Study Shows That Young ‘Nones’ Are Not Just Spiritual Seekers

According to a new report by researchers Barry A. Kosmin & Ariela Keysar, nearly 30% of college students are “Secular” (as opposed to “Religious” or “Spiritual”).

The report is part of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) series from Trinity College and was produced in conjunction with the Center for Inquiry.

So what did we learn?

The biggest finding may be that, among the students who identified as “Secular,” more than 80% didn’t identify with any religion. Neither did more than 40% of the “Spiritual” crowd.

We know that “Nones” are on the rise but the common wisdom has been that a lot of those young people aren’t really atheists. They’re more like “spiritual-but-not-religious.” Not so, says this study:

These results belie the claim that the growing population of young Nones is composed of religious searchers or the “religiously unaffiliated.” Over 99% of the students who self-identified as Nones rejected a Religious worldview and a clear majority opted for the Secular worldview.

Most of the other results are what you might expect. The “Secular” group is predominantly male. A whopping 93% of “Seculars” accept evolution while 95% support same-sex marriage. Only 5% of “Seculars” identified as Republican.

“Today’s college students are those same Americans who will soon take positions of leadership in society and in their communities,” noted Ron Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, 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. Clearly, Secular Americans are a constituency on the ascent, one that both political and cultural establishments can no longer afford to ignore.”

There was one set of results I found weird and it had to do with supernatural beliefs. It turns out that even “Seculars” believe in a lot of bullshit:

Who are these 13% of “Seculars” who believe in miracles and 11% who believe in karma?! And reincarnation? Seriously?!

If it’s any of you…

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Savoy47

    That 13% of “ Woo Seculars” is on par with the placebo effect.

  • WallofSleep

    If you want to see my patience vaporize faster than cocaine in a crack house, just tell me you’re “spiritual-but-not-religious.” It’s grating, and it makes as much sense to me as saying “I”m always drunk, but I never drink”.

    While both are entirely possible, 99% of the time it’s just bullshit.

    • TheG

      I prefer using Daniel Tosh’s response to them.

      “I’m not honest, but you’re interesting.”

    • JET

      Human brains are strange things. I have a relative who self-identifies as a staunch atheist and claims to not believe in anything supernatural… who believes in ghosts and justifies this belief as ghosts being part of the “natural” world. Makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

      • Tainda

        Sounds like Corey Taylor. He has written a few books on his ghostly encounters.

      • Eliot Parulidae

        If someone who’s otherwise secular holds some out-of-left-field superstition, they often have weird personal reasons for doing so. I was fascinated by astrology as a young teenager. Here’s why:

        1. It’s bullshit, but if you start looking beyond what’s in the newspaper it is very intricate, elegant, systematic bullshit. No one was around at the time to introduce me to chemistry, higher math, real astronomy, or other things that would engage the kind of intellect I had. No one watched me measuring cosmic arcs and thought “geometry”; no one read my horoscopes and thought “creative writing.” In short, I was bored.
        2. It promised to help me understand people using a rigid system. Every 13-year-old wants to understand people.
        3. It made people like me. I found I could make friends by offering to read charts. It got me invited to slumber parties.

        An explanation is not an excuse, of course, but my personal anecdote shows that woo is seductive to the young, the lonely, the bored, and the uneducated – whether they believe in God or not.

        • 3lemenope

          And to generalize a bit, it can just be entertaining to play around with intricate systems, even if those systems have no real referents. Complaining about people who have odd beliefs (besides being extremely un-self-aware; everyone has odd beliefs about something) often strikes me as similar to complaining about a person liking a TV show or a roleplaying game a little too much and analyzing it to death. It’s usually just a harmless bit of fun.

          • Eliot Parulidae

            If I’d known about D&D, I probably would’ve done that. lol

        • smrnda

          It might be compartmentalization, or just the ordinary failure of a person to be equally rational in all areas. There’s also personal issues – religions tend to be authoritarian, but a less authoritarian sounding “woo” might slip under their skeptical radar since it’s a smoother con perhaps…

          • Eve

            I mean, I’ll be the first to say that I have odd beliefs and still consider myself atheistic and secular. I certainly am an advocate for science in all forms and ridding the world of beliefs that hurt, traumatize, or otherwise impede on the reasoning skills of people. All the same, some part of me does believe in reincarnation. Not in the whole, I’m the reincarnation of Buddha or George Washington bullshit, but rather in the sense that memories can carry over from previous lives (Yeah, I know. This is utterly ridiculous. I can’t really help myself.) in large part due to experiences I’ve had as a child and from what I’ve heard from friends. I do distinctly remember having memories of a life in Canada, and would frequently speak about things that I had no business knowing, like what a musket was, the loading procedure, and the ammunition used, at the age of four. Or, another time around then, when walking into a museum, I knew which section was the Egyptian section, and began talking about burial methods and cultural themes of the Egyptians. I also have a friend who told me that when he was three years old, he’d tell his mother about his experiences in China as a rice farm worker.

