Sometimes, when it comes to understanding data, numbers aren’t sufficient, and even written descriptions fail to effectively communicate context. Sometimes, it takes a picture to show what data means.
I think that’s the case when it comes to the information gathered during a recent survey, entitled Political Polarization in the American Public, from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Much of the survey had to do with partisan distinctions between Democrats and Republicans, but one portion examined religious identity, and its impact on family relations.
The survey asked two interesting questions in this portion: 1) How people would feel if one of their family members married an atheist, and 2) How people would feel if one of their family members married a Born-Again Christian. Survey respondents were allowed to choose between three answers: Happy, Unhappy, or Doesn’t Matter/Don’t Know.
You could simply read the quantitative results – that 64 percent of Protestants responded that they would be unhappy if someone in their family married an atheist. However, putting that number in context shows the impact of that attitude.
A percentage, like 64 percent, is a rate of incidence, pegged to the number 100. So, instead of simply reading that 64 percent of Protestant Americans would be unhappy with an atheist marrying one of their family members, put yourself in the position of the atheist who is trying to marry into a Christian Protestant family. Imagine that it’s going to be a moderately large wedding, with 100 guests from each family.
The image below shows the attitude that an atheist is likely to encounter from the Protestant family that he or she is marrying into:
Imagine what it’s like to go through a wedding with in-laws like this. 64 percent of them are opposed to your marriage already, not because of anything concrete you’ve done, or the way that you treat the person you’re marrying, but simply because you don’t have a belief in any deities. Only 3 people from that family of one hundred would be on your side, happy that you’re getting married to their relative. Only a little bit more than a third of the people in that room would suspend judgment about you.
If you’re marrying into an evangelical Protestant family, the wedding is likely to be even more hostile. Here’s what the Pew survey showed about the reaction of self-identified evangelist Protestant Americans to the idea of an atheist marrying into their families:
The good news is that those same three people would be happy for you on your wedding day. However, 77 members of your mate’s family would be unhappy about you, just because you don’t believe in gods. Only 20 of that 100-member evangelical Christian family would suspend judgment about you. The room would be packed with hostility.
Of course, there’s more to Christianity than just Protestants. There are also the Catholics, whom Protestants went to war with so that they could become Protestants.
The attitude of American Catholics toward atheists who want to marry into their families is a bit different in tone from Protestant attitudes… but only a bit, as you can see in the picture below.
To start out with, if you’re an atheist there’s likely to be even a little bit less happiness in a Catholic family about your wedding than what you got from Protestant prospectives. Only 2 of your bride or groom’s 100 attending family members will be happy about your marriage. 55 will be feeling unhappy that your wedding is taking place. A few more members of the Catholic family will be willing to suspend judgment about you than was true of the Protestant family, but at 43, they’re still in the minority. So much for the idea that Christianity teaches its adherents to abstain from judging others – lest they be judged by their god.
What strikes me in looking at these pictures is that Christians seem to find it very difficult to be happy in the presence of someone who doesn’t agree with their religious beliefs. Could it be that Christians are just unhappy about people getting married, and a bad attitude about atheists isn’t specifically what’s driving these patterns? Could it be that Christians are generally an unhappy bunch of people?
The data from the Pew survey address these alternative explanations – and disprove them. As the image below shows, Christian Americans get very happy when they find out that a family member is marrying someone who shares their religious beliefs. It shows the survey results for how evangelical Protestant Americans say they would feel if they heard that a family member was going to marry a Born-Again Christian:
Have you ever seen a room with so many happy people in it? 77 out of 100 members of a typical American evangelical Christian family say they would be happy to hear that one among them is marrying a Born-Again Christian. This is the kind of greeting most people would expect to receive from their new in-laws. Sure, a few of them may be grumpy cranks, but most of them welcome you in with open arms.
The stark Christian dichotomy of overwhelming happiness about marriage to other Christians, and overwhelming rejection of marriage to non-religious people, explains a great deal about the social dynamics that keep people within Christianity. If you’re a Christian, and you mostly associate with other Christians, Christianity looks like a very happy and accepting religion. After all, the picture you see is like the one above, with lots of “green” people who give support to help other Christians find happiness.
