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Secular Populations

1. The Freethinkers in a Free Market of Religion

Ariela Keysar and Barry A. Kosmin

S ecularity, like religion, takes many forms in American society. Also like
religion, it varies in intensity along the trajectories of what are often referred to
as the “Three B’s,” belonging, belief, and behavior. Our recently published book,
Religion in a Free Market, shows that the American public does not subscribe
to a binary system—religion or secularity. Our research found self-identifying
Catholics and Lutherans who say they don’t believe in God, Mormons who
claim a secular outlook, and religious people who, despite their religiosity, are
comfortably married to people of other faiths or no faith at all.
In America, secularity is one option among many in a free-market-oriented
regime that has operated for two centuries. The boundaries between religion and
secularity, and between different religions, are not clearly fixed because, to quote
from Religion in a Free Market, “the government has found it is not equipped or
inclined to provide a precise definition of what constitutes a religion or religious
belief or practice....This laissez-faire attitude by the state means there is plenty
of organized religion around for Americans to consume and numerous options
and places to do so.”1
Secularity and secular people in America have gone largely unresearched
until now. Manifestations of secularity are difficult to distinguish and isolate
in the U.S. because people are not compelled to opt into or out of “religion.”
Many countries still operate either legally or in practice under a binary system
that offers very limited choices between a monopolistic supplier of established
religion and outright irreligion.
In contrast, in a free market, secularism and manifestations of secularity can
take both positive (pro-secular) and negative (anti-religious) forms. It can offer
a range of alternative non-theistic belief systems as well as levels of irreligion and
indifference to religion across the realms of belonging and behavior. Thus in the
U.S. we can observe populations of “freethinkers” of different types, sizes and

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proportions according to the variable or issue being examined.

This chapter measures the secularization of the American public along the
three dimensions of belonging, belief, and behavior. Each dimension contributes
to understanding secularization because the three are by no means strictly
collinear: Americans who appear to be secular by belonging may appear religious
by belief, or vice versa. Others may appear religious by belonging and belief, but
not by behavior. And so on.
Statistics are drawn from the findings of the American Religious Identifi­
cation Survey (ARIS) 2001, a nationally representative telephone survey of more
than 50,000 respondents. The data is based on self-reporting and an open-
ended question: What is your religion, if any? This methodology incorporates
pluralistic and democratic values and so is better geared than most to tease out
the freethinking population and the various dimensions of secularism with
which they are associated.
The ARIS 2001 documented a doubling from 1990 to 2001 in the number
of American adults who reported that they had no religion. But secularity is
more than just a rejection of religion and religious authority or a default
option. It involves positive attributes such as rationalism and a belief in human
possibilities, and has its own moral values.2 Yet the exigencies of the ARIS
research design, like nearly all others in this area, necessitate beginning with the
concept of “belonging” to a religious group or to a religious institution.

One obvious social manifestation of secularity is being distant from or out of
touch with religion. This can be measured by a lack of affiliation with organized
religion. The causes or reasons for this unwillingness or inability to “belong” can
vary widely, from ideological attitudes to physical access issues. Nevertheless,
the actual population of those who do not presently “belong” to a religious
congregation or institution is very large. The ARIS found that, in 2001, 46
percent of American adults, or nearly 100 million people, did not regard
themselves as or claim to be members of a religious group.
An alternative measure of “belonging” with which to identify the free­
thinking population is the response to the key ARIS question on religious
identification: What is your religion, if any? The responses categorized as “No
Religion” amounted to 14 percent of the national adult population, or 29.5
million people. The most common “secular” response, given by 13 percent of
the population, was “None.” An additional 1 percent offered a “positive secular”
The total population estimates derived from the sample were 991,000
1. The Freethinkers in a Free Market of Religion 19

