Patterns of thought and attitude among secular group affiliates in the Pacific Northwest Paper delivered at the annual
meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Tampa, Florida, November 4, 2007 © Frank L. Pasquale Research Associate, ISSSC, Trinity College, Hartford, CT email@example.com Abstract. Distinctions among types of religiosity and religious identification are many and detailed. Research that compares and contrasts individuals who consider themselves secular or nonreligious, or who hold affirmatively or substantially naturalistic worldviews, however, is largely uncharted territory. These are customarily treated as a homogeneous group with which to 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, attitudes toward “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’s existential and metaphysical worldviews, or “meaning systems”1 (Hood, Hill, and Williamson, 2005), has customarily been approached from the vantage of religion and religiosity. This has resulted in a detailed picture of religious individuals and forms, but comparatively little detail in our understanding of people at the other end of the metaphysical spectrum, such as those who may be characterized as substantially or affirmatively nonreligious, irreligious, secular, non-transcendental,2 or philosophically naturalistic (Pasquale, 2007a, b). They have generally been treated, as J. Russell Hale once said of the unchurched, “as if. . .they were one homogeneous category” (1980: 97). Glenn Vernon’s observation, nearly forty years ago that the 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, as evidenced by Bainbridge, 2005, Beit-Hallahmi, 2007, Hunsberger and Altemeyer, 2006, Kosmin and Keysar, 2007, and Zuckerman, 2007. But the differences, as well as shared characteristics, among self-described secularists, (religious) skeptics, and philosophical naturalists 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 “thisworldly” 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 used in an ontological sense, and so, correspond to “other-worldly” (or “this-worldly”). “Secular” refers more broadly to individuals and organizations that distance themselves from established religious 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 the degree to which such a tendency may be said to describe individuals’ meaning systems and related behavior. Following Kosmin (2007) “secularism” will be reserved for reference to political ideology concerning the relationship—and institutional separation—between religion and government. Since this is largely terra incognita, the approach taken in this study was exploratory and deliberately a-theoretical. The aim was to cast a net that was wide enough in scope, but fine 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 summary term). 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 majority are liberal religionists. Hard secularity, on the other hand, refers to a worldview, a system of beliefs, or a modality of sense-making that is determinedly non-religious. A disenchanted universe is a purely physical and material one.
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 and a small-scale survey of one secular humanist group, Pasquale (2006, 2007a) found that selfdescribed 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 distinction between “religiousness” and “spirituality,” as well as “spiritual but not religious,” among them (Zinnbauer, et al., 1999; Zinnbauer and Pargament, 2000). Summarizing findings reported by Unruh, Versnel, and Kerr (2002), Bregman (2006) gave six categories culled from 92 distinguishable 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 secularity rather than alternative or non-institutional religiousness. An expanded survey of affiliates in a range of secularist groups offers the opportunity to probe the range of meanings of these terms, prevalence of usage, and other aspects of such individuals’ worldviews as a means of exploring distinguishable varieties of secularity. Methods and sample
An effort was made to identify all free-standing “secularist” groups in Oregon, Washington, and southern British Columbia.3 This included groups that described themselves as “secular,” “humanist” (secular, Jewish, or Unitarian), “atheist,” “freethought,” “rationalist,” and/or “skeptic.” Questionnaires were distributed by postal mail or by hand to 1,638 individuals on the mailing lists of 22 such groups from September of 2006 through January of 2007.4 These were distributed in manila envelopes containing a cover letter, the questionnaire, and a self-addressed, post-paid return envelope addressed to “OCHCP Survey [number for each participating group]” at a post-office box in Portland, Oregon. Cover letters asked for group-members’ participation in a study of people in the Pacific Northwest whose ways of thinking are substantially secular, nonreligious, skeptical, non-supernatural, or naturalistic. Anonymity was assured and it was indicated that “survey findings will not be reported for any particular group or organization by name.” The letter was signed by the investigator as a Research Associate with the Institute for the Study of Secularism, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. Forty-one questionnaires were returned by the postal service as undeliverable. Questionnaires were returned by 951 individuals, but due to membership in multiple groups some individuals received more than one copy. To avoid data duplication (i.e., more than one completed survey from anyone), recipients were asked to complete a cover sheet for each duplicate questionnaire received, indicating