Scholars Study Secularism

With the number of Americans identifying themselves as non-religious growing, scholars are beginning to do serious research into that segment of society to find out what we are like, what we believe and how our lack of religious belief affects our lives and our behavior. The results are very interesting. Der Spiegel reports on some of that research.

The director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in the US state of Connecticut, [Barry] Kosmin is among the few researchers focused on the study of non-believers. This umbrella covers various groups including atheists, agnostics and humanists, as well as those who are simply indifferent to religion.

Secularists make up some 15 percent of the global population, or about 1 billion people. As a group, this puts them third in size behind Christians (2.3 billion) and Muslims (1.6 billion). Despite their large numbers, little is known about this group of people. Who are they? And if not religion, what do they believe in?

“Sometimes I feel like Christopher Columbus on an expedition to an unknown continent,” says Kosmin. “For example, many believe that the US population is steadily becoming more religious — but this is an optical illusion. Many evangelicals have simply become more aggressive and more political.” …

So what do these increasing numbers of non-believers believe in, if not God? Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who hopes to start a secular studies major at California’s Pitzer College, says that secularists tend to be more ethical than religious people. On average, they are more commonly opposed to the death penalty, war and discrimination. And they also have fewer objections to foreigners, homosexuals, oral sex and hashish.

The most surprising insight revealed by the new wave of secular research so far is that atheists know more about the God they don’t believe in than the believers themselves. This is the conclusion suggested by a 2010 Pew Research Center survey of US citizens. Even when the higher education levels of the unreligious were factored out, they proved to be better informed in matters of faith, followed by Jewish and Mormon believers.

But their knowledge doesn’t seem to do them much good, since secularists rank among the least-liked groups of people in the US, falling behind even Muslims and homosexuals. In the states of South Carolina and Arkansas, those who deny the existence of a supreme being are not even permitted to hold public office.

The secularists’ problem is that, unlike the religious believers, they do not have a strong organization backing them. There is no such thing as a “typical” non-believer and every society has its own version of secularism.

That is a problem politically, perhaps, but I suspect it’s actually helping in terms of demographic numbers; because this is such a broad category, it inflates the number of people who fall under such a broad umbrella. Clearly there are many variations on those who are not a part of religious communities, and there are different groups that appeal to those variations. That can be both a weakness and a strength depending on the context.

My friend Luke Galen, a longtime member of the Center for Inquiry’s Michigan chapter that I belong to as well, is a psychology professor who has done a major study of non-believers, drawing on questionnaires filled out by members of CFI Michigan and local churches (a second phase of the study had an international sample). One of the fascinating results was how non-believers chose to label themselves. When asked to pick a number of labels that apply to them from a list, with the instruction that they could pick as many as they think are accurate, 77% said atheist, 63% said humanist, 29% said agnostic and 3% said spiritual. But when given the same list and told that they could only choose one, 57% still said atheist, 24% said humanist, 10% said agnostic and 2% said spiritual. Galen also looked at how emotionally healthy those people tend to be:

The relationship between certainty of beliefs and emotional well-being in our nonbeliever sample was a mirror image of general population studies. In overwhelmingly religious samples, certainty and confidence in one’s beliefs tends to be related to characteristics of emotional health and a sense of purpose, whereas religious uncertainty and doubt often correlate with anxiety and depression. (See in particular Smith, McCullough, and Poll; see also Hunsberger, Pancer, Pratt, and Alisat.) When we distinguished strong varieties of nonbelief, such as atheism, from weaker nonbelief, a curvilinear relationship emerged (see Shaver, Lenauer, and Sadd). Those nonbelievers most confident in their nonbelief tended to be the most emotionally healthy, relative to the “fence sitters” who reported more negative emotions. Similarly, life satisfaction was lower among the spirituals relative to the other three belief labels. Therefore, having uncertainty regarding one’s religious views appears to be associated with relatively greater emotional instability. Taken together with the personality findings, confident nonbelievers (and apparently confident religious believers) are better situated emotionally, although the lower agreeableness indicates that strong nonbelievers appear to be somewhat less likely to acquiesce to or to trust others.