            I’ll be the first to say that there could be reasonable explanations for these things: news, television shows, and movies that we could have picked these things up from. Perhaps it’s simply the imaginative powers of children, or wishful thinking from myself now, later in life. Still, I can’t help but feel that, to some degree, it was real and is something that’s simply dismissed by scientists immediately. I wouldn’t know how it could be tested, not with today’s technology, so I don’t blame anyone for discounting it. If it can’t be proven or tested, then let it fall by the wayside until it can be.

            On an entirely different note, I do enjoy things like roleplaying games. They’re primarily harmless fun, and as an amateur writer (Soon! Soon I may be able to call myself a professional.) they provide an outlet for creativity and also a way to explore a variety of topics and obscure things. I learn a lot both about my friends, myself, and what things I research when I put in effort into looking up scenarios for roleplaying. I look at stuff like Vampire: the Masquerade or D&D or Warhammer 40k as fun outlets, not a sign of psychosis or what have you.

            All of this being said, even with my quirks, I don’t think that ought to detract from the fact that, primarily, I have no religious beliefs of any sort, and strive to hold myself to secular standards.

          • 3lemenope

            I don’t think uneven rationality is properly characterized as a failure. There are modes of thought and experience that matter beyond logic.

        • cary_w

          Good point. Astrology, tarot readings, palmistry and all of those kinds of psychic readings are really just story telling techniques, and who doesn’t like a good story teller?

          There is nothing wrong with telling stories, in my opinion it’s what makes us human and separates us from other animals. The problem comes from people taking stories too literally and start believing there is actually something supernatural going on.

          A good tarot reader can interpret the cards in different ways and guide the story based on the reactions and clues given by the person he is reading for. You can “believe” in tarot readings and still be secular by acknowledging that a guided story like this (while certainly not a replacement for a psychologist) can be useful in helping someone work through their feelings about minor social dilemmas, like whether or not to go back to school or leave a unsatisfactory relationship.

          • Forky Witherspoon

            No peer reviewed evidence supports that , however. Keep wasting money on that nonsense, you immature, uneducated child.

            • 3lemenope

              Well, that was completely uncalled for.

              • Forky Witherspoon

                Did I say anything untrue? You don’t have a problem justifying and rationalizing obvious, blatant scammers??

                • 3lemenope

                  Did I say anything untrue?

                  You asserted that cary_w was immature, uneducated, and a child.

                  You have no evidence that could support any one of those as a reasonable abductive inference, never mind all three at once.

                  So I would say, at least, you are careless with the truth content of your statements.

                  You also sought to apply irrelevant standards–i.e. those of scientific, peer reviewed journaled studies–to a notion expressed off-handedly in a blog post. Which leads me to doubt your ability to understand the context and content to which you are responding. This too would lead me to anticipate a very low quantity of truth, semantic or otherwise, in your statements.

                  You don’t have a problem justifying and rationalizing obvious, blatant scammers?

                  Last I checked, most people who use said “services” know full well they’re fake, in the sense that they understand there is nothing concrete underlying their metaphysical assertions and methods. It’s just a fun thing to do, or as cary_w suggested, as a different way to experience a narrative. The same reasons people go to the movies or read a book and lose themselves in a story they know to be a fabrication hold true for this as a narrative activity.

                  The fact that you do not seem either able or willing to distinguish what cary_w suggested from “rationalizing obvious, blatant scammers” suggests in turn that you are unqualified to opine on the subject.

                • Forky Witherspoon

                  You’re really confused aren’t you? Asking for evidence (peer reviewed research) is a relevant standard when one is claiming that tarot card reading is just as good as anything else for helping with problems. My claims are self evident. Maybe you could have adult explain things to you?

                • 3lemenope

                  when one is claiming that tarot card reading is just as good as anything else for helping with problems.

