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Secular Group Affiliates

Secular Group Affiliates

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Patterns of thought and attitude among secular group affiliates in the Pacific NorthwestPaper delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of ReligionTampa, Florida, November 4, 2007© Frank L. PasqualeResearch Associate, ISSSC, Trinity College, Hartford, CT
Distinctions among types of religiosity and religious identification are many anddetailed.  Research that compares and contrasts individuals who consider themselves secular or nonreligious, or who hold affirmatively or substantially naturalistic worldviews, however, islargely uncharted territory.  These are customarily treated as a homogeneous group with whichto compare the religious.  Based on a survey of 911 members of secularist, humanist, atheist,skeptic, and freethought groups in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, varieties of “secularity,” from “hard” to “soft,” are explored with respect to metaphysical beliefs, attitudestoward “religion,” self-descriptions, and use and meanings of “spiritual/ity.”Despite considerable attention devoted to the question of secularization in the past half century or more, the study of forms of “secularism” or “secularity” as a coherent focus of inquiry has barely begun (Kosmin and Keysar, 2007).  Social scientific study of people’sexistential and metaphysical worldviews, or “meaning systems”
(Hood, Hill, and Williamson,2005), has customarily been approached from the vantage of religion and religiosity.  This hasresulted in a detailed picture of religious individuals and forms, but comparatively little detailin our understanding of people at the other end of the metaphysical spectrum, such as thosewho may be characterized as substantially or affirmatively nonreligious, irreligious, secular,non-transcendental,
or philosophically naturalistic (Pasquale, 2007a, b).  They have generallybeen treated, as J. Russell Hale once said of the unchurched, “as if. . .they were onehomogeneous category” (1980: 97).  Glenn Vernon’s observation, nearly forty years ago thatthe image of the “atheist, agnostic, and nonbeliever. . .is blurry and indistinct” (1968: 220)remains true today.There are signs of growing interest in secularism, atheism, and related subjects, asevidenced by Bainbridge, 2005, Beit-Hallahmi, 2007, Hunsberger and Altemeyer, 2006,Kosmin and Keysar, 2007, and Zuckerman, 2007.  But the differences, as well as sharedcharacteristics, among self-described secularists, (religious) skeptics, and philosophicalnaturalists have remained largely unexplored.Given the lack of coherent attention to the “secular” end the metaphysical spectrum,1
we are faced with a swarm of terms and concepts with variable clarity or consistency of meaning and use.  There are many topics in the research literature that bear, directly or indirectly, on the subject, such as the unchurched, “nones,” and religious “disaffiliation”(“apostates,” “defection,” “outswitchers,” “dropouts”).  Relevant descriptive terms are many:skeptic, unbeliever, nonbeliever, irreligious, nonreligious, secularist, humanist, agnostic,rationalist, freethinker, atheist, naturalist, nontheist, non-supernaturalist, non-transcendentalist,monist, and materialist, among others.  Order may come to this array of terms as the nuances of their use and the characteristics they represent become clearer as research proceeds.For the sake of clarity here, (philosophical) “naturalism”/“naturalist(ic)” and “this-worldly” will be used to denote ways of thinking that substantially or affirmatively reject or avoid “other-worldly” (i.e., supernatural or ontologically transcendental) ideas or phenomena.“Transcendent” and “transcendental” (and their negation) will, unless otherwise noted, be usedin an ontological sense, and so, correspond to “other-worldly” (or “this-worldly”).  “Secular”refers more broadly to individuals and organizations that distance themselves from establishedreligious traditions or institutions, or that dismiss or de-emphasize references to theistic or supernatural ideas (but may be naturalistic to varying degrees).  “Secularity” will refer to thedegree to which such a tendency may be said to describe individuals’ meaning systems andrelated behavior.  Following Kosmin (2007) “secularism” will be reserved for reference topolitical ideology concerning the relationshipand institutional separationbetween religionand government.Since this is largely
terra incognita
, the approach taken in this study was exploratoryand deliberately a-theoretical.  The aim was to cast a net that was wide enough in scope, butfine enough in weave, to identify both shared and distinctive characteristics in a sample of individuals who are substantially or affirmatively “secular” (for lack of a better summaryterm).  Nonetheless, a distinction suggested by Steinfels (2006) and Kosmin (2007) is useful between “soft” and “hard” secularity and secularism.  As Kosmin writes (2007:  6-7):The soft secularist. . .is neither a convinced Atheist nor a principled materialist,and may not be hostile to religious beliefs and institutions.  In fact, the majorityare liberal religionists.Hard secularity, on the other hand,refers to a worldview, a system of beliefs, or a modality of sense-makingthat is determinedly non-religious.  A disenchanted universe is a purelyphysical and material one.2
The question posed in the present research is:  what do “soft” and “hard” forms look like among affiliated, self-described “secularists” with respect to several indicators:> views of metaphysical concepts or phenomena> self-descriptions> attitude toward or about “religion”> attitude about religion-government or church-state relations (and separation)> use or avoidance of the notion of “spirituality” and meanings assigned to this.The first four of these are fairly straightforward.  With regard to “spiritual” and“spirituality,” based on in-depth interviews with 50 self-described nonreligious individuals anda small-scale survey of one secular humanist group, Pasquale (2006, 2007a) found that self-described secularistsboth affiliated and unaffiliatedmay use these terms.  Their meanings,however, were decidedly ‘this-worldly’ in character.Prior work has tended to focus on religious samples and on teasing out the distinctionbetween “religiousness” and “spirituality,” as well as “spiritual but not religious,” among them(Zinnbauer, et al., 1999; Zinnbauer and Pargament, 2000).  Summarizing findings reported byUnruh, Versnel, and Kerr (2002), Bregman (2006) gave six categories culled from 92distinguishable definitions of “spirituality”:1. “Relationship to God, spiritual being, higher power”2. “Not of the self”3. “Transcendence or connectedness, unrelated to belief in a higher being”4. “Existential”5. “Meaning and purpose in life”6. “Life force of the person”At a certain level, much like broadly functional definitions of “religion”such as“ultimate concern” (Emmons, 1999, or Tillich, 1957) or “intensive concerns” (Bailey, 1998) definitions of “spirituality” (as “meaning and purpose in life”) may refer to intrinsically human(and this-worldly) activities and sensibilities.  As such, they may be indicators of secularityrather than alternative or non-institutional religiousness.An expanded survey of affiliates in a range of secularist groups offers the opportunityto probe the range of meanings of these terms, prevalence of usage, and other aspects of suchindividuals’ worldviews as a means of exploring distinguishable varieties of secularity.
Methods and sample

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