I think it would be really interesting to look a little closer at that question. I think there might be an interesting distinction to be found between those who have more certainty in their conclusions and those who recognize an ultimate uncertainty but are okay with that. I do not, for example, contend that I know there is no god. My position, in fact, is that we have no way of answering the truly core question of what, if anything, began existence itself. I see an inherent uncertainty in even attempting to answer that question. But I’m also perfectly fine with that. It doesn’t bother me in the least. I suspect people like me would be considered uncertain, but would not have that uncertainty affect their emotional well-being because we accept that uncertainty as inevitable and not troublesome.

But looking at the results of non-belief may be less interesting, ultimately, than looking at the causes of non-belief. Der Spiegel mentions one study of that question:

Boston University’s Catherine Caldwell-Harris is researching the differences between the secular and religious minds. “Humans have two cognitive styles,” the psychologist says. “One type finds deeper meaning in everything; even bad weather can be framed as fate. The other type is neurologically predisposed to be skeptical, and they don’t put much weight in beliefs and agency detection.”

Caldwell-Harris is currently testing her hypothesis through simple experiments. Test subjects watch a film in which triangles move about. One group experiences the film as a humanized drama, in which the larger triangles are attacking the smaller ones. The other group describes the scene mechanically, simply stating the manner in which the geometric shapes are moving. Those who do not anthropomorphize the triangles, she suspects, are unlikely to ascribe much importance to beliefs. “There have always been two cognitive comfort zones,” she says, “but skeptics used to keep quiet in order to stay out of trouble.”

This is a fascinating area for study and that research is just beginning.

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  • The Lorax

    Wow, great research! I can’t wait to read more!

  • gingerbaker

    And there is the next billboard campaign –

    “Atheists – we “have fewer objections to foreigners, homosexuals, oral sex and hashish”!

    That line cracked me up. Who knew there were so many objections to oral sex these days? Kids!

  • abb3w

    I’d also point to the 2004 Hunsberger/Altemeyer study, “Atheists”, which is excellent (WEIRD limitations aside). Their “Amazing Conversions” book (on a previous study, and which inspired the “Atheists” followup) may also be worth reading to those interested in the (ir)religious (de)conversion process.

    Google scholar turns up a draft chapter by German scholar Heinz Streib, which also makes for an interesting read.

  • raven

    A lot of US xians are likely to be “census xians” or box checkers. IIRC, church attendance in the USA is only about 25-35%.

    This was found in the UK in a recent poll commissioned by Richard Dawkins et al..

    secularism.org.uk:

    The poll contradicts claims that Britain is “a Christian country”.

    The Church of England point out whenever they have the opportunity that 72% of people ticked the “Christian” box in the 2001 census but this new research confirms that this figure is meaningless.

    People are much more likely to consider themselves to be Christian because they were christened or baptised into the religion (72%) or because their parents were members of the religion (38%) than because of personal belief.

    As many as half (50%) of do not think of themselves as religious and less than a third (30%) claim to have strong religious beliefs.

    The number of box checker xians in the UK at 72% isn’t much different than the USA at 76%.

    When you look deeper a lot of these don’t know much about the religion, don’t belong to or go to a church, and don’t really much care about the churches.

  • Stevarious

    Test subjects watch a film in which triangles move about. One group experiences the film as a humanized drama, in which the larger triangles are attacking the smaller ones. The other group describes the scene mechanically, simply stating the manner in which the geometric shapes are moving. Those who do not anthropomorphize the triangles, she suspects, are unlikely to ascribe much importance to beliefs.

    I find this particular bit absolutely fascinating. It doesn’t surprise me that there might be a difference on a fundamental level how people who were never inclined to believe actually think. I hope they investigate this more.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    I do not, for example, contend that I know there is no god. My position, in fact, is that we have no way of answering the truly core question of what, if anything, began existence itself.

    Then again, you do seem pretty confident about this…

  • gingerbaker

    …”The secularists’ problem is that, unlike the religious believers, they do not have a strong organization backing them. There is no such thing as a “typical” non-believer and every society has its own version of secularism.”

    ED: That is a problem politically, perhaps, but I suspect it’s actually helping in terms of demographic numbers; because this is such a broad category, it inflates the number of people who fall under such a broad umbrella.

    I would argue that it (not having a strong organization) is a problem politically by definition, and more likely to reduce the numbers of people who self-define as atheistic, secular.

