WOOSTER, Ohio – An original piece of scholarship, initially created to fulfill Independent Study, by senior Emma Folkenroth of The College of Wooster earned the “Best Undergraduate Paper” prize at the Midwest Region of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual conference, held earlier this month in Muncie, Ind.
Folkenroth’s winning submission was a six-page paper, “E Unibus Pluram: Investigating the Differences in Political Participation Among the Religiously Unaffiliated in the U.S.,” the same title as her I.S. She took a deep look at the fastest growing religious demographic in this country – the nonreligious – exploring what defines this group and what motivates their behavior when it comes to political participation, satisfying requirements for both her religious studies and political science majors.
“In order to study religion, scholars must first define religion. The question of what is religious becomes even more complicated when thinking about what, and who, is nonreligious. For instance, do nonreligious individuals still have religious beliefs? I argue in my paper that they do have beliefs and that these beliefs function as religious,” explained Folkenroth, who grew up in New Springfield, Ohio.
Folkenroth’s research revealed that the nonreligious now account for approximately 20 percent of the population, but she noted “there’s very little scholarship on their behaviors” and “they tend to be used as a reference category.” With that in mind, she “wanted to do something that treated them as their own” and formed her primary argument “that there’s internal variation amongst them, therefore they should no longer be treated as a singular group.”
Folkenroth designed a survey to measure religious nones’ belief in personal responsibility towards the betterment of the world, labeling it a “Greater Good” score (GGS). Collecting nearly 700 responses, she quantitatively confirmed that there is variance in the respondents’ beliefs and in their political participation.
“The GGS predicted a higher likelihood for the non-religious to participate in non-electoral forms of political participation, such as volunteering for a campaign, contacting for an official, going to a protest, or showing support for a candidate, but suggests a negative relationship, approaching significance when predicting electoral political participation, such as being registered to vote, voting in the 2016 election or 2018 mid-terms. That was a really interesting finding and certainly needs further exploration” she said.
Folkenroth plans to go on to graduate school and pursue a master’s degree in religious studies with a career goal of becoming a professor.
The Midwest AAR encompasses Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and most of Missouri, and just to have an undergraduate paper presented is a significant accomplishment, according to Mark Graham, professor of religious studies at Wooster and an I.S. advisor to Folkenroth.
“Because there is little space for undergraduate papers at the Midwest AAR, and because the basic exception is that such papers pretty much meet the standards of all the other papers, it is a competitive process just to get one’s paper accepted for presentation at all,” stated Graham. “Then to be recognized as the outstanding undergraduate paper, as Emma has done, is to have it recognized not only among its undergraduate peers, but as an example of scholarly writing that is deserving of attention at a conference that is mostly occupied by professional scholars.”
Graham also noted that Folkenroth is the first to earn this special recognition since he’s been part of Wooster’s religious studies department (2002), and fellow senior Gabrielle Girard was accepted for a presentation at another of this year’s AAR regional conferences (the Mid-Atlantic).