Religion forms a moral foundation for billions of people throughout the world.
In a 2019 survey, 44% of Americans – along with 45% of people across 34 nations – said that belief in God is necessary “to be moral and have good values.” So what happens to a person’s morality and values when they lose faith?
Religion influences morals and values through multiple pathways. It shapes the way people think about and respond to the world, fosters habits such as church attendance and prayer, and provides a web of social connections.
As researchers who study the psychology and sociology of religion, we expected that these psychological effects can linger even after observant people leave religion, a group we refer to as “religious dones.” So together with our co-authors Daryl R. Van Tongeren and C. Nathan DeWall, we sought to test this “religion residue effect” among Americans. Our research addressed the question: Do religious dones maintain some of the morals and values of religious Americans?
In other words, just because some people leave religion, does religion fully leave them?
Measuring the religious residue effect
Recent research demonstrates that religious dones around the world fall between the never religious and the currently religious in terms of thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Many maintain some of the attributes of religious people, such as volunteering and charitable giving, even after they leave regular faith practices behind. So in our first project, we examined the association between leaving religion and the five moral foundations commonly examined by psychologists: care/harm, fairness/cheating, ingroup loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and purity/degradation.
We found that religious respondents were the most likely to support each of the five moral foundations. These involve intuitive judgments focusing on feeling the pain of others, and tapping into virtues such as kindness and compassion. For instance, religious Americans are relatively likely to oppose acts they deem “disgusting,” which is a component of the purity/degradation scale. This aligns with previous research on religion and moral foundations.
Most importantly, and in line with the religion residue hypothesis, we have found what we call a “stairstep pattern” of beliefs. The consistently religious are more likely than the dones to endorse each moral foundation, and the religious dones are more likely to endorse them than the consistently nonreligious. The one exception was the moral foundation of fairness/cheating, which the dones and the consistently religious supported at similar rates.
Put another way, after leaving religion, religious dones maintain some emphasis on each of the five moral foundations, though less so than the consistently religious, which is why we refer to this as a stairstep pattern.
Our second project built on research showing that religion is inextricably linked with values, particularly Schwartz’s Circle of Values, the predominant model of universal values used by Western psychologists. Values are the core organizing principles in people’s lives, and religion is positively associated with the values of security, conformity, tradition and benevolence. These are “social focus values”: beliefs that address a generally understood need for coordinated social action.
For this project, we asked a single group of study participants the same questions as they grew older over a period of 10 to 11 years. The participants were adolescents in the first wave of the survey, and in their mid-to-late 20s in the final wave.
Our findings revealed another stairstep pattern: The consistently religious among these young adults were significantly more likely than religious dones to support the social focus values of security, conformity and tradition; and religious dones were significantly more likely to support them than the consistently nonreligious. While a similar pattern emerged with the benevolence value, the difference between the religious dones and the consistently nonreligious was not statistically significant.
Together, these projects show that the religion residue effect is real. The morals and values of religious dones are more similar to those of religious Americans than they are to the morals and values of other nonreligious Americans.
Our follow-up analyses add some nuance to that key finding. For instance, the enduring impact of religious observance on values appears to be strongest among former evangelical Protestants. Among dones who left mainline Protestantism, Catholicism and other religious traditions, the religion residue effect is smaller and less consistent.
Our research also suggests that the religious residue effect can decay. The more time that passes after people leave religion, the more their morals and values come to resemble those of people who have never been religious. This is an important finding, because a large and growing number of Americans are leaving organized religion, and there is still much to be learned about the psychological and social consequences of this decline in religion.
The growing numbers of nonreligious
As recently as 1990, only 7% of Americans reported having no religion. Thirty years later, in 2020, the percentage claiming to be nonreligious had quadrupled, with almost 3 in 10 Americans having no religion. There are now more nonreligious Americans than affiliates of any one single religious tradition, including the two largest: Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism.
This shift in religious practice may fundamentally change Americans’ perceptions of themselves, as well as their views of others. One thing that seems clear, though, is that those who leave religion are not the same as those who have never been religious. Given the rapid and continued growth in the number of nonreligious Americans, we expect that this distinction will become increasingly important to understanding the morals and values of the American people.