                  You can “believe” in tarot readings and still be secular by acknowledging that a guided story like this (while certainly not a replacement for a psychologist) can be useful

                  Try again.

            • cary_w

              5 min on google…

              Here’s one:
              http://archived.parapsych.org/papers/48.pdf

              This is not exactly what I was saying, but one of the things they looked when grading the validity of tarot readings was was helpfulness. On average the participants rated the readings between 5 and 6 on an eight point scale 1=not at all valid, 8=very much valid. I think that shows that they were finding the reading at least somewhat helpful. Not surprisingly, they found no difference between the “real” tarot reading and the reading based on random cards, because, of course, they are all just based on random cards. Also not surprising, those who scored high on the “belief in paranormal” test rated the tarot reading’s validity higher, the placebo effect is always greater in those who believe it works!

              I’m not saying I believe tarot cards are anything paranormal, only that even if you know it’s just someone making stuff up about some random cards, it can still be a useful way for some people to explore and discuss a problem or dilemma in their life.

              I’m not willing to dismiss supernatural things like this without looking into why people think they work and what people seem to be getting out of them. Most often it seems to be the placebo effect, which leads me to think that the placebo effect really deserves to be studied more. I mean, if you can significantly reduce pain without drugs that have potentially bad side effects, then isn’t that worth investigating more?

          • ahermit

            Friend of mine used to use tarot as a way of helping him think about a question or concern he was having; not because he believed anything magical was happening but because the meaning assigned to each card made him look at the question from a different angle. He felt it was a useful tool for organizing his thoughts.

      • DamienDune

        I am a secular-minded individual who has a child-like imagination and an all-things-possible outlook on the natural world and universe, questioning and interpreting all things given and/or forced.
        I will not pick sides if either one of those sides are convoluted by heartless, closed-minded and potentially dangerous sociopaths like fundies or militant anti-theists.
        I don’t know whether gods exist or not, though they have done an excellent job of seemingly concluding their non-existence, but their questionable “morals” keep me deterred from obeying them. I am fascinated by the unknown in general and will not submit to it without evidence NOR will I dismiss it due to lack of evidence and antagonize those who disagree. “If it’s any of you…” is that a threat? I believe energy is more than some take it at a limit evidence-wise.
        What are you going to do about it?

    • DougI

      Having had a run-in with a prominent comedian who called himself a non-believer he said he believe in “a force” but disparaged Atheists despite himself not believing in a god. Calling yourself spiritual but not religious is probably one of those terms that allows the person to look down on others as superstitious or Atheist.

    • Pseudonym

      For many people, “religious” means adhering to a religious organisation.

      You may think that an odd definition, but remember that a lot of people around here seem to think that if there’s no theism, it’s not religion. The slogan “Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion” grates me the same way.

    • R Vogel

      I think this is a bad equivalence. Spiritual-but-not-religious just means someone does not attach themselves to a particular religious tradition. It might be more akin to saying “I like hockey, but I’m not a fan of any particular team.” Also probably pretty unlikely

  • Beth

    I believe in karma…nothing cosmic just you get what you give, and miracles as things we can’t explain…yet.
    So I might say in passing “Karma’s a bitch” or describe something as miraculous…but I don’t think there is anything spiritual in it. I wonder if pressed these non-believers would say the same type of things.

    • TheG

      As social creatures, we subconsciously take note of the people that act honestly and dishonestly and treat them in a way that reflects our evolutionarily defined parameters (reciprocal altruism, kin selection, etc.).

      What most people call “Karma” is really just intuition, experience, and reflexive responses.

  • Jennifer Smith

    Thank “god” for the educated young. They are our future.

    • momtarkle

      Isn’t “Thank education for the educated young.” more appropriate? Unless you maybe know of a God of Education.

      • guest

        Or maybe thank teachers for the educated young? They never get enough credit for doing such a stressful job.

      • canamrock

        God of Education? So… Carl Sagan or Bill Nye then?

      • Thin-ice

        C’mon, momtarkle, do you not understand sarcasm? Or “double quotes”?

        • momtarkle

          No, Iceman, I don’t. Please explain.

    • Pointing-out-the-obvious

      I apologize for the people that responded to your comical post with such serious faces – they failed to see the complete irony and sarcasm of the “god” bit and just wanted to feed into the hate filled nonsense of most of these posts.

