This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Putting Secularity in Context
Bruce A. Phillips
t has been correctly asserted that “Secularity and secular people in America have gone largely unresearched until now.” Indeed, Kosmin, Mayer, and Keysar have put secularism back on the scholarly agenda.1 The qualifier “largely” is important, however. Secularism did not entirely disappear from the sociology of religion, and putting these most recent findings in the context of previous research raises a number of analytic challenges. In this chapter I look at these findings in the context of previous research and suggest that the re-emergence of secularism in America needs to be understood in specific analytic contexts.
The Disappearance and Re-Appearance of Secularism
In 1965 the Protestant theologian Harvey Cox published The Secular City.2 Although it was a theological work that discussed the emergence of “post religious” modernity, it was widely read as announcing the triumph of secularization. A decade later this certainty was challenged by Dean M. Kelley, who observed that “the conservative churches are growing.”3 This observation became important to the country as a whole when the Christian Coalition was founded in 1988 by Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed to make the “Religious Right” an important force in American politics and a leading voice in the “culture war.” As Kevin Christano has observed in the introduction to a recent text book, the revival of American religion gave the sociological study of religion a new importance and vitality.4 It showed religion was a vital force in America and led to new thinking on how to explain it. One such intellectual development was the market model borrowed from economics introduced by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke.5 A related model has come to be known as “rational choice” theory, which draws on a variety of economic models such as the existence of “free riders.”6 In a seminal article, R. Stephen Warner grouped these and other works under the rubric of a “new paradigm” that focused on explaining religious vibrancy.7
SeculariSm & Secularity
Studies of secularization receded to the background, but an important exchange on secularization took place in 1989-1990. Mark Chaves argued that, contrary to conventional wisdom, secularization was on the rise.8 Michael Hout and Andrew Greeley challenged Chaves’ conclusion, debating the role of age, period, and cohort effects.9 Chaves then rebutted their analysis, noting that period effects revealed a sharp drop in church attendance between 1959 and 1980.10 No consensus emerged on whether or not the decline in church attendance was evidence of secularization. Kosmin, Mayer, and Keysar’s American Religious Identification Survey11 (ARIS) has revived interest in secularization in two ways. First, rather than looking at church attendance, they looked specifically at Americans who classify themselves as Atheists, Agnostics, or as having no religion. Second, they explored attitude related to a “secular outlook.”12 The ARIS was the first study in over 20 years to look at secular as self defined, and a comparison with the early research is instructive. In 1985 Condran and Tamney13 compared the 1957 Current Population Survey (CPS), which included a question on religion, with the combined results of the General Social Survey (GSS) for 1970-1982. They discovered that the percentage of people reporting “no religion” grew from 2.7 percent in the 1957 CPS to 7.1 percent in the 1970-1982 combined GSS. The ARIS puts that figure currently at 19 percent. This clearly shows that self-professed “seculars” or “religious nones” has grown six-fold over the past half-century, and doubled over the past 20 years. More instructive, however, is the consistency in the demographic profile of seculars between the Condran and Tamey study and ARIS. Condran and Tamney found that “religious nones” were more likely than religiously identified Americans to be: • Young • Single • Educated • Geographically mobile • Raised Catholic Kosmin, Mayer, and Keysar found the identical profile of their “seculars,” with the addition of residence in the Western United States. These remarkable consistencies suggest that the increase in seculars may be related to both structural changes and cultural trends within American society.
2. Putting Secularity in context
Explaining the Rise of Secularism
Condran and Tamney proposed that explanations for the increase in “religious nones” are both structural and cultural. The consistent association between being secular and being young and single is a structural explanation. It suggests that secular identification is a transitory phenomenon related to family formation. There is evidence from other studies that religious identification increases when families are started.14 There is also evidence that Americans are staying single longer, and some may never marry at all.15 To what extent is secular identification a reflection of changes in the American family structure in general and of the “retreat from marriage” in particular? There are cultural explanations for the rise of secularism as well. Secularization was associated with those raised Catholic in the 1970s and in the 21st century. Greeley has argued that the rise in secularism has been essentially a Catholic phenomenon;16 ex-Catholics rebelling against the Church’s teachings on birth control and abortion. Wade Clark Roof has long associated secularization with individualism. Referring to Bellah’s notion of the “sovereign self,” Roof has noted parallels between having “no religion” and defining one’s own religion.17 Roof and McKinney explained that “no religion” is most prominent in the West because of its individualistic regional culture. They observed that Western states could be called the “unchurched belt” because church attendance has long been lower in this region. Their explanation was the individualism so central to the cultural climate.18 Roof has also related secularism to individualism in the context of the atomistic disengagement described by Robert Putnam in his Bowling Alone.19
Is Secularism Disengagement or a Residual Category?