the group for which they had already completed and returned the survey, and the group(s) from which they received the duplicate(s). Twentyeight respondents did so, yielding 922 completed surveys for analysis, or an effective response rate of 58.76 percent (of a non-duplicative distribution of 1,569). Ten questionnaires were partially completed, but since they provided usable data in some sections they were not excluded from the sample for analysis. Anecdotal reports (as well as written notes on completed forms) indicated that some of those receiving more than one survey did not return duplicate surveys with completed cover sheets, as requested. Another indication of multiple group membership (and so, likely receipt of more than one questionnaire) was provided by a survey item on respondent membership in local religious, philosophical, or nonreligious groups. Sixty-six respondents indicated affiliation with two or more of the targeted groups. The resulting response rate is thus a conservative estimate, since the actual (net) number of individuals in the distribution sample 4
was likely closer to 1,500 than 1,600. It is reasonable to conclude that a response rate of roughly 60 percent was achieved.5 A commitment was made to all participating groups that data would not be reported for any individual group by name, but rather, for distinguishable group or philosophical types based on self-descriptions (in group names, in materials or websites, and by group members and representatives). Assignment of groups to categories was straightforward in most cases, based on self-descriptive distinctions made by the groups themselves. Groups were assigned to the Unitarian humanist category on the basis of an indicated relationship with a Unitarian church or fellowship, substantial numbers of Unitarian church/fellowship members among respondents, and/or explicit self-description as Unitarian humanists.6 Seven respondents each who were affiliated with Ethical Culture and “Brights” groups, who described themselves as “atheist(ic)” and/or indicated dual membership in a regional atheist group, were included in the Atheist group category. Comparatively low response variability for the Atheist group category on many items reinforced confidence in the appropriateness of this allocation. One small group (n=11) that labeled itself “freethought” was excluded from the analyses presented here. Analysis of responses suggested that its members were markedly and consistently different from all other groups in the distribution sample. Most indicated profoundly “religious,” “spiritual,” supernatural, and/or “mystical” views. Aggregation with affiliates of other freethought groups yielded results with high response variability that did not fairly represent either of two apparently very different “takes” on “freethought.” This points up an apparent distinction in popular use and meaning of “freethought” and “freethinker.” One widely cited dictionary definition of freethought/freethinker refers to “one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority; especially one who doubts or denies religious dogma.” Two of three groups in the distribution sample use these terms in what may be called the (majority or standard) “rationalist” sense (as in, for example, Robertson, 1936, or more recently, Jacoby, 2004). Here, emphasis is on reason (or rigorous application of logic and empirical evidence to the evaluation of truth claims) and denial of religious doctrine or supernatural ideas. The response patterns of the outlier group, however, suggested a very different interpretation. Here, thinking may be set free from the perceived constraints of “traditional” or institutional religious adherence, belief, or doctrine, but also from those of rationalism, skepticism, naturalism, or non-transcendentalism. (This might best be called an “unfettered” sense of “freethought” and “freethinker.”) Such variation in usage is 5
not restricted to the groups sampled here. A check of the Worldwide Web indicates that while the rationalist usage seems most common, there are those (such as an “Oregon Freethought Church,” not represented in the present sample) for whom these terms mean freedom from either religious or rationalist/empiricist limitation (with consequent inclusion of pagan, gnostic, mystical, magical, “neopagan polytheistic,” and “bohemian” references). Following these adjustments, the final sample for analysis included 911 respondents in six categories: Group type Secular humanist Jewish humanist Unitarian humanist Atheist Skeptic, rationalist Freethought ---Oregon/Washington--Number of groups n 4 2 3 2 3 _2 16 256 110 129 104 153 30 782 ----British Columbia---Number of groups n 3 129 Total 385 110 129 104 153 30 911 % 42.3 12.1 14.2 11.4 16.8 3.3 100.1
Respondents were overwhelmingly white and of European descent. Among 899 individuals supplying this information, 79.8 percent described themselves as “Euro/ Caucasian,” with another 16.3 percent “Jewish” or “Jewish”+“Euro-Caucasian” and 3.9 percent, other (including [East] Asian descent, Indian [South Asian], Middle Eastern [Persian, Iraqi], African American, and Native American). Average age of respondents was 62.68 and median age was 64, with a range of 15 to 92. Roughly 56 percent of respondents were male and 44 percent were female. (Ten respondents did not provide this information.) Gender distribution varied among group types as indicated in Table 1. The pattern among survey respondents was a fair reflection of the actual gender distributions in the groups (based on mailing list counts or group reports; indicated in brackets).