      For those unfortunately incapable of understanding sarcasm and irony, she put quotes on “god” (and notably didn’t use a G) to show SARCASM. That means she didn’t ACTUALLY thank some sort of “God of Education” or whatever else your brains thought up, but instead used a play on the phrase “Thank god” to show her witty SARCASTIC abilities.

      Well played, Jennifer. Check yourself, tryhards.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        Speaking of hate-filled nonsense…

      • momtarkle

        OK, NOW I get it. She didn’t mean the REAL God, our Eternal Savior…..she sure fooled me!

        You’ve certainly earned your moniker!

  • Rip Van Winkle

    The percentage of seculars who believe crazy supernatural stuff probably come from the religions-but-secular group. Secular only implies separation of church and politics, it doesn’t mean lack of belief. Secular Catholics believe in god but dont want to live in a theocracy.

  • Tainda

    It’s not me! I swear!

    What amazes me more are the people who are religious but don’t believe in ghosts or (very rarely) miracles. You believe all the other BS in the bible but not that?

    • Itarion

      The miracles but not god is kinda odd, though.

      There is no god, but he regularly – or at least sometimes – supercedes the laws of the universe.

  • SeekerLancer

    I always felt like a lot of “spiritual” people still sort of culturally identify with particular religions anyway. Even when I hadn’t been going to church during my short deist phase I still called myself a Catholic.

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    Also buried in the full report — of the approximately one-third who
    are “Secular”, roughly two-in-five flat out “don’t believe in God”.

    So, circa 14% functionally secular atheist — even without counting the agnostics or deists.

  • The Other Weirdo

    To your last question, my guess would be they are the New Agers. Many of them mix and match beliefs that make them feel good. I know I used to. My parents still do.

  • Adjustable Spanner

    Statistically, winning the lotto when you buy a ticket would be a miracle – that is to say, it is so statistically unlikely that (you) winning would be miraculous. And yet, someone wins. It’s not supernatural, but it is miraculous to the winner in the sense of beating outrageous odds. To every other ticket buyer, it is extraordinarily ordinary. The point being, I think there is such a thing as a secular “miracle”.

    • Frank

      It’s the wrong term. A secular miracle is an oxymoron. Nothing about winning a lottery is miraculous. You are incredibly lucky to have beaten the odds, but you are not the beneficiary of a supernatural event.

      • 3lemenope
      • Adjustable Spanner

        Technically, yes – but in the vernacular, it would not be an unusual usage. When you’re polling people as was done here, you have to not only record the responses, but understand what they mean. In everyday use – and that’s the way respondents to a poll would understand the questions – “miraculous” and “extremely lucky” are essentially synonymous. Miraculous, in that usage, does not necessarily connote supernatural. As 3lemenope points out below, oxymorons are quite common, and not particularly jarring most of the time.

      • cary_w

        What you say is true, but I think the point is that at least some of the “secular people who believe in miracles” are defining “miracles” in this way. They may be wrong about the actual definition of “miracle” but that would explain why they answer the survey the way they did.

        This would also explain some of the secular people who believe in “karma”. I’ve had some fairly reasonable people (who were probably athiests) explain “karma” In a non-supernatural, pay-it-forward sort of way. The idea is that good karma exists because when you are nice and do good things it will set off a long change of events that could eventually lead to something good happening to you. While the may not be the true definition of “karma”, it would explain who someone who doesn’t believe in the supernatural could still claim to believe in karma.

  • Frank

    “We know that “Nones” are on the rise but the common wisdom has been that a lot of those young people aren’t really atheists. They’re more like “spiritual-but-not-religious.” ”

    Or is it that college students are in that phase of transition where they are atheists on the inside and are just discovering it’s OK to “come out of the atheist closet” as it were. To have the courage of their convictions both internally and verbally.

    This “None” status is a stepping stone, but not for the Religious to use as a descriptor for those people they feel are trying to find their way into religion, but for those looking for a clean way out.

    • Thursday1

      1. Most nones may just not care enough to identify as atheists.
      2. Most people, including most nones, seem to retain some vestiges of supernaturalism.

  • Leo Buzalsky

    “Who are these 13% of “Seculars” who believe in miracles”
    Well, what do they mean by “miracle”? Do they mean, “My favorite football team made a 21-point comeback in the forth quarter! It’s a miracle!”

  • ragarth

    There are non supernatural ways to explain a lot of woo ideas. For the same reason someone can eat up what Depok Chopra says like oregano baked shit and still be atheist, someone can believe in ghosts and still be atheist. Many other things can be ‘believed’ if we massage the definition enough. Miracles can be defined as statistical outliers, karma as an emergent social construct, and reincarnation as the cycle of bodily material in the natural world.