Figure 1-1
Belief that God Performs Miracles: Identifiers by Religious Tradition


TRADITION/ Disagree Disagree Agree Agree Population
Group Strongly Somewhat Somewhat Strongly
Catholic 1 5 22 70 50,873,000
Mainline Christians 3 6 21 68 35,788,000
Methodist 2 5 18 73 14,150,000
Lutheran 4 6 21 68 9,580,000
Presbyterian 4 4 24 66 5,596,000
Episcopalian 3 8 28 58 3,451,000
United Church of Christ 1 14 30 53 1,378,000
Baptist 1 1 8 90 33,830,000
Christian Generic 2 5 15 78 22,546,000
Christian unspecified 2 4 13 80 14,150,000
Protestant unspecified 3 8 23 64 4,647,000
Evangelical/ Born Again 0 0 4 96 1,032,000
Non-denominational 1 2 14 82 2,489,000
Pentecostal 2 1 4 93 7,831,000
Assemblies of God 0 1 1 98 1,106,000
Church of God 2 0 9 89 944,000
Pentecostal unspecified 2 1 3 94 4,407,000
Protestant 3 2 12 81 5,949,000
Churches of Christ 5 2 15 77 2,593,000
Jehovah’s Witnesses 5 4 13 74 1,331,000
Seventh Day Adventist 0 3 1 96 724,000
Mormon 1 4 7 87 2,697,000
Jewish 16 26 23 32 2,837,000
Eastern Religions 16 16 22 43 2,029,000
Buddhist 16 24 23 34 1,082,000
Muslim 4 7 13 70 1,104,000
New & Other 21 14 15 45 1,170,000
Nones/No religion 19 19 22 35 29,481,000
U.S. TOTAL ADULTS 4 7 16 70 208,000,000
(Rows may not tally to 100% as Refused & Don’t Know responses excluded from table)
20 Secularism & Secularity

Agnostics, 902,000 Atheists, 53,000 Seculars (so stated) and 49,000 Humanists.
In addition, over 5 percent of the sample refused to answer the question. As
we state in our book, there are indications to show that this group was mainly
irreligious; certainly it did not feel a compelling need to assert a religious
identity. This means we can extrapolate a “No Faith” population of adults, who
either profess no religion or refuse to answer the question, of 19 percent of adult
Americans, or over 40 million people.

Disbelief does not correlate with a secular identification as much as might be
expected. “Non-theistic freethinkers” are a small minority. Only 5 percent, or an
estimated 10 million adult Americans, disagree either “strongly” or “somewhat,”
that God exists. (Though it must be stated that this group is five times the
number of self-designated Atheists and Agnostics.)
Surprisingly, the rate of disbelief is only 21 percent among the Nones,
which is very close to that among the Buddhists (20 percent). A level of
skepticism about the Divine is also found among a significant number of those
who identify with some other religious groups; 14 percent among Jews, 9 percent
among the New Religious Movements, and 3 percent among Lutherans.
A specific question about the ability of the Divinity to intervene in the
world and perform miracles reveals even more freethinkers. Overall, 11 percent
of Americans disagree, either strongly (4 percent) or somewhat (7 percent),
that “God performs miracles.” As Figure 1-1 shows, the proportion of skeptics
amounts to 38 percent of Nones but is even greater among Jews (42 percent)
and Buddhists (40 percent). A solid proportion of skeptics regarding the super­
natural powers of the Divine are also found among adherents of some Mainline
Protestant denominations, such as the United Church of Christ (15 percent)
and Episcopalians (11 percent), and even among Muslims (11 percent).

One caveat to bear in mind with the No Religion population is that it is diverse.
As the statistics on belief show, this category contains theists and believers, many
of whom are indeed religious but have not found a religious group with which
to identify. Yet we can distinguish a sub-group of those who have consciously
rejected religion. One clear behavior that identifies a freethinker is apostasy or a
willingness to give up a previously held religious identity.
The ARIS investigated the level of “switching” among the population and
recorded the movement from a previous religious identity to the No Religion
category. Over 6.6 million adults made this change during their lifetime. These
1. The Freethinkers in a Free Market of Religion 21

“new freethinkers” comprise 23 percent of the total No Religion population.

Figure 1-2 explores the point of origin in religious terms of the switchers,
namely the 6 million who in 2001 chose the no religion category, yet previously
professed a religion. These “new freethinkers” are predominantly former
Catholics, as nearly 2.6 million adults who self-identified as Catholics at one
point in their lives switched to the no religion option.
Tolerance of and respect for individuals holding alternative beliefs are
characteristics of liberal free societies. A willingness to live alongside others who
do not hold the same opinions is a form of secular behavior. It is certainly not
a value that most religious fundamentalists hold. So the population that resides
with a spouse or partner who holds a different religious identity could also be
regarded as part of the freethinking population. These mixed-religion couples
number over 14 million (28 million adults), account for 22 percent of American
couples, and fall into the category of “open minded or pluralist thinkers.”