Table 1. Gender distribution by group type Gender Group type/affiliation Humanist – Secular Count % in group type [Est. actual] Count % in group type Humanist - Unitarian [Est. actual] Count % in group type Atheist [Est. actual] Count % in group type Skeptic, rationalist [Est. actual] Count % in group type Freethought [Est. actual] Count % in group type Total [Est. actual] N male 210 55.4% [58.5%] 33 30.6% [40.5%] 63 48.8% [48.0%] 69 67.0% [69.3%] 113 74.3% [70.0%] 18 60.0% [N/A] 506 56.2% female 169 44.6% [41.5%] 75 69.4% [59.5%] 66 51.2% [52.0%] 34 33.0% [30.7%] 39 25.7% [30.0%] 12 40.0% [N/A] 399 43.8% Total 379 100.0%
Humanist - Jewish
This is a comparatively well-educated group, with more than three-quarters holding college degrees and nearly half holding advanced degrees, far higher than among all U. S. citizens 25 years of age or older (Table 2).
Table 2. Respondents’ educational attainment
Total sample % High school only Some college, no degree Specialist/ associate degree Baccalaureate Master’s degrees Doctoral/professional (J.D., M. D., Ph. D.) 4.4 16.0 5.1 28.8 28.2 17.4
U. S. sample* % 3.4 15.5 4.2 30.3 28.7 17.7
U. S. population** % 31.7 17.0 8.7 18.3 6.8 2.9
* Excluding British Columbia groups. ** Among individuals 25 years of age and older (= 191,884,000) U. S. Census, 2006: http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/education/cps2006/tab01-01.xls
Among the U. S.-based groups (n=782), 17.5 percent indicated Jewish backgrounds. In all U. S. groups except the Jewish humanists, 7.1 percent of respondents indicated Jewish backgrounds, an over-representation compared with an estimated 2 to 3 percent of individuals reporting Jewish descent in the U. S. population at large. The distribution of ethnic/cultural backgrounds for the entire sample is given in Table 3. Notably, not all Jewish humanist affiliates indicated Jewish cultural/ethnic background, a reflection of the fact that some member households consist of a Jewish and non-Jewish spouse.
Table 3. Group affiliation by ethnic/cultural background
Group type/affiliation Humanist Unitarian Atheist 116 89 89.9% 11 8.5% 2 1.6% 129 100.0% 88.1% 7 6.9% 5 5.0% 101 100.0% Total Skeptic, rationalist 136 90.1% 5 3.3% 10 6.6% 151 100.0% Freethought 29 96.7% 0 .0% 1 3.3% 30 100.0%
Cultural/ethnic background Euro/Caucasian
Count % Count %
Humanist Secular 329 87.0% 34 9.0% 15
Humanist Jewish 18 16.5% 89 81.7% 2 1.8% 109 100.0%
717 79.8% 146 16.3% 35 3.9% 898 100.0%
Jewish or Jewish+Euro
All other (African Am, Asian, Middle Eastern)
4.0% 378 100.0%
Selected findings Survey components afforded several ways of probing degrees and types of secularity among respondents: a) views of specific metaphysical questions or ideas b) applicability of a range of self-descriptive terms c) attitudes toward something-called-religion d) attitude about religion-government, or church-state, relations e) use and specific meanings of “spiritual” or “spirituality.” Metaphysical concepts. Five items assessed respondents’ views on existential or metaphysical issues, one of which focused on explanations for perceived order in nature:
Do you think that the degree of order or patterning we perceive in nature is most likely attributable to: 1. Properties that are intrinsic to the nature of the physical universe or all that exists, and nothing more 2. A coherent organizing principle that we cannot, or do not yet, fully comprehend, that is pervasive throughout the physical universe or all that exists 3. An organizing principle or force that in some way transcends the physical universe or all that exists 4. An impersonal, but in some sense intelligent, creative force that has brought all that exists into being 5. A personal, and in some sense intelligence creative force, or “God,” with which human beings can make contact or have a communicative relationship 6. An omniscient, omnipotent, intelligent God that designed and created all that exists
On the basis of responses to this item alone (n=886), this is an overwhelmingly “naturalistic” group, with 96.4 percent choosing response 1, 2, or both 1 and 2. Three percent more chose responses 3 or 4 (which could be considered alternative expressions of “deism”). Only one individual chose option 5 and none chose 6. Comparatively greater numbers of Jewish (32 percent) affiliates chose option 2 rather than 1 (with other groups ranging from 8 to 22 percent). In related texts, fourteen individuals made reference to the human tendency to perceive or impose pattern whether or not it is “really there.” (One stated definitively that “there is no order or patterning in nature!”) Had there been a response option attributing “order” to human perception (or human perceptual bias, alone) rather than to nature, more individuals might well have indicated this view. Four additional metaphysical concepts were presented. These focused on:
> A transcendent entity: “a being, entity, or higher power beyond, apart from, or transcending nature (call this “God” if you wish) > A “personal essence, spirit, or soul apart from our physical bodies or continuing beyond our physical lives (or through multiple lifetimes)”
> An “impersonal force or energy that courses through and connects all living things or all that exists” (call this “spiritual” if you wish) > An “ultimate purpose or direction in human life or all of existence”
Modified Glock and Stark response sets were provided for each of these items. Modifications were suggested by prior interviews, particularly the addition of a “metaphorical” approach to metaphysical concepts or phenomena. These were:
> Meaningless/nonexistent: “this makes no sense to me; I don’t think there is any such thing” > Unknowable: “I don’t know and don’t think this is something human beings can know” > Maybe/unsure: “this may be; I’m just not sure” > Sometimes: “sometimes I think this is so and sometimes I do not” > Metaphorical: “even though I doubt or reject the reality of this, or view this as a human construction, I like to think as though there is” > Probably: “there is probably something like this, but I have no idea about its actual nature” > Definitely: “this is something I definitely think exists or is the case”
Strong majorities rejected notions of a transcendent entity and continuing personal essence as meaningless/non-existent or unknowable. Weaker majorities rejected the notions of ultimate purpose or an impersonal force. Atheist affiliates were predictably most likely to reject the concept of a transcendent entity, followed by Secular humanists, Skeptics, and Freethinkers (Figure 1). More Jewish
and Unitarian humanists viewed this as unknowable, with slightly greater numbers allowing its possibility to varying degrees. Responses concerning a personal essence (soul) were similar, except that fewer Jewish humanists flatly reject the concept and more considered this unknowable or were unsure (Figure 2).
Response patterns shifted markedly with regard to ultimate purpose (Figure 3) and an impersonal force (Figure 4). A substantial number of respondents (12.3 percent, overall) viewed ultimate purpose metaphorically. A slightly greater percentage of males (13.3 percent) than females (10.7) indicated this view. The concept of an impersonal connecting force or energy elicited the greatest response variation among groups. Jewish humanists were most likely to allow the possibility or reality of such a phenomenon, followed by Unitarian humanists and Freethinkers. Females more often accepted an impersonal force maybe/sometimes (17.5 percent of women; 11.8 percent of men), or probably/definitely (22.2 percent of women; 11.4 percent of men). But both male and female Jewish humanists accepted the concept more often than those in other groups.
The most frequent single pattern of responses to all four concepts was “straight-ticket” rejection (as meaningless or nonexistent). One-third of the full sample responded this way (Table 4). Males (42.9 percent) were more likely to be straight-ticket rejecters than females (27.4 percent; n=2987). One-half of the full sample considered all concepts meaningless/nonexistent or unknowable.
Table 4. Group affiliates rejecting a transcendental entity, personal essence, ultimate purpose, and impersonal force as meaningless or non-existent
All four worldview items meaningless/nonexistent
Count % N
Humanist Secular 136 35.4% 384
Humanist Judaic 12 11.1% 108
Group type/affiliation Humanist Unitarian Atheist 24 51 18.6% 129 49.5% 103
Total Skeptic, rationalist 69 45.4% 152 Freethough t 7 23.3% 30
299 33.0% 906
Religious affiliation. Individuals were asked to indicate any local philosophical or religious organizations with which they were affiliated (as active members, occasional participants, or monetary contributors). Apart from affiliation with Unitarian churches or fellowships, reported affiliation with religious organizations was negligible (Table 6). Most of the Unitarians were found in the Unitarian humanist groups (60 percent), with 10.5 percent or less in each of the other groups.
Table 6. Reported involvement in local religious institutions Frequency 739 139 11 1 4 894 17 911 Percent 81.1 15.3 1.2 .1 .4 98.1 1.9 100.0 Valid Percent 82.7 15.5 1.2 .1 .4 100.0
None indicated Unitarian Universalism Church, synagogue, religious congregation Pagan Buddhist, meditation Total
No response/missing data
Self-descriptions. A majority of respondents described themselves as not religious (“if defined in supernatural or transcendental terms”), with 86.5 percent circling “not at all religious” or “1” and 96.4 percent responding below the scale mid-point. More Jewish and 13
Unitarian humanists were willing to describe themselves as “religious” in some degree than others (Table 5; response scale compressed).
