"We Pretend We Are Christians"

The Freakonomics e-mail inbox constantly produces interesting material. Like this one, from a reader we’ll call G.D.:

I loved your books! I have found my thoughts drifting to some of the subjects over the past few days, especially altruism and apathy. I was curious if any of the experiments took into account the subjects’ religious beliefs. I don’t know how one would logistically test that but it would be interesting to see how those claiming to follow a religious doctrine teaching altruism would do in the tests.

This thought led to another about myself. How would I do in the tests? We are agnostics living deep in the heart of Texas and our family fakes Christianity for social reasons. It’s not so much for the sake of my husband or myself but for our young children. We found by experience that if we were truthful about not being regular church attenders, the play dates suddenly ended. Thus started the faking of the religious funk.

It seemed silly but it’s all very serious business down here. We don’t go to church or teach or children one belief is “right” over another. We expose them to every kind of belief and trust that they will one day settle in to their very own spirituality. However, for the sake of friends and neighbors, we pretend we are Christians. We try not to lie but rather not to disclose unnecessary information. As the children are getting older, this isn’t so easy for them and an outing is probably eminent.

We are not the only ones. We have found a few other fakers out there. I would love it if you ever explored this subject in a future book. I should mention that the friend who recommended Freakonomics to me is the head of the bible study at her church. Interesting.

I am interested in hearing similar stories from readers. I would not be surprised if political ideology is another vibe that gets faked once in a while.

Also, while the altruism experiments we wrote about in SuperFreakonomics did not factor in the subjects’ religion, we did include a somewhat related endnote:

Along these same lines, consider another clever field experiment, this one conducted in thirty Dutch churches by a young economist named Adriaan R. Soetevent. In these churches, the collection was taken up in a closed bag that was passed along from person to person, row to row. Soetevent got the churches to let him switch things up, randomly substituting an open collection basket for the closed bags over a period of several months. He wanted to know if the added scrutiny changed the donation patterns. (An open basket lets you see how much money has already been collected as well as how much your neighbor puts in.) Indeed it did: with open baskets, the churchgoers gave more money, including fewer small-denomination coins, than with closed bags – although, interestingly, the effect petered out once the open baskets had been around for a while. See Soetevent, “Anonymity in Giving in a Natural Context – a Field Experiment in 30 Churches,” Journal of Public Economics 89 (2005).


novemberrose

I've faked it. It's better than listening to the lectures or being discriminated against by a religous boss.

Dave

I appreciated this article. I am an agnostic as well. But, I do a lot of community work. I've been a board member and volunteer for a local domestic violence shelter for 18 years, I've volunteered for the United Way for 7 years and other community efforts. Some years ago I worked with a person who was fully engaged in his religion (he is a mormon). He was telling me he was impressed and appreciated the efforts I made in the community. One day over lunch he asked about my motivation for doing this work and what religion led me to this life of service. I told him that I was not religious and was agnostic. I did this work because I was raised to give back, treat others well, and to do the right thing. He was quite shocked. He simply could not comprehend that I did it out of the goodness of my heart and not for religious salvation or guilt or teachings. He believed volunteerism only came from religious teaching. I found it pretty amusing and was glad I could open his world a little for him.

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VJ

I would also venture to guess that across gender lines, women fake it more than men.

Pete

My wife and I skew conservative politically, but live in a neighborhood (and have a social circle) that is more liberal. We are definitely guilty of non-disclosure - we're never openly lie and say we're liberal, but we've certainly avoided speaking up just to avoid having to debate our views.

flaming liberal

I'm a moderate who faked a Republican political ideology throughout my undergraduate academic career in order to annoy the hardcore liberals in all my Poli Sci classes.

D

It's definitely not tolerable to have conservative or libertarian beliefs where I work and live. You either fake it or shut up. They'd otherwise be looking for your horns. College was the same way for me in 80% of the classes.

Audrey

OT but still about faking: I faked liking kids when I was younger. Before my mid-twenties, I really did not enjoy being around children. I quickly found out that society frowns upon women that are annoyed by kids in general. Mothers took personal offense if I didn't interact and get all cutesy with her kids. So I kept my feelings to myself so I didn't have to listen to the surprise and inevitable "every woman has a motherly instinct" lecture.

I now have a 4 year old boy and I think he's awesome. I still don't care for unruly or disrespectful kids. More importantly, I do not put any pressure on my friends to play with my kid and I certainly don't get offended if they don't show interest in everything he does. I also don't try to persuade people who don't want kids that they'll eventually change their minds, which is another lecture I heard often.

Annie

I am so tired of the anti-Christian bigotry in the mainstream media, especially the liberal media like the NYT.

How do I know it's bigotry? Because I know for a fact that the NYT would NEVER do a story entitled "We Pretend We Are Jews/Muslims/InsertAnotherReligionHere".

btw, I faked reading "Freakanomics" for a polsci class one year. Passed with flying colours.

Tom

Research by Jonathan Haidt indicates that political "choice" may actually be a hard-wired morality choice. Liberals value justice and caring, while conservatives place greater value on respect for authority and purity, for instance. No wonder we fake being open to other people's views. Arguing won't change anyone. It just makes us all feel bad.

davidc

In Ireland the majority of schools are owned and run by religious orders. These orders can give preferential entrance order to practising Catholics. It is very common to hear people who maintain a religious facade to allow their children go to school, or at least to a half way local school.

