Winter 2006, Vol. 8, No. 3

Symposium articles:

Barry Kosmin
Ariela Keysar:

A New Academic Enterprise

Susan Jacoby:
An American Tradition

Christopher Hitchens:
The View From the Beltway

Peter Steinfels:
Hard and Soft Secularism

Eileen Barker:
Mapping the Territory

David A. Hollinger:
An Alliance with Liberal Religion?

Michael Ruse:
Defusing the War Over Public Science


ISSSC website



Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture


Susan Jacoby    Christopher Hitchens    Peter Steinfels
Eileen Barker    David A. Hollinger
   Michael Ruse


A New Academic Enterprise
by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar

Between 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 sun.

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 birthright.

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 opinion leaders.

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


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