Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture
Christopher Hitchens Peter
Eileen Barker David A. Hollinger
A New Academic Enterprise
Barry A. Kosmin and
1990 and 2001, the number of adults in the United States who did not
identify themselves as having a religion more than doubled, growing from 14
million to 29 million, or 14 percent of the U.S. population. A greater
number, 16 percent, said they had a “secular” rather than a “religious”
outlook. The growth of the non-religious component of American society was
most pronounced among young adults.
This remarkable trend comes at a
time when religion is rightly seen as an increasingly powerful force in
American public life. Although some adults who identify with a religious
tradition or group are “secular” in outlook while some without a religion
are “religious” in outlook, the basic picture is of a society increasingly
polarized between religion and secularism.
The U.S. adult population
increased by 18 percent from 175 million in 1990 to almost 208 million in
2001, but the number of adults who identified with no religion more than
doubled during this period. As the pie chart on page 3 shows, the No
Religion group’s share of the overall population growth of 33 million adults
from 1990 to 2001 was 46 percent.
If America has long been notable
for its religiosity, neither is secularism any-thing new under the American
On the obverse of the Great Seal
of the United States in 1782, and alongside “In God We Trust” on the back of
today’s one-dollar bill, the national motto proclaims that this country is a
“novus ordo seclorum”—a new order of the ages, but perhaps more accurately,
a new secular order. A creature of the Enlightenment, the United States was
the first country to explicitly reject religious tests for public office,
and to formally abjure the establishment of religion. Secularism is its
But while America is not short
of academic centers dedicated to examining the role of religion, what has
been missing is a venture focused on the other side. The establishment of
the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at
Trinity College is such a venture.
The ISSSC was inspired by the
data cited above, which were the most notable findings of our 2001 American
Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). This national telephone survey of
over 50,000 respondents was the successor to an even larger survey, the 1990
National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI). Together, ARIS and NSRI
have provided us with a unique and invaluable source of information on the
changing face of American religion—and irreligion.
The ISSSC is dedicated to
exploring what it means to be secular in America today, but not only to
that. For besides indicating how some people look at the world, the term
“secular” also refers to certain ground rules for the ordering of society as
well as for the investigation of nature and the ordering of knowledge. The
history of secular ideas no less than the scrutiny of contemporary secular
viewpoints and behavior is our concern.
The essays in the following
pages are taken from remarks made at the
inauguration of the Institute in November of 2005. Provided by six leading
academics and public intellectuals, they give some idea of the range of
our interests and the heat that these interests tend to generate these days.
In the coming years, the ISSSC will hope to generate more light than heat,
operating along three broad fronts.
First, we will conduct and
support academic research on issues related to secularism. This will include
monitoring public opinion and social attitudes as well as producing and
archiving social statistics on secular populations in the United States and
abroad. An annual academic conference will have as its object the creation
of an international community of scholars from different disciplines
dedicated to exploring this subject.
Second, we will develop higher
education curricula on secularism in society and culture. This will comprise
courses ranging from the roots of Enlightenment thought to the role of
secular ideas in the natural sciences to secularism as a political dimension
of the developing world.
Finally, the Institute will
sponsor public events designed to increase the understanding of secularism
in society today. These will include programs directed at journalists and
The ISSSC has been made possible
by the support of the Posen Foundation, which also underwrote the American
Religious Identification Survey. Based in Lucerne, Switzerland, the
Foundation is dedicated to promoting a deeper understanding of society and
culture through research, publishing, and curriculum development.
At Trinity College, the ISSSC
has joined with the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in
Public Life to constitute a new Program on Public Values. Drawing on the
resources and perspectives of the two institutions, the Program seeks to
explore how religious and secular values, in collaboration as well as in
competition, have shaped and continue to shape the human community.
A Special Supplement to Religion in
the News Winter 2006