Figure 1-2
Previous Religious Identification of “New Nones”
(Weighted estimates)

Previous Religion Number of Adults Percent

Catholic 2,599,000 43
Baptist 815,000 14
Christian 420,000 7
Methodist 394,000 7
Lutheran 264,000 4
Presbyterian 138,000 2
Protestant 134,000 2
Pentecostal 115,000 2
Mormon 114,000 2
Jehovah’s Witness 80,000 1
Episcopalian/Anglican 56,000 1
Jewish 53,000 1
Other Religious Groups 61,000 11
Refused 163,000 3
Total 6,045,000 100 %
22 Secularism & Secularity

Secular Outlook
One innovative approach of the ARIS was to introduce the concept of religious
or secular “outlook.” This goes beyond questions of group belonging, belief, and
behavior. It is a measure of world view or world outlook—what the Germans
call Weltanschauung.
The question posed offered a four-point scale and was rotated propor­
tionately among the sample to avoid bias. When it comes to your outlook do you
regard yourself as secular, somewhat secular, somewhat religious or religious? The
national poll result, shown in Figure 1-3, was 10 percent secular, 6 percent
somewhat secular, 38 percent somewhat religious, and 37 percent religious. This
shows that a generally secular outlook is held by 16 percent of American adults,
or 33 million people.
Cross tabulating the results on the outlook and religious identification
questions brings the complexity associated with this topic to the fore. Un­
surprisingly, the secular outlook scores were highest among the No Religion
category: 51 percent described themselves as secular or somewhat secular. But,
as Figure 1-4 (page 24) shows, scores were also high among several non-Christian
traditions: 42 percent among Jews, 37 percent among the New Religious
Movements, 26 percent among Eastern religions, and 15 percent among Muslims.
Among Christians, the highest secular score was 12 percent, among Catholics.
The Protestant scores showed some slight evidence of a liberal-conservative
continuum. Mainline Protestants scored 9 percent, Mormons 8 percent, Baptists
6 percent, Protestant sects 5 percent, and Pentecostals 4 percent.
These results, especially the overall ordering of the scores across the religious
traditions, suggest that the ARIS tapped into attitudes and concerns relating
to church-state separation and minority-group anxiety about what “religious”
actually means in practice in the contemporary U.S. It appears that some
who called themselves secular were expressing a civic or political concern that
constituted support for a secular state that guarantees freedom of expression
and worship to minority faiths.

How Big Is the “Freethinking” Population?

The actual size of the secular or freethinking population is open to
interpretation, depending on the criteria one uses to measure or identify
secularity. The variables considered so far show it can be claimed to be anywhere
from 1 percent (Atheists and Agnostics) to 46 percent (anyone unaffiliated with
a religious congregation) of Americans.
If one counts as freethinkers those who have a secular or somewhat
secular outlook and say they have no religion then more than one in five adult
1. The Freethinkers in a Free Market of Religion 23

Figure 1-3
Outlook of U. S. Adult Population

“When it comes to your outlook, do you regard yourself

as religious or secular?”

Don’t know, unsure, refused 10%
9% Somewhat secular

37% Somewhat religious

Americans can be included, or about 46 million individuals. Interestingly, some

corroborating statistics for the size of the freethinking population have recently
appeared in a Gallup Poll on attitudes to the Bible, which found that 19 percent
of Americans think the Bible is a “collection of fables.”

Who Is the Typical American “Freethinker”?

An interesting socio-demographic profile or typology of the “classic freethinking
American” emerges when we look across a range of variables to search for those
most associated with the No Religion identity category and the secular outlook
population. This population is more male than female. It is young: the most
common age category is 18-35 years. It is more likely to be never married. Among
ethnic groups it is more Asian than the general population. Geographically it is
more Western, as seen in Figure 1-5 on page 25.
So, the picture that emerges is that of a young, never-married, Asian male
living in, say, Washington State.
An interesting sub-group is composed of the “new freethinkers”—that is,
people with no religion who say they professed a religion at some time in their
lives. Figure 1-2 showed a plurality of former Catholics among them. A socio-
demographic profile of these former Catholics who switched to no religion shows
that they are predominantly young or middle-aged; three-quarters were under
24 Secularism & Secularity