    If we had a stronger, more politically-determined organization, we would have a much more media-visible presence and a well-deserved seat at the tables of social, moral, and political power. How could that not result in more respect, admiration, understanding and ultimately more members than the sorry situation in which we now find ourselves – the largest religious demographic group ever to be so misunderstood, reviled, and oppressed in modern times?

    And this despite the fact that, in America anyway, religious privilege is provided top-tier Constitutional protection?

    Can you imagine what would happen if an American Muslim organization was turned down for a bus ad that said: “American Muslims”? Heck, we atheists would be first in line to protest that situation.

    Why the frack do we shy away from demanding the same protections for our religious beliefs? Ed, why is your reaction – that not having a strong political organization and presence is not a liability – so common among the leading atheist spokesman and thinkers, at least in America?

    Now that is a topic for research that I would like to see looked into!

  • raven

    Then again, you do seem pretty confident about this…

    Sure. Why not?

    The existence of the gods is unfalsifiable. Or provable.

    And it’s been that way for more than 2,000 years. Our ability to observe these days is very powerful. And all that science and technology hasn’t found the gods anywhere.

    What we have found is that the universe looks about like it would if the gods don’t exist. Goddidit is an unnecessary explanation. These days we know what causes the weather and lightning strikes. It isn’t Zeus.

  • http://thelatinone.com/blog thelatinone

    That is a problem politically, perhaps, but I suspect it’s actually helping in terms of demographic numbers; because this is such a broad category, it inflates the number of people who fall under such a broad umbrella. Clearly there are many variations on those who are not a part of religious communities, and there are different groups that appeal to those variations. That can be both a weakness and a strength depending on the context.

    It may not be a problem politically. The Nones are becoming (I think they already are) a voting bloc. While many Nones are not self-identifying atheists, many are nonbelievers and many more dislike organized religion, especially religion’s influence in modern society (education, social conservatism). There are grounds for agreement among the different types of Nones (and the seeds for collective political action).

  • Robert B.

    @ gingerbaker:

    I know, right? I mean, I have objections to the lack of oral sex, but I don’t think that’s what they were talking about.

  • http://thelatinone.com/blog thelatinone

    BTW, you should look out the Institue for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture’s report “American Nones: The Profile of the No-Religion Population” which I coauthored with Kosmin Keysar and Cragun, and “U.S. Latino Religious Identification 1990-2008” which I coauthored with Kosmin & Keysar.

    Sorry for the plug but I assume all of your readers may be interested.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mvils leni

    In the states of South Carolina and Arkansas, those who deny the existence of a supreme being are not even permitted to hold public office.

    This can’t legally be enforced, right? I suppose in a de facto “no one will vote for atheists” way, yes.

    But if it’s just an old law that isn’t enforced but for some reason wasn’t struck from the books, it seems a little strange that they even mention it.

  • Chiroptera

    …atheists know more about the God they don’t believe in than the believers themselves….

    But their knowledge doesn’t seem to do them much good, since secularists rank among the least-liked groups of people in the US….

    Heh. I wonder how much of their unpopularity might stem from the fact that the atheists know more about what the theists consider their own core beliefs?

    Those nonbelievers most confident in their nonbelief tended to be the most emotionally healthy….

    Heh. I don’t see what all the fuss about “certainty” is about. It’s true that I can, on a purely intellectual level, accept that I can be wrong on any question: about whether or not God exists, about whether or not werewolves exist, about whether or not the supermarket at which I’ve shopped has never actually existed and is a figment of my imagination.

    But I can still be very certain about a lot of things, so certain, in fact, that my psychology turns it into 100% certainty for all practical purposes. I know that werewolves don’t exist. I know that the supermarket at which I shop at exists and, barring an electrical fire or something, will be there when I get off work. I also, in the same sense, know that God does not exist.

    the God they don’t believe in…. [emphasis added]

    I think this is the key point, at least when it comes to certainty. We aren’t discussing some amorphous concept, about whether or not there was a something or other who may have done something at some point in the past. We really are talking about a very specific deity (or small number of possible deities) who supposedly has some very well-defined characteristics when the proper scriptures are read.

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    The most surprising insight revealed by the new wave of secular research so far is that atheists know more about the God they don’t believe in than the believers themselves.

