U.S. College Students Split Between Religious, Secular, Spiritual

New Survey reveals Ideological, Theological Distinctions between Groups
U.S. college students participating in a new survey of religious identification were virtually evenly divided between three distinct worldviews: religious, secular and spiritual, according to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) series from Trinity College. The study, done in conjunction with the Center for Inquiry (CFI), found that the three groups have different positions on political, scientific and moral issues.
Among the students surveyed, 32 percent identified their worldview as religious; 32 percent as spiritual; and 28 percent as secular. Within each group, there was a remarkable level of cohesion on answers to questions covering a wide array of issues including political alignment; acceptance of evolution and climate change; belief in supernatural phenomena such as miracles or ghosts; and trust in alternative practices such as homeopathy and astrology.
Although the religious students in the survey were overwhelmingly Christian (70 percent), a near equal share of the secular (70 percent), and one-third of the spiritual professed no religion (“Nones”), showing a remarkable degree of indifference to religion.
ARIS surveys in 2001 and 2008 noted the rise of the “no religion” population, or Nones, a term often used synonymously with “unaffiliated.” However, “almost two-thirds of the students who self identified as Nones in the sample preferred the secular worldview and the remainder chose the spiritual. Hardly any chose the religious option,” wrote Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, authors of the study. Kosmin is a research professor in the Public Policy and Law Program at Trinity and founding director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC). Keysar, a demographer, is an associate professor in in the Public Policy and Law Program.
“This finding is a challenge to the notion that the Nones are just ‘religiously unaffiliated’ or religious searchers who have not yet found a religious home,” wrote Kosmin and Keysar. “This survey clearly revealed that today’s students with a secular worldview, who are mainly Nones, are not traditional theists.”
The survey also better defines what distinguishes those who identify as spiritual. “The spiritual category does not appear to be simply a middle ground between the religious and secular categories,” wrote the authors. “The spiritual are closer to the religious on many metaphysical issues but closer to the secular on public policy and social issues. Their political liberalism along with their mysticism is part of the reason they differentiate themselves from the religious worldview.”
Said Ron Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry (CFI): “Today’s college students are those same Americans who will soon take positions of leadership in society and in their communities.” CFI is a principal funder and intellectual contributor to the survey.
“It bodes well for the future of science and reason in America that almost one-third of this rising generation identifies as secular, while another third has rejected traditional dogmatic religion,” said Lindsay. “Clearly, secular Americans are a constituency on the ascent, one that both political and cultural establishments can no longer afford to ignore.”
Additional results of the survey, concentrating on the beliefs of the secular group, will be disclosed at the CFI Summit, a conference of humanists and skeptics in Tacoma, WA, to be held October 24 through 27. For more information, please click here.
The study of worldviews and opinions of U.S. college students is based on an online national survey conducted by the ISSSC during April and May 2013 at Trinity College, with major contributions from CFI, an international organization advocating for science, reason, and secularism in public life. Drawn from a random sample of publicly available email addresses, more than 1,800 students took part in the survey in whole or in part, representing 38 four-year colleges and universities.
The full report, “Religious, Spiritual and Secular: The emergence of three distinct worldviews among American college students,” is available here
Additional Highlights
  • Gender gaps are noticeable within the secular (more males) and spiritual (more females) groups, while the religious  group attracts males and females more evenly.
  • Although the secular group is predominantly male, it was they who were the most likely of all three groups (67 percent) to say that it is “very true” that “women must defend their reproductive rights.”

  • Patterns of belief in God are remarkably different in the three worldviews:
                 ♣    The religious group mirrors the general U.S. population with 70 percent firm believers and only 2 percent saying they don’t believe in God or don’t know whether there is a God and don’t believe there is any way to find out.
                ♣    At the other end of the spectrum are secular students, of whom 77 percent either don’t believe in God or don’t know if there is a God.
                ♣    Spiritual students exhibit an array of preferences: 27 percent believe in a higher power (but not in a personal God); 24 percent are firm believers; 21 percent believe in God (while having doubts); 12 percent don’t know if God exists and only 5 percent don’t believe in God.
  •   Opinions on scientific and philosophical issues differ widely.
                 ♣    A strong majority of religious students believes in miracles and a smaller majority believes in reason and rationalism.
                 ♣    The secular are as committed to reason (83 percent) as the religious are to belief in miracles (84 percent). Only 13 percent of seculars believe in miracles.
                ♣    The spiritual are between the two other worldviews.
  •     Similarly, the results show considerable divisions by worldview with regard to belief in creationism/intelligent design          and evolution/Darwinism:
                ♣    A majority of religious students believe in creationism/intelligent design. Another majority believes in evolution/Darwinism. Presumably this reflects the split between conservative and liberal religious believers, with some small group believing in both theories.
               ♣    The secular group overwhelmingly endorses evolution (93 percent) and rejects creationism (5 percent).
               ♣    The spiritual group believes strongly in creationism or intelligent design.

  •    On public policy issues, the spiritual and secular groups hold similar worldviews, with secular students consistently          more liberal and the religious more conservative. The pattern is similar for all issues raised: women’s reproductive rights; same-sex marriage; gay adoption; gun control; and assisted suicide.
  •    Political orientations of the worldviews are quite distinct:
            ♣    Religious students are the most likely to regard themselves as conservative (34 percent), compared with 11 percent of spirituals and 4 percent of seculars.
            ♣    Secular students are also the most likely to view themselves as liberal (44 percent), compared with 35 percent of spirituals and 17 percent of religious students.
            ♣    Secular students are also the most likely to describe themselves as progressive (20 percent), compared with 12 percent of spirituals and only 5 percent of religious students.
            ♣    Interestingly, the libertarian option attracted almost the same share of students in each group.
            ♣    The religious are the most likely to consider themselves moderate.