What they don’t see, because they associate mostly with other Christians, is that the supportive, happy attitude of Christianity comes with big strings attached. If a Christian looks outside the group, suddenly the happy atmosphere turns very dark. Bringing home an atheist turns the Christian from happy green to judgmental red in a heartbeat.
Atheists are used to seeing this aspect of Christianity, because they’re on the outside of the happy club. Atheists encounter judgmental, unhappy, hostile attitudes from Christians so often that it’s difficult for them to understand why anyone would associate with such a group of nasty people. They don’t see the supportive internal community of Christianity, because they’re never let inside.
On the other hand, Christians have a difficult time accepting the reality of atheists’ experiences with cruel Christians. Christians rarely see that side of their religious community because they’re on the inside, mostly associating with other Christians. They see Christians being nice to other Christians, and assume that’s how their Christian friends treat everybody. So, when they hear atheists criticizing Christians for being judgmental, they assume that the complaining atheists are just angry cranks.
The thing is, atheists mostly aren’t angry cranks. I’m not just saying that based on my own experience. I’m referring to the results of the recent Pew survey.
One might speculate, given the results we’ve seen so far, that the Christian rejection of atheists who marry into their families is just a manifestation of a general phenomenon of people rejecting potential marriage partners from outside of their families’ cultural group. That’s not what the Pew research shows, though.
The survey brings us the following picture of the way a typical family of religiously-unaffiliated Americans react to the news of a family member marrying an atheist:
It’s important, in interpreting this information, to keep in mind that religiously-unaffiliated people aren’t necessarily atheists. There are atheists among their numbers, but most religiously-unaffiliated people do have a belief in some kind of god or gods. They simply aren’t members of any major religious group. For most religiously unaffiliated people, atheists are not people like themselves. So, having an atheist marry into a family of religiously unaffiliated people is usually an encounter for the family with something new and different.
That said, take a look at that room. Members of a typical religiously-unaffiliated family overwhelmingly (77) would reserve judgment about an atheist marrying into their family. 10 of them would happy, which is a much smaller number than what evangelicals give to Born-Again Christians marrying into their families, but larger than what Christian families typically give. The striking dynamic here is the simple lack of unhappiness about a prospective marriage with an atheist – just 13 members of that family of 100 would get their noses bent out of shape.
The tone of a wedding with this family wouldn’t have the intense Christian dichotomy of surging happiness or unhappiness. An atheist marrying into this family wouldn’t get the surge of support that evangelicals give to Born-Again Christians, but they also wouldn’t have to suffer the rejection that atheists typically deal with from Christian families. The reception of this family would be largely reserved, with a wait-and-see attitude. Could it be that religiously-unaffiliated Americans tend to judge people based on the experiences they actually have with those people, rather than just religious identity?
One might whether the lack of judgment by religiously-unaffiliated families is reserved only for other religious outsiders, such as atheists. Do religiously-unaffiliated families get unhappy when Christians join them through marriage? We can see from the results of the Pew survey that this mostly isn’t the case. The image below shows the reaction of a typical family of Religiously-unaffiliated Americans to news of a the marriage of a family member to a Born-Again Christian:
The reaction of religiously-unaffiliated families to Born-Again Christians seems to be about the same as their reaction to atheists. Though there are a few who react happily or unhappily to the news of a marriage to a Born-Again Christian, most simply don’t think that the religious identity of the new family member is what matters most. The myth of the War On Christianity by American non-Christians isn’t supported by these data.
One additional comparison within the Pew survey sheds some light into the likely source of Christians’ negative reactions to atheists: It has something to do with them going to church. 77 percent of survey respondents who reported attending a religious service at least once a week said they would be unhappy with an atheist marrying into their families. Among those who attend religious services more rarely, that unhappy reaction drops to just 35 percent.
Whether churches are the cause of this negative judgmental attitude among Christians, or it’s simply that negative judgmental Christians tend to like to go to church more, one thing is clear: Christian churches are not teaching their members to be accepting of other people. They’re merely teaching them to be accepting of other Christians.
Christian preachers talk a lot about “family values”, but these values of rejection aren’t what I want for my family. A positive alternative vision of family values comes from families of religiously-unaffiliated Americans, many of whom are used to being outsiders, and understand that marriage is supposed to be about letting outsiders come in.