in Canada Secular?
Secularity in Great Britain
and Secular Attitudes in France
Secularism: The Case of Denmark
Secularism in India
The Secular Israeli Jewish Identity
Secularism in Iran: a Hidden Agenda?
in a Free Market of Religion
Keysar and Barry Kosmin
Social surveys have
demonstrated again and again that at the beginning of the 21st century the
component of the American population that is commonly termed secular is
growing in number and as a proportion of the nation. The largest nationally
representative survey, the 2001 American Religious
Identification Survey of more than 50,000 nationally representative adults,
reported that when asked “what is your religion, if any?” 14.1
percent reported they had no religion. When the highly respected
General Social Survey (conducted by NORC) in 2004 asked 2,812 respondents “what
is your religious preference?” 14.3
percent said “none.”
Even the 2005 Baylor Survey, despite its small sample of only 1,712
respondents found that 10.8 percent
of the American population was religiously “unaffiliated” according to their
of how we classify these tens of millions of Americans,
as non-identifiers with a religion or as non-affiliated with any organized
religious group, clearly the secular segment of the population is
substantial and has grown considerably since 1990.
Secularity takes many
forms in American society. Like religion, it varies in intensity along the
trajectories of belief, belonging, and behavior. Our recently published
book, Religion in a Free Market, shows that the American public does
not subscribe to a binary system. In our research, we found self-identifying
Catholics and Lutherans who say they don’t believe in God, Mormons who claim
a secular outlook, and religious people who, despite their religiosity, are
comfortably married to people of other faiths or no faith at all.
secularity is one option among many in a free-market-oriented regime that
has operated for two centuries. The boundaries between religion and
secularity, and among different religions, are not clearly fixed because, to
quote from Religion in a Free Market, “the government has found it is
not equipped or inclined to provide a precise definition of what constitutes
a religion or religious belief or practice. . . .This laissez-faire attitude
by the state means there is plenty of organized religion around for
Americans to consume and numerous options and places to do so.”
and secular people in America have gone largely un-researched
until now. Manifestations of secularity are difficult to distinguish and
isolate in the United States because people are not compelled to opt into or
out of “religion.” Many countries still operate either legally or in
practice under a binary system that offers very limited choices between a
monopolistic supplier of established religion and outright irreligion. In
contrast, in a free market, secularism and manifestations of secularity can
take both positive (pro-secular) and negative (anti-religious) forms. It can
offer a range of alternative non-theistic belief systems as well as levels
of irreligion and indifference to religion across the realms of belonging
and behavior. Thus, in the United States, we can observe populations of
secular people of different types, sizes and proportions according to the
variable or issue being examined.
the American public is best measured along three dimensions, the so-called 3
B’s: belief, belonging, and behavior. Each dimension contributes to our
understanding of secularization because the three are by no means strictly
collinear: Americans who appear to be secular by belief may appear religious
by belonging, or vice versa. Others may appear religious by
belief and belonging, but not by
behavior. And so on.
How Big Is the
U.S. Secular Population?
The actual size of the
secular population is open to interpretation according to the criteria one
considers relevant for measuring or identifying secularity among the public.
It can be claimed to be anywhere from 1 percent to 46 percent of Americans
according to whether the criteria are strict and limited to atheists and
agnostics or inclusive of anyone unaffiliated with a religious congregation.
One obvious social
manifestation of secularity is being distant from or out of
touch with religion. This can be
measured by a lack of affiliation with organized religion. The causes
or reasons for this unwillingness or inability to “belong” can vary widely
from ideological attitudes to physical access issues. Nevertheless, the
actual population of those who do not presently “belong” to a religious
congregation or institution is very large. ARIS found that 46 percent of
American adults or nearly 100 million people did not regard themselves as or
claim to be members of a religious group in 2001.