Figure 1-4
Outlook of Identifiers by Religious Tradition


TRADITION/ Secular Somewhat Somewhat Religious Population
GROUP Secular Religious
Catholic 6 6 50 33 50,873,000
Mainline Christians 4 5 48 41 35,788,000
Methodist 3 5 48 42 14,150,000
Lutheran 3 6 48 41 9,580,000
Presbyterian 6 6 46 40 5,596,000
Episcopalian 7 7 52 32 3,451,000
United Church of Christ 4 4 55 34 1,378,000
Baptist 3 3 37 54 33,830,000
Christian Generic 6 6 37 45 22,546,000
Christian unspecified 4 6 37 47 14,150,000
Protestant unspecified 8 7 46 32 4,647,000
Evangelical/ Born Again 7 1 19 70 1,032,000
Non-denominational 10 5 34 46 2,489,000
Pentecostal 2 2 26 63 7,831,000
Assemblies of God 0 2 18 72 1,106,000
Church of God 0 5 29 65 944,000
Pentecostal unspecified 3 2 27 61 4,407,000
Protestant 2 3 24 69 5,949,000
Churches of Christ 0 3 30 65 2,593,000
Jehovah’s Witnesses 5 2 18 73 1,331,000
Seventh Day Adventist 3 4 19 73 724,000
Mormon 2 6 20 68 2,697,000
Jewish 26 16 41 11 2,837,000
Eastern Religions 15 11 42 27 2,029,000
Buddhist 7 15 46 24 1,082,000
Muslim 9 6 46 32 1,104,000
New & Other 28 9 21 25 1,170,000
Nones/No religion 39 12 28 8 29,481,000
U.S. TOTAL ADULTS 10 6 40 38 208,000,000
(Rows may not tally to 100% as Refused & Don’t Know responses excluded from table)
1. The Freethinkers in a Free Market of Religion 25

Figure 1-5
Percentage of No Faith in Each State

No Faith

Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, 2006, Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non-Religious
Americans, Who, What, Why and Where, Paramount Market Publishing, Ithaca, NY

50 in 2001, compared with 51 percent of adult Catholics. Second, they are

well educated by national standards and slightly better educated than Catholics
overall; over 37 percent had graduated college, compared with 32 percent
among Catholics in general. Geographically, they tend more to reside outside
the historic areas of Catholic settlement; 27 percent live in the West and 21
percent in the South; as opposed to the general Catholics population, with 24
percent living in the West and 15 percent in the South.

Social and Political Implications

In Religion in a Free Market we demonstrated how in the civic realm “free­
thinkers” have distinct political loyalties. They have a strong tendency to be
independent of the two main political parties. Thus their reluctance to join or
identify with institutions holds for both religious affiliation and political party.
If the young cohorts maintain their religious preferences as they get older it
could have major consequences for societal and political issues at the heart of
current debates within U.S. society. Since there is less “class politics” than at
other times in the past, “values” are the new battlefield and the religious divide
is more central to politics. This is particularly so where ethical or moral issues
are involved, such as on stem cell research, science teaching, assisted suicide,
26 Secularism & Secularity

homosexual marriage, the death penalty, and gun control.

One current and topical example of a “culture war” divide between the more
secular and more religious forces is support for stem cell research. According to
a survey conducted in August 2004 by the Pew Research Center for the People
& the Press, “white Evangelicals” and “seculars” were the most polarized groups
on the importance of conducting stem cell research. Whereas only 33 percent
of “white Evangelicals” said that it was more important to conduct stem cell
research than to not destroy embryos, 68 percent of “seculars” expressed this
view. Interestingly, there was little movement in either group’s opinions over
two years; a similar survey in March 2002 had found 26 percent versus 66
percent respectively.
One consequence of a free market in beliefs and ideas is a proliferation of
choices and a wide distribution of individuals across those choices. Unlimited
and unregulated options inevitably give rise to the complexity that is observed
regarding the multiple dimensions of secularity and secularism. In a free society
freethinking stretches into all spheres of existence and reduces the pressure to
be logical and consistent in opinions or behaviors. This makes delineating the
boundaries between secularism, religion, and spirituality very difficult.
Indeed, without any obligation to be coherent and follow normative
patterns some people exercise their choices in idiosyncratic ways. In his Wealth
of Nations, the 18th-century free-market economist Adam Smith postulated that
just as with tangible goods in the economy so in a “natural state” of religion
there is no fixed limit to the number of suppliers or their ability to formulate and
offer philosophies, religious culture, and spiritual goods and services.3 And so
today in America there is no limit on the ways in which the sovereign consumer
can and does reformulate or consume ideas, loyalties, and rituals. This situation
is an essential marker of secularization. An environment that offers freedom
to exercise liberty of conscience and the pursuit of personal happiness is an
important legacy of secularism in the political domain.

1. Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, Religion in a Free Market: Religious and
Non-Religious Americans, Who, What, Why and Where, Paramount Market
Publications, Ithaca, NY, 2006 p. 7.
2. Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Metropolitan Books,
New York, 2004.
3. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book
Five, Chapter 1, Part 3, Article III, The Modern Library, New York, 1965 [1776]