea of religious conservatives as a surrounded minority, bravely holding the battlements of morality against an onrushing tide of cultural barbarism, is more than a convenient message that conservative pastors offer to their flocks. It is a key part of how the group defines its identity. And, critically, telling people they're under assault not only serves to keep them within the tribal borders -- it lends the entire enterprise an emotionally satisfying, even epic feel. You're not just a plumber or an insurance adjuster or a bond trader; by the very fact of believing what you do, you become a heroic warrior fighting a grand struggle against the enemies of all that is right and good.

Which brings us back to that family of non-believers. Campbell's research didn't find a similar effect on secular people -- their votes didn't vary by how many religious people they found themselves in the midst of. But his data came from the 1996 and 2000 elections, and we currently seem to be witnessing a new day for the non-religious.

The recent publication of books attacking religion by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens has been greeted with one question again and again: Why are these guys so mad? "Angry Atheists Are Hot Authors," read an Associated Press headline last month. "Atheists With Attitude: Why do they hate Him?" asked The New Yorker. At least some non-believers are no longer content to shake their heads at those heading off to the pews, but are undertaking an unrestrained assault on religious beliefs and religious believers.

This new attitude comes, not surprisingly, at a time when secular people are growing in number. In 1984, 7.3 percent of respondents answered "none" when the General Social Survey asked what their religious preference was. Twenty years later, nearly twice as many, 14.3 percent, gave the same answer. Of course, the number of non-religious people will varies depending on how you ask the question. (For instance, the National Election Studies asks respondents whether religion plays an important part of their lives; in 2004, 23 percent said no.) But however you define them, no one doubts that their numbers are increasing.

So the question now is whether non-believers will, in large numbers, begin to define themselves as a tribe of their own. In order to do so, they'll have to feel at least some measure of antagonism toward those on the outside. That's what makes a tribe a tribe, after all. (What would Red Sox fandom be without the Yankees, or punk rock without the conformist corporate tools?) But one key question for secular people is who, exactly, the Other is. Is it anyone who is religious? Those who want to convert you to their beliefs? Those who want their beliefs to be enshrined in government policy?

Whatever the answer is, the possibility does seem real for secularism to achieve a new awakening of its own as a political and social movement. Non-believers can now claim their first publicly open member of Congress (Pete Stark of California), and they even have their own lobbying group (a modest enterprise, admittedly). Greater visibility makes it easier for the tribe to reproduce itself: The more we wear our tribal identity on our sleeves, the easier our fellow members are to spot, and the more likely we are to define membership as one of our primary criteria in mate selection and thus pass on our identity to others. And, indeed, there are multiple atheist dating services on the web.

Of course, the more non-believers publicly identify as a coherent group with a political agenda, the more threatening they will become to the highly religious, pushing those true believers to cling more tightly together in the political realm in response. That response will no doubt include lots of antagonism toward the rising secularist menace.

Such a cycle of hostility isn't necessarily inevitable. After all, non-believers tend to view their own thoughts about religion as being the inevitable result of the application of reason, not as an identity passed on by their parents or forced on them by some insular community; so they may be uncomfortable thinking of themselves as a tribe. But that doesn't mean they won't vote that way.

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