Science on Religion

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Smaller religious group means stronger religious identity

Group of girlsGetting “lost in the crowd” can provide a great amount of protection. Rather than being exposed, one can hide behind numbers. However, as this crowd grows, any one person will be less likely to personally identify with that crowd. The same applies to religion. Research by psychologists William Hoverd (University of Ottawa), Quentin Atkinson, and Chris Sibley (both University of Auckland) suggests that members of religious groups that make up 1.5% or less of the population have strong religious identifications, while those of group that make up over 6% of the population have weak religious identifications.

Social psychologists have long known that, everything else being equal, group cohesion and strength of group identification decrease as the group gets larger – and increase as the group gets smaller. The researchers decided to test this finding with regards to religion in the country of New Zealand. They chose New Zealand because of its small size, its great religious diversity, and the ease of acquiring data about its population. As of 2009, less than half of the New Zealand population identifies with any form of Christianity, partly due to the increase of people who say they have no religion, and partly due to immigrants from Asia. As such, the researchers consider New Zealand a religiously diverse nation.

To test the correlations between group size and religious identity, the psychologists used data from the 2006 New Zealand census, the 2009 New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (which gathered a nationally representative sample), and data from the questionnaire given to New Zealand voters in 2009. They eliminated from the data Christians who gave no information regarding their denomination, because denominational information provided the key link between the latter two surveys and the census data.

More specifically, the participants answered questions such as, “Do you identify with a religion and/or spiritual group?”, and “How important is your religion to how you see yourself?” Respondents indicated how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like “Know that people in my life accept and value me,” “Know that people around me share my attitudes and beliefs,” and “Feel like an outsider.” Finally, postal addresses helped to determined the level of economic deprivation of each participant.

As expected, members of smaller religious groups (to be exact, groups that made up no more than 1.5% of New Zealand’s population) tended to have a strong psychological identification with their religion, whereas members of larger groups (groups that made up more than 6% of New Zealand’s population) tended to have below average personal identification with their religion. These results held even after accounting for the fact that women, the elderly, and the poor generally have stronger religious identities. Importantly, the decline of personal identification with one’s religion plateaued after the 6% mark. In other words, members of a group that make up 10% of the population had about the same strength of self-identification as those of members of a group that make up half of that.

The researchers suggest that one explanation for these results is that groups with a high level of self-identification tend to foster insular communities and so discourage new membership, and/or groups with low levels of self-identification have more inclusive communities and thus have more members. Insular groups demand high commitment, meaning that only the dedicated few will join, whereas open groups have minimal commitment requirements, leading to loose affiliations. Put in modern sociological terms, the insular group is a community of“assent” while the open group is a community of “descent.” That is, to join, one has actively to seek the insular group and so “assent” to it, but one can inherit a loose group identity from one’s parents.

If nothing else, this study brings to light the meaning of polls that include religious affiliation. If a population is, say, 90% Catholic, then is how Catholic is any one person? Is Catholicism (in this case) simply inherited by descent in Catholic-dominated countries? It may be that in the religious life, it’s not quantity but quality that matters.

For more, see “Group Size and the Trajectory of Religious Identification” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

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