    Surprising to Der Spiegel, maybe.

  • http://euroatheist.wordpress.com/about/ pelamun

    on the other side of the pond there has been some more research going for some time, though right now I only recall sociological research.

    Connected to the World Values Survey in 1981, comparing youth in the US and W. Germany, they found:

    – only 39% of W. German youth had the same religious convictions as their parents, compared to 69% in the US

    – only 14% of W. German youth had the same sexual convictions as their parents, compared to 43% in the US

    – only 38% of W. German youth had the same morals as their parents, compared to 77% of youth in the US

    Sociologists in the 80s also found that in W. Germany, the younger generation would not argue with their parents about religion, and instead just stop communicating about these issues and “just move out”.

    Probably there is more to be found. (Sorry I can’t recall any psychological research, but I haven’t tried to dig very hard)

    But the US is still leading the world in research opportunities, so of course this is huge! Thanks for posting, somehow the original Spiegel article had escaped me even though I’m a subscriber..

  • http://euroatheist.wordpress.com/about/ pelamun

    Hercules,

    to be fair, Der Spiegel is a German publication. Germany has been so thoroughly secularised that even those nominally Christian no longer know much about their religion.

    Even though Easter and Pentecost are public holidays, surveys regularly show that a majority of German no longer know what these holidays are about, other than having a long weekend…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dispatches Ed Brayton

    Leni —

    No, that can’t be enforced. The Supreme Court ruled all such laws unconstitutional in 1962 in Torcaso v Watkins.

  • organon

    Great info. I would expand even further regarding some of the questions. Does it need to be confidence in religious views? If one has confidence in reason, and in their competence to understand the world around them, does that not give an even better proximity to certainty, not as in it’s true because I believe it, but rather I have a pretty strong basis to believe this is true, short of contradictory evidence? I find that many who believe in disbelief do so not on a rational basis, but rather seeking support for their views of disbelief. To a claim that X exists, what is the evidence? Nothing that actually qualifies as evidence? Then reason dictates that I not hold your claim as true. I am confident that it is the appropriate stance. There is no need for me to seek evidence for the non-existence of something (which would after all not be rational), so I am certain enough that the view I hold is the one I should rationally hold. I have to question even the issue of the labels. Are the ones given actually valid indicators of how certain a person is in thier views? Could it be that those who choose other labels often do so more out of how others would react? In other words keeping it in the closet for safety? They might be quite certain. But live in fear. Which is not good for emotional health. Some might even pretend to be marginally religious, to avoid trouble. Perhaps that is the approach of some of those who choose spiritual as a label. But one can be a quite spiritual person, without being at all religious. What does one mean by spiritual? What did those who chose the label believe it to mean? Did they choose the label simply because it was the least objectionable? There are some intriguing thoughts in this post. Though not really surprising. There is being moral. And there is being religious. I am far more surprised when one can do both than when one does one or the other. But there are a lot of ethical persons who happen to be religious. From my perspective, they are moral in spite of their religion, and not because of it. Perhaps their need to live a moral life drew them to their religion, and they are able to take moral insights from it while blocking out anything that would lead them down the wrong path. In other words, their sense of reason is acting as a strong rudder. The fundamentalist mind might often believe it seeks what is moral. But really it is threatened by anything that differs or that shakes confidence (their certainty) in their baseless beliefs. They can feel more confident if everyone else proclaims the same thing they do. They must be right, everyone else believes it. They must be right, the laws agree with them. They must be right, only an evil person would believe otherwise. Blatant usage of informal fallacies. Those who choose reason are much less concerned with others seeing the world as they do. It’s irrelevant. I believe what I believe because reason and evidence lead me to these, and what number of others see it this way is irrelevant. In short, I challenge the notion that one who simply does not accept the claims of the religious as true, based on reason, are in any way less confident than those who are certain of the non-existence of something. On what basis are they certain of the non-existence? For those of us who follow reason, it’s an absurd thing to even wrestle with. FWIW.

  • Michael Heath

    Re the definition of ‘secularist’:

    I’ve long understood the term to mean those people who support a secularist government, which would have this population including many if not most people who are also religious. Here they use the term to mean non-religious. My google dictionary has my perspective first and third and this use second. It seems ripe for misunderstanding consistent with how theory is misunderstood.

    I was never quite sure what group is referred to when the phrase, ‘secular humanist’ is used. This term was a frequently used boogeyman pejorative amongst Evangelicals and Fundamentalists when I was young back in the 1960s and 70s. ‘Liberal’ seems to have supplanted it, I assume since these Christians’ hatred is now more energized by politics than theological differences.

    My reading of history revealed humanism emanating out of liberal Christianity. However this is not a topic I’ve ardently studied. So I could see a Congregationalist, liberal Mennonite, or a Quaker who was both religious and a secular humanist. I have no confidence my conclusion is correct. I think it’s useful I raise what a secularist is because I suspect many other people come to a conclusion different than the person referring to secularists, just like I did.

  • Michael Heath

    Ed’s source: The most surprising insight revealed by the new wave of secular research so far is that atheists know more about the God they don’t believe in than the believers themselves. This is the conclusion suggested by a 2010 Pew Research Center survey of US citizens. Even when the higher education levels of the unreligious were factored out . . .

    I’m reading Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians. One finding he discovered was how RWAs (‘right-wing authoritarians’, a group which significantly overlaps that of conservative Christian adults and even their children) could hold conflicting views and remain unaware they do so; this was based on how they absorbed facts. A primary method of fact collection for RWAs was that an authority within their group dispensed with a fact, which they then remembered without having critically thought about it or becoming aware their concession this fact was true contradicted another fact they also believed. They weren’t thinking, merely absorbing.

    Dr. Altemeyer also noted that most people, even religionists and RWAs, go through a phase in their teens/early-twenties where they question woo. The difference between RWAs and the rest of us was the RWAs in some combination actively seek out information which reinforces their preconceived beliefs or pray to God to remove their doubts. They don’t seek out independent validation for that which they believe which is what non-authoritarians predominately do.

    So it’s my perspective that perhaps these particular Christians’ failure to consider independent sources leads to less ability to actually remember and understand that which you’ve previously considered. Simply because you’re not sufficiently thinking about it in a way that has you remembering.

  • http://euroatheist.wordpress.com/about/ pelamun

    Michael Heath,

    this might be a difference between the US and Europe.

    In Europe many nations have no clear separation between church and state, having found some kind of compromise over the course of secularisation (while most of society is secularised, the churches have retained key privileges). So in this context, a secularist is someone who would like to be someone to roll back the influence of the churches, and thus more likely to be an atheist.

    Ratzinger also likes to lump them all together with the atheists and the rationalists and what have you.

    BTW, a dictionary is never the final arbiter on language usage. Linguists use corpus analyses to determine language use, so one could do corpus searches for AmE and BrE for how “secularists” has been used, and also in European languages.

    In German, “die Säkularisten” appeared only 5x on Google News. Half of the contexts were in the Ratzinger sense, and the other half talking about Islamic countries where Islamists are opposing the secularists. Talking about the Middle East, the political frame changes again, of course.

  • http://euroatheist.wordpress.com/about/ pelamun

    gah

    So in this context, a secularist is someone who would like to be someone to roll back the influence of the churches, and thus more likely to be an atheist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mvils leni

    Ed-

    No, that can’t be enforced. The Supreme Court ruled all such laws unconstitutional in 1962 in Torcaso v Watkins.

    That’s more or less what I expected. It was just odd that they seemed to be implying the laws were still in effect in two states. So I was wondering if there was some reason for that.

    Probably just a misunderstanding or mistranslation, I guess.

  • scifi1

    Oh, darn!

    Not more pesky evidence that we’re actually OK people!

    Cue the “Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot” gambits.

    Cue the “but more people still believe in (insert deity here) therefore (deity).”

    Cue the “left-wing/socialist/gay/lesbian/furrner labels”, absent evidence for any of that.

    Cue the “they did this using triangles??” cherry-pickin’ gasps-of-incredulity!

  • Craig Pennington

    @leni — the laws can’t be enforced but they still come up in political contexts. In 2009, there was an atheist elected to the Asheville NC city council, and the loser in that race threatened to sue based on NC’s constitution. I’m pretty sure it was never pursued.

    http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/12/11/lawsuit-threatened-atheist-north-carolina-councilman-gets-sworn/

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