Table 5. …currently consider yourself religious (in supernatural or transcendental terms)? Group type/affiliation Humanist Unitarian Atheist 92 97 73.6% 23 18.4% 2 1.6% 8 6.4% 125 100.0% 94.2% 6 5.8% 0 .0% 0 .0% 103 100.0% Total Skeptic, rationalist 139 92.1% 7 4.6% 3 2.0% 2 1.3% 151 100.0% Freethought 27 90.0% 2 6.7% 0 .0% 1 3.3% 30 100.0%
Religious? Not at all (1) A little (2-3) Mid-scale (4) Religious (5-7) Total
Count % Count % Count % Count % Count %
Humanist Secular 352 92.4% 26 6.8% 0 .0% 3 .8% 381 100.0%
Humanist Jewish 69 64.5% 29 27.1% 5 4.7% 4 3.7% 107 100.0%
776 86.5% 93 10.4% 10 1.1% 18 2.0% 897 100.0%
A weaker majority described themselves as “not spiritual,” again “if defined in supernatural or transcendental terms” (Table 7), with 73.4 percent choosing “Not at all spiritual” and 87.8 percent responding below the scale mid-point. Judaic humanists were noticeably more likely to apply “spiritual” to themselves in some degree than other affiliates, followed by Unitarian humanist and freethought group affiliates. The numbers for Judaic humanists were not attributable to the comparatively greater number of female affiliates, since both males and females were more likely to apply “spiritual” than in other groups.
Table 7. …currently consider yourself spiritual (in supernatural or transcendental terms)?
Spiritual? Not at all (1) Humanist Secular 299 80.4% 41 11.0% 9 2.4% 23 6.2% 372 100.0% Humanist Jewish 40 38.8% 26 25.2% 11 10.7% 26 25.2% 103 100.0% Humanist Unitarian 71 60.2% 25 21.2% 10 8.5% 12 10.2% 118 100.0% Atheist 89 89.0% 10 10.0% 1 1.0% 0 .0% 100 100.0% Skeptic, rationalist 120 81.1% 17 11.5% 3 2.0% 8 5.4% 148 100.0% Freethought 20 66.7% 6 20.0% 0 .0% 4 13.3% 30 100.0%
Count % Count % Count % Count %
639 73.4% 125 14.4% 34 3.9% 73 8.4% 871 100.0%
A little (2-3) Mid-scale (4) Spiritual (5-7)
Respondents were also asked to indicate whether or not they “would. . .or do use any of 14
[several] terms to describe [their] way of thinking” (Table 8). Predictably (given the large number of humanist affiliates in the sample), “humanist(ic)” was the most frequently chosen descriptor. While chosen by large majorities of the humanist group types, substantial numbers in all other groups applied it to themselves, as well, including 60 percent of Atheist affiliates.
Table 8. Self-descriptive terms applied by respondents to themselves
Self-description agnostic Count % within Grouptype Count % within Grouptype Count % within Grouptype Count % within Grouptype Count % within Grouptype Count % within Grouptype Count % within Grouptype Count % within Grouptype Count % within Grouptype Count % within Grouptype Count
Humanist Secular 130 34.2% 243 63.9% 115 30.3% 315 82.9% 130 34.2% 217 57.1% 232 61.1% 159 41.8% 186 48.9% 163 42.9% 380
Humanist – Jewish 40 36.4% 45 40.9% 19 17.3% 90 81.8% 23 20.9% 41 37.3% 64 58.2% 37 33.6% 23 20.9% 15 13.6% 110
Group type/affiliation Humanist Unitarian Atheist 61 25 48.0% 55 43.3% 29 22.8% 96 75.6% 44 34.6% 72 56.7% 59 46.5% 40 31.5% 59 46.5% 41 32.3% 127 24.5% 94 92.2% 37 36.3% 61 59.8% 33 32.4% 61 59.8% 61 59.8% 36 35.3% 54 52.9% 59 57.8% 102
Skeptic, rationalist 59 38.8% 103 67.8% 55 36.2% 81 53.3% 53 34.9% 115 75.7% 