I believe similar things happen in Britain but there it is more a question of getting into a good school rather than any local one.

Matt H.

Must be something about Texas. The faking is especially prominent in the dating scene here. A girl I know started going to church to meet guys, and I asked her how it went. She said, "They were all there for the wrong reason, too."

ALPepp

I completely understand where G.D. is coming from. I too am deep in the heart of Texas, where the mere mention of atheism causes folks to break out in hives. Evangelical Christianity is pervasive in every aspect of life here, including the workplace. Where else would you get a talk about finding the Lord Jesus Christ in an employee review? (I'm not kidding, I was told this right before I was asked to resign) Political affiliation is also a big point of contention. The scenes from Fox News - yea, those people are real and being surrounded by them and knowing that they are packing heat is frightening. The same boss that told me I need to find Jesus also openly supported the McCain campaign, proudly boasted in an employee meeting that he did not vote for Obama and that Obama is going to ruin the small business, and told me to turn off the Presidential inauguration because it wasn't really a significant piece of history. I've really had it with being quiet about my "evil godless liberal ways" and the cost of that here in Texas is your livelihood. If you work for a private company, you run the risk of ostracizing yourself from your coworkers and making yourself a target to your employer.

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biblebelt

As a fellow southerner (originally from Alabama), I know several stories similar to G.D.'s. I sympathize with G.D. as I too have had the same experience. I grew up in a very religiously/politically conservative home where church attendance and adherence to religious practices were expected. I did not realize how narrow my own views were until I made it to college, traveled abroad, and found a partner in life who has helped open my eyes to new views. I now look back and laugh at the reasons I voted for Bush II in 2004 (I just didn't know any better at the time). Now, we live in a much more progressive part of the US and enjoy being surrounded by a citizenry that generally either does not discuss the topic or is more likely to share our views.

G.D.'s problem is one that is common to the South.

Freakonomics should reach out to some of its southern colleagues to study this a bit further. I believe they would be surprised to see the number of people who fit the bill of being atheist/agnostic, but have to suck it up and live a lie in order to maintain peace in the neighborhood.

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JLG

If you don't "...teach [your] children one belief is 'right' over another," how far does that go? Is stealing OK? Lying, cheating, murdering? How about just not being altruistic? If your kids decide that some of those things are "right" for them, will you teach them otherwise? Relativism doesn't work, folks. You're setting your kids up for disaster, and robbing them of years of their lives that could be spent getting to know the God of the universe and understanding His love and power.

Fu

I would venture to say that most Americans live a significant portion of their life pretending to be religious. The times they aren't pretending are usually because they are primed to switch on a religious reaction in a certain situation. Usually the priming effect is based on societal pressure or taught in a way that fosters guilt. Most likely, special interests with an agenda have a hand in priming the population.

Situations where people cite Christian ideals in grand debates like abortion and choose to ignore the very same teachings of Jesus when talking about helping the poor and excising greed certainly beg the question.

Special interests have primed us to think in a certain framework defined by them, making religious fakers out of us all.

Em

Great question, observation. I can imagine it being difficult living deep in the heart of Texas and not being particularly religious. I don't have that problem living in NY. I practice Nicheren Buddhism, but detest any religious fanatic of any faith. My friends range the gamut of religious believers to non-belivers and those who claim to be just 'spiritual.'

In saying that, I don't think economics would have any correlation to religion, unless you bring up tithing, in which, I do believe. But, I would think finances have no link to one's faith, I may be wrong, but I don't see any connection.

Now, I do believe political 'fakery' takes place in certain parts of the country. With crazies on the right (especially), as well as the left, if one's on one coast or the other or in the Midwest, one can be isolated due to political leanings. Again, in NY, although heavily Democratic, we'll still be able to tolerate a Republican in our rank.

I've always thought this country should have more than two polical parties, but, I don't know how well the seemingly crazy, xenophobic Tea Partiers would fit into the NY landscape. While they do bring up some valid points, their too 'out there' to be considered a threat. I think all they will end up doing is destroying the Republican party with their demands of political players moving farther to the right.

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dham

We all fake things to 'get by' each day. I fake interest in my work. I sometimes fake sexual interest in my wife. And, yes, I have to fake being a Christian (I'm atheist) to get by at work and community. It's a pitiful shame but it's just a fact of life if you want to get by in this narrow-minded conservative society.

Adam

I had to fake it for 12 years of private Catholic school. We had mass every week at school and my parents made me go every Sunday. At mass, I had to go get communion, even though I didn't believe the bread was actually God. In Catholicism, receiving communion without believing it is God is very seriously frowned upon, but no one knew I didn't believe and going up and eating bread at every mass was easier than the torment that would await me had I chosen to stay seated during the ceremony. One time a girl in my class didn't want to go because she wasn't sure she believed and wanted to be safe and not make God angry. She was ridiculed for 2 years for it (devil worshiper, witch, etc.) and had to switch schools. I kept my mouth shut and head down until I moved away for college.

erik

I'm currently a closet atheist. I think some who claim agnosticism do so because it is subject to less opprobrium.

Brian

I fake being a Christian to myself. I hope that if I keep attending church I'll regain the strength of faith I had in high school and college.