Secularism gaining ground in the US ?

I have to say I have seen no sign of this trend as I’ve been following US politics and general public life for the last few decades. Yet the figures seem pretty convincing, although most of the change was between 1990 and 2001.

Does anyone known much about this survey, is it reliable?

I have no idea about the survey - and questions about things like that are going to produce uncertain results - but in the past few years there have been a lot of atheist books hitting the bestseller lists, and Bill Maher made an agnostic movie. I suspect many atheists don’t feel so alone now, and might think it safe to answer honestly.

That’s still a small percentage and if I read it correctly there is an uptick in people who don’t have a religion, that’s not the same as being an atheist.

That’s true - I get the impression from following US politics and reading posts here that in the US it seems the choice boils down to you’re an atheist OR you belong to an organised religion. I know tons of people who aren’t involved in religion at all but wouldn’t go as far as to say they’re atheists (even if they’re committed secularists).

Lots of European countries have reached a point where the “don’t know/don’t care/not bothered” category in the religion part of the census has become the biggest (Sweden being one notable example). Conversely you have Norway where everyone born in the country is automatically a member of the Church of Norway and considered to be a practicing Christian, but religious observance and belief is pretty similar to Sweden’s.

So secularism might be on the rise in the US, but that doesn’t mean religious belief is dying out.

FWIW, based on my own observations (and small sample size issues apply, of course), the majority of people in such surveys who claim to have “no religion” fall into one of two categories: the “spiritual but not religious” (i.e., “I have religious tendencies but don’t want to tie myself to an ‘organized religion’”) and the folks who, if pressed, will say, “Well, I believe in God and Jesus, but I don’t go to any particular church”. The percentage of the “non-religious” who are outright atheists/agnostics is still pretty small. I’ve heard some comments on the TV news stories on the particular survey that the OP cites which note this.



I have no idea about the true numbers, but anecdotaly: Absolutely. I have been an atheist since I was 8 years old (in my 30’s now) and it has only in the past 10 years that I’ve seen any significant public visibility for atheism. Actually the change has been astounding and has reversed my outlook on what people believe and how it changes with time.

And your comment on US politics is wrong. In Obama’s acceptance speech he specifically referred to non-believers (along with some religions). Of course Obama is no atheist, but this is still a huge change politically for the US (as far as I am aware).

Prediction (and I know how ridiculous this sounds to most people): The US will be pretty much dominated by a secular attitude within a generation. The religious era is almost over.

I’m more inclined to believe we will have a more liberal less dogmatic religious mix. Lot’s of people who believe in some undefined higher power without doctrine or dogma and denominational affiliation. More churches and liberal versions of religions that accept the fact that they believe X but may be wrong.

I wish I could be so sanguine about that. As an atheist living in the Bible Belt, I’d say that your prediction will come true in the US only if the South secedes again, and the North is smarter than it was in 1860 and lets them go.

:slight_smile: (Ha, ha only serious.)



Sadly, I suspect it just means we are fertile ground for a new religion/cult.

More likely than the US becoming a completely secular nation, I sadly agree.

The interesting and somewhat alarming thing to me is what’s happening geographically. Looking at this graph, you can see where the changes are taking place. The states with the largest number of “no religion” responders are in the northeast (VT, NH, DE, ME, MA) while those with the fewest are AR, MS, TN, GA, {AZ and CA due to Hispanic immigration), OK, UT.

These are also the only states where the Republican Party is still in control politically. I had hoped that the Republican Party would reach out to moderates and non-Christians in other regions of the country, and they still might, but for all pactical purposes the South is the home of religion and the Republican Party.

Mostly I think people are reading into this whatever they want to see. I saw some evidence people are taking dogma a bit less seriously and are feeling freer to pick and choose among beliefs rather than being churched.

I can’t vouch for the survey, or its reliability (though it absolutely represents what I have noticed in my generation), but I can say that perhaps the reason this trend has gone unnoticed is because being an atheist is still a death sentence in American politics. All Obama did was mention non-believers in one speech and people were going crazy. It was a surprise that group of people was even given a brief national shout-out.

I didn’t hear anybody go crazy about the mention of non-believers in his inaugural address. Nonbelievers appeared to be pleasantly surprised, and I didn’t hear about any reaction from any believers. Maybe that’s the circles I travel in, but I heard nothing about it on this board or in the news either.

I think there’s probably a lot more “cafeteria” religioning going on these days, and people aren’t seeing any connection between traditional religious views and their daily lives. Changes in technology may have made this disconnect more obvious than it was even a decade or two ago: people may believe in the general points of Christianity, for example, but it’s hard to see how some of the specifics apply to what they experience. The Catholic Church scandal certainly can’t have helped either.

There is no kind way to say this, but you are young - you’ll learn.

One of the important things I learned as I got older is that cultural trends do not always progress in a linear fashion toward an ideal. In the sixties and seventies we thought that our liberal ideals were the way of the future, not so.

Your prediction MAY come to pass. But I am absolutely certain that you will find yourself years from now expressing frustration at the obstinance and resolve (and growing numbers) of the less enlightened, however you define that.

Uh, which one?

For further edification, we could compare it to graphs of population growth and see that people are fleeing away from atheist-heavy states, towards Christian-heavy states.

Actually, I would guess that the most prominent factor in the shifts is immigration. States in the South and West are growing rapidly due to an influx of immigrants. Almost all immigrants groups are strongly religious. Hispanics in particular tend to stick to a traditional, conservative, Catholic faith. If it’s true, as projections suggest, that Hispanics will be a third of the country my 2050, that could radically reshape religious life in America.

Assuming that the immigrant population remains the same over the course of the next 50 years. Are people two or three generations down going to have the same view of religion and morality as the first wave, particularly whilst the rest of the country is changing around them in the opposite direction?

The Chicago Tribune ran this story yesterday, and I was puzzled that they also spun it as “an increase in secularism”. The percentage of people self-identifying as having no religion increased from 14.2% to 15.0% in seven years. Some increase!

To me, the biggest story would be that the increase during the 1990’s (8% to 14%) all but stopped. I guess that’s why I don’t write newspaper headlines.

For those who are curious, the methodology of the survey is to ask, “What is your religion, if any?” Responses of “athest”, “agnostic”, or “none” are aggregated into “no religion”.

The survey also asked directly about belief in God, with a menu of possible responses. Ten percent gave agnostic responses and two percent atheist. The summary report from the survey is here (pdf).

Actually, Pentecostalism is making huge inroads into Hispanic Catholicisim, both in the States and in Latin America.
It would also be intersting to see how much of Hispanic religiosity–Catholic or Pentecostal–is actually making it into the third generation in the U.S.