Respondents rarely identify themselves as “secular.” The majority of “seculars” say that they have “no religion.” A minority identify themselves as Atheists or Agnostics. Because the last two categories are rarely mentioned, they get thrown in with “no religion” respondents, thereby obfuscating important differences. Atheists are organized. They form societies. They file lawsuits. They are the few, the proud, the assertive. Hout and Fischer have inferred from their data that alienation from the religious right has been a contributing factor to the increase in religious nones, although they do not suggest these respondents have become ideologically anti-religion.20 Condran and Tamney have suggested that religious nones are isolated from religious institutions and therefore have no religious preference. Along the same lines, Roof has suggested that religious disengagement may be part of a larger pattern of disengagement from all institutions. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater
SeculariSm & Secularity
in reverse, secularism may be an echo, not a choice. It is more of a residual category than an ideological position. Jews who claim “no religion” tend to be the offspring of Jewish-Christian intermarriages. Many of them were raised as Christians and “no religion” represents a safe middle ground that avoided choosing between parents.21 This possibility could and should be investigated for non-Jews whose parents were religiously intermarried.
Understanding the Meaning of Secularism
Kosmin and Keysar have convincingly documented the increase in secular selfidentification. Putting their findings in the context of other research suggests three questions for further investigation: 1. 2. 3. To what extent are “religious nones” different from “principled secularists” such as Atheists and Agnostics? (see chapter 3) To what extent is secularism a religious phenomenon, and to what extent is a reflection of larger patterns of social disengagement? To what extent is the increase in secular self-identification explained by changes in family structure such as the “retreat from marriage?
1. American Religious Identification Survey, 2001. <http://www.trincoll.edu/ Academics/AcademicResources/values/ISSSC/research/ARIS+2001.htm>. Kosmin, Barry A. and Ariela Keysar, Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non-Religious Americans (Ithaca, Paramount Market Publishing, 2006); Kosmin, Barry. “As Secular as they come.” Moment. June, 2002, pp. 44-49. Cox, Harvey. The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. (New York, Macmillan Company, Collier Books, 1965). Kelley, Dean. M. Why conservative churches are growing: A study in sociology of religion. (New York, Harper & Row, 1977). Christiano, Kevin, J., William H. Swatos, Peter Kivistos. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. (Walnut Creek, Calif, AltaMira Press, 2002). Finke, Roger and Rodney. Stark. The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. (New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1992). Iannaccone, Laurence. R. “Why Strict Churches are Strong.” American Journal of Sociology 99(5): 1180-1211. Warner, R. Stephen. “Work in Progress toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States” American Journal of Sociology 98(5): 104493.
2. 3. 4. 5.
2. Putting Secularity in context
Chaves, Mark. “Secularization and religious revival: evidence from the U.S. church attendance rates, 1972-1986.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28(4): 464477. Hout, Michael and Andrew Greeley “The cohort doesn’t hold: comment on Chaves (1989).” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 29(4): 519-524.
10. Chaves, Mark. “Holding the Center: Reply to Hout and Greeley.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 29(4): 525-530. 11. American Religious Identification Survey, 2001. < http://www.trincoll.edu/Academics/AcademicResources/values/ISSSC/research/ARIS+2001.htm>. 12. Mayer, Egon. The Rise of Seculars in American Jewish Life. Contemplate, The Center for Cultural Judaism (2003). 13. Condran, John and Joseph Tamney. “Religious ‘Nones’: 1957 to 1982.” Sociological Analysis 46(4): 415-423. 14. Tilley, James R. “Secularization and Aging in Britain: Does Family Formation Cause Greater Religiosity?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42(2): 269; Glenn, Norval. “The trend in ‘no religion’ respondents to U.S. national surveys, late 1950s to early 1980s.” Public Opinion Quarterly 51(3): 293-314; Greeley, Andrew M. and Michael Hout. “Musical Chairs: Patterns of Denominational Change in the United States, 1947-1986.” Sociology and Social Research 72(January): 75-86. 15. Goldstein, Joshua R. and Catherine T. Kenney. “Marriage Delayed or Marriage Forgone? New Cohort Forecasts of First Marriage for U.S. Women.” American Sociological Review 66(4): 506-519; Schoen, Robert and Yen-Hsin A. Cheng. “Partner Choice and the Differential Retreat from Marriage.” Journal of Marriage and Family 68(1): 1-10; Thornton, Arland and Linda Young-DeMarco (2001). “Four Decades of Trends in Attitudes Toward Family Issues in the United States: the 1960s Through the 1990s.” Journal of Marriage and Family 63(4): 1009-1037; Doyle, Rodger. “By the Numbers: The Decline of Marriage.” Scientific American 1999(36). 16. Greeley and Hout; Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2): 165-190. 17. Greer, Bruce A. and Wade Clark Roof (1982). “‘Desperately Seeking Sheila’: Locating Religious Privatism in American Society.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 31( 3): 346-352. 18. Roof, Wade Clark and Williame McKinney. American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future. (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1987). 19. Putnam, Robert. D. Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2000); Roof, Wade Clark. “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37(1): 1-14. 20. Hout and Fischer. 21. Phillips, Bruce A. “American Judaism in the Twenty-first Century” in Dana Evan Kaplan, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 397-415.