"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).


Kim

I was raised Catholic Lite (barely practicing) and then joined my mother in pretty much disavowing the Church over reproductive issues (amongst other things). But as an adult, I've found it convenient to say that I'm Catholic when the subject comes up in work or some other situations where it's expedient to be relatively neutral.

I've also found that saying I'm Catholic pretty much shuts down anyone who is trying to convert me to whatever their personal belief system is. I don't know what it is about Catholics, but apparently a lot of zealots see them as pretty unwilling to change their beliefs. Saves me a lot of arguments when I'm not in the mood.

novemberrose

See? Lecture (#14) Not all of us need an invisble finger, wagging at us and threatening damnation. If you need to be threatened into being a moral person, that's your deal.

Rowen

Can I remind everyone that we're not talking about whether religious people (or non-religious people) are good or bad? We're talking about mis-representing your personal beliefs of other gains.

My question is how many people are willing to go beyond omission of beliefs (a common social strategy, whether religion, politics, or what-do-you-think-of-this-dress) to actively faking belief by attending church, etc.?

MsUtah

Living in Utah, religion drives me crazy. I am so sick of hearing about it. If you have beliefs, fine, but why can't anyone keep it to themselves? I guess it's really the proselytizing that bugs me.
I am an apathetic agnostic. Our motto: We don't know and we don't care.
http://www.uctaa.net/

Rob

My church supports direct debit. And does cool stuff with the money.

Robert

As an atheist, I find myself stammering when trying to comfort others through a health problem, family death, etc. I feel fake repeating the usual refrain, "I'll pray for you." Instead I usually try "I'll keep you in my thoughts" but having spent 10 years in the deep South, I feel that I am being judged for not invoking a higher power.

I have had similar experiences at work and with friends relating the influence of God in their lives. I just stay quiet. I don't want to anyone to feel as if I am attacking a pillar of their life by stating that I don't see any evidence for the spiritual or supernatural.

Kevin

JLG (post 14), do you really think most people need a religion to tell them that it is not ok to kill and steal? My parents never taught me to be religious, and I have never had a problem making that distinction. How would you know relativism doesn't work, clearly you weren't raised like that. It would be like me saying Buddhism doesn't work. I have no way of knowing one way or the other.

Steve

In small town North Texas, religion still permeates through the school systems. Prayers, church flyers, "church lady" groups, etc. You're either in or going straight to hell.

Spencer

My brother and I grew up without religion. My Lutheran parents did not want to indoctrinate us into any particular religion and wanted us to discover things for ourselves. There was rarely mention of god or anything and predictably my brother and I both ended up being atheists. I like to think I would have ended up one anyway but one never knows.

We were raised in Central PA which has a high degree of religiosity and is almost completely Christian. In early grades kids would ask us what religion I was. "What religion are you?" essentially meant "What type of Christian are you?" I would reply with shrugs and then say I was Christian, obviously I had little knowledge of the different sects of Christianity at the time having had little exposure to them. My brother was a bit quicker on his feet and would make it a joke and inform other children that we were Democrats. This was a heavily Republican area but it was still a whole lot better than admitting that you were essentially a godless heathen.

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levi

I live in a super liberal city, but am myself more on the conservative side, especially in economics. I have found myself "not disclosing unnecessary information" from time to time. :)

John

I work in student government in Canada. Because I don't think the purpose of our student union is to fix the whole goddamn world (fixing the university is a plenty tall enough task) I often avoid entering discussions of mainstream politics at work, even though I'm a raging pinko in real life. My willingness to criticize the shortcomings of our student advocacy organizations often gets me branded as an evil conservative. It seems like the inverse of what you're describing. Because I *don't* go out of my way to wear my beliefs on my sleeve, people assume the worst.

Dave

There is a valuable history lesson, here, I think: religious differences are still not tolerated in many places, although the degree of intolerance varies. America was founded on freedom of religion due to the intolerance towards beliefs separate from the Church of England and other state-endorsed religions. In turn, the exile offered to those of differing religious beliefs was far better than being burned at the stake. So, being socially shunned or avoided without detriment to livelihood seems like a step forward even though we know the path towards tolerance has many more steps in many places in the world.

I am confused how one commenter said this story was about bigotry. In my opinion, it seems like this is the reaction of G.D. of bigotry by their neighbors, not an indictment of Christianity. Anytime you are in the minority you have a series of decisions to make about how you will express yourself; they are concerned about intolerance by their neighbors for their different beliefs, and that concern has credence.

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MotherofGrace

I am a practitioner of African Traditional Religions, specifically Vodoun and Lucumi both of which get poor press in Texas. I've found myself "faking" it to avoid discussion with people, coworkers, students and most importantly to keep my job. While creed is part of my district's EEO policy religion is not so I'm not sure of being adequately protected if I were to come out of the "broom closet".

Brett

@ALPepp (#12)

I in no way condone the actions of the people you mention, but it would also be foolish to pretend that this sort of behavior is limited to the conservatives.

I'm a fairly conservative person living in the heart of New Jersey, it was rather intimidating when the '08 elections were going strong since any complaint (fair or otherwise) against Obama was not taken to kindly.

Extremists (temporary or long-term) on both sides are guilty of this type of discrimination.

Jonathan

I've definitely kept my more liberal views to myself when dealing with a conservative group of friends. It keeps from having the conversation railroaded into a discussion about politics, which can get tiring.

Aaron

According to Arthur Brooks, Syracuse economist and author of Who Really Cares, the single largest predictor of charitable behavior is religious activity, irrespective of religion. This is true even if you subtract giving to religious organizations.

While there are many non-religious people who behave charitably, like Dave who commented above, the reality is that religious activity does have a positive relationship with charity.

Zachary Moore

There's lots of social organizations in Texas especially for people like G.D.

In the Dallas/Fort Worth area, there's lots to choose from within the DFW Coalition of Reason:

http://www.dfwcor.org

I work closely with the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas:

http://fellowshipoffreethought.org

And there's lots of groups in just about every Texas city, if you look for them!

Yousef

So I was raised totally muslim, yet now probably count as an agnostic. Although truthfully I just don't think about religion at all. But being in the army for the last 6 years. I would lie lie lie about it to avoid all kinds of problems and lectures. These included, with held promotion, deferment of favors and awards even when documented, and a general feeling of being watched at all times.

I have in the past gone so far as to go to a church with a friend of mine, never having been to one I was curious. That was one of the most revealing experiences of my life. I have NEVER ever felt so uncomfortable with my surroundings in my entire life. I was treated to openly Racist remarks, bigotry, hatred and plotting against non church members in the work place.

Yet my muslim upringing, was so different. My sister and I were taught to appriciate the differences in people and how though they may not believe the same as us, that they are welcome additions to any groups and their insights are just as valuable.

30 years later, I wonder if my upringing by muslims would be the same?

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Kef

I'm atheist & liberal living in a rural, predominately conservative, christianity-heavy area, but have chosen not to fake it.

Yes, some playmates have stopped calling, but I find I don't mind so much.

Bill L.

Excellent article that raises a number of questions. For instance, how does the statistical distribution of religious/political/etc. views of a child differ from that of his or her parents, local community and a global average? what does that say about the ability of individuals to think for themselves vs. their desire to fit in?

Along the same lines, I wonder what would happen to the individual beliefs and the public expression of them if citizens of a small town with a very strong Catholic vibe were transplanted into communities where the prevailing belief system was agnostic. Would the outcome for these transplants be different if they were transplanted as a group or as individuals to different communities?