An alternative measure
of “belonging” with which to identify the non-religious population is the
response to the key ARIS question on religious identification, what is
your religion, if any? The responses that we categorized as “No
Religion” amounted to 14 percent of the national adult population or 29.5
million people. The most common “secular” response, given by 13 percent of
the population, was “None.” An additional 1 percent offered a “positive
secular” response. The actual estimates were 991,000 Agnostics, 902,000
Atheists, 53,000 Secular (so stated), and 49,000 Humanists. In addition,
over 5 percent of the sample, amounting to over 11 million adults, refused
to answer the question. As we state in our book, there are indications to
show that this group was mainly irreligious; certainly it did not feel a
compelling need to assert a religious identity. This means we can identify
a “No Faith” population of adults who either professed no religion or
refused to answer the question amounting to 19 percent of adult Americans or
over 40 million persons. The accompanying map clearly illustrates that there
is a regional dimension to this social phenomenon.
If one counts as
seculars those who have a secular or somewhat secular outlook and say they
have no religion, then more than one in five adult Americans can be
included. That amounts to around 46 million individuals. Interestingly,
some corroborating statistics for the size of the secular population have
recently appeared in a Gallup Poll on attitudes to the Bible. It found that
19 percent of Americans thought the Bible was a “collection of fables.”
Is the Archetypal Secular American?
socio-demographic profile or typology of the “classic freethinking American”
emerges when we look across a range of variables to search for those most
associated with the No Religion identity category and the secular outlook
population. This population is more male than female. It is young: the most
common age category is 18-35 years. It is more likely to be never married.
Among ethnic groups it is more Asian than the general population.
Geographically, it is more western. So the picture that emerges is that of a
young, never-married, Asian male living in, say, Washington State.
That description brings to mind somebody working for a high-tech
In Religion in a
Free Market, we demonstrated how in the civic realm the seculars have
distinct political loyalties. They have a strong tendency to be politically
independent of the two main parties. Thus, their reluctance to join or
identify with institutions holds for both religious affiliation and
political party. If the young cohorts maintain their religious preferences
as they get older, it could have major consequences for societal and
political issues that are at the heart of current debates within the U.S.
society. Since there is more consensus today on economic issues, as regards
the virtues of a capitalist economy than there was for instance in the 1930s
and 1940s, there is now less class politics. As a result, “values” are the
new battlefield, and the religious divide is more central to politics. This
is particularly so where ethical or moral issues are involved, such as stem
cell research, science teaching, assisted suicide, homosexual marriage, the
death penalty, and gun control.
One consequence of a
free market in beliefs and ideas is a proliferation of choices, as a result
of which people will distribute themselves across a wide range of possible
options. Unlimited and unregulated options will inevitably give rise to the
complexity we have observed regarding the multiple dimensions of secularity
and secularism. In a free society, freethinking stretches into all spheres
of existence and reduces the pressure to be logical and consistent in
opinions or behaviors. This makes delineating the boundaries among
secularism, religion, and spirituality very difficult to categorize and
measure. Indeed, without any obligation to be coherent and follow normative
patterns, some people will exercise their choices in idiosyncratic ways. In
his Wealth of Nations, the 18th century free market economist
Adam Smith postulated that just as with tangible goods in the economy so in
a “natural state” of religion there is no fixed limit to the number of
suppliers or their ability to formulate and offer philosophies, religious
culture, and spiritual goods and services.
And so, today, in America, there is no limit on the ways in which the
sovereign consumer can and will reformulate or consume ideas, loyalties, and
rituals. This situation is an essential marker of secularization. An
environment that offers freedom to exercise liberty of conscience and the
pursuit of personal happiness is an important legacy of secularism in the
the 4 percent margin of error for the Baylor University survey, there is no
statistical difference from the ARIS and GSS estimates.
A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, Religion in a Free Market: Religious and
Non-Religious Americans, Who, What, Why and Where, Paramount Market
Publishing, Ithaca, NY, 2006 p. 7.
Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,
Book Five, Chapter 1, Part 3, Article III, The Modern Library, New York,