    Further, by its purest definition, atheism *only* means that you do not believe in a god or gods. You could believe in reincarnation and witchcraft and still be an atheist. There is no single path to atheism, just like there’s no single path for a clock to strike 2pm: A broken clock is still right twice a day.

    Logic and reasoning are not necessary for atheism, just a lack of belief in a god or gods.

    • Anna

      Very true. People often like to point out that China is predominantly atheist, but I wonder how many of those people are atheists the same way most of us are atheists. Atheism doesn’t necessarily equal materialism.

      • ragarth

        How many atheists believe in acupuncture? :-)

      • guidoheikens

        Deities have never been that important in Chinese culture afaik.
        Confucianism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religions are mostly just ethnical and philosophical systems, without gods. Honoring your ancestors is a big thing in Chinese folk religion, honoring god is non-existent. Also, education is very important in China, and it’s only logical that where education thrives, theism does not.

        • Anna

          They might not believe in deities, but what about the rest of the supernatural? Do they believe the spirits of their ancestors are actually real? If they do, then it’s just a superficial difference; the underlying magical thinking is the same.

  • John Pombrio

    Sounds about right. My son went through WPI and had several apartment mates from 3 different countries besides the US. Turkey, Taiwan, and South Korea. NONE of the guys went to any sort of church. My sisters and I were married in a church. All my nieces and nephews were married by JP or non denominational ministers. They too do not attend church. That’s 100% in my family under the age of 35 and 100% of my sons college apartment mates. All are well educated. I myself am an atheist.

  • EUPHORIA

    EUPHORIA EUPHORIA EUPHORIA EUPHORIA EUPHORIA EUPHORIA EUPHORIA EUPHORIA EUPHORIA EUPHORIA EUPHORIA EUPHORIA EUPHORIA EUPHORIA

  • KuroHitsuji

    Hard to leave the vestiges of religion. Up until about 3 weeks ago I still had hope for something similar to reincarnation. They will eventually give them up, it is just hard.

  • GaryLyn

    Calling the beliefs of another person that you disagree with to be bullshit…well, I’m really not interested in anything else you have to say!

  • Thursday1

    It turns out that even “Seculars” believe in a lot of bullshit

    This blog seems to be misnamed.

  • R Vogel

    Regarding your final point, I stumbled across this curious statistic in the Pew Research Report “Beliefs and Religious Practices….” where 18% of self-desribed Atheists believe in a Personal (6%) or Impersonal G*d (12%) with another 3% saying they don’t know! Who are these G*d believing Atheists!

    http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

    See Page 5

  • Y. A. Warren

    I suspect that most of those who say they believe in Karma don’t know what Karma really is, just as many who say they follow a certain religion have no idea what their religion really stands for.

    With all the upheaval following the freedoms found during the sixties, we seem to know what we don’t believe in or want, but haven’t identified what we do believe and want for ourselves and those who come after us. So many (young and old) sound like a bunch of toddlers. It is time to put on our big boy and girl pants and figure out a common goal for sustainable global human society.

    The old people will always be afraid of change, especially anarchy, and for good reason. Communities need rules in order to function. Communities also need people who are willing to organize and lead others. The youth seem to be uninterested in doing the hard work of coming to consensus on what is good for their own futures and those of their children.

    Religions are about forming communities bound by the same rules for relationships, with a lot of fear of the unknown (defined and controlled by a few “prophets” and “priests”) thrown in for good measure. Democratic governments are about protecting and enforcing the will of the people in a community.

    What is the will of the community? We keep asking, but the youth keeps changing the subject to what each of them wants for themselves.

  • DamienDune

    I am a secular-minded individual who has a child-like imagination and an all-things-possible outlook on the natural world and universe, questioning and interpreting all things given and/or forced. I will not pick sides if either one of those sides are convoluted by heartless, closed-minded and potentially dangerous sociopaths like fundies or militant anti-theists. I don’t know whether gods exist or not, though they have done an excellent job of seemingly concluding their non-existence, but their questionable “morals” keep me deterred from obeying them. I am fascinated by the unknown in general and will not submit to it without evidence NOR will I dismiss it due to lack of evidence and antagonize those who disagree. “If it’s any of you…” is that a threat? I believe energy is more than some take it at a limit evidence-wise. What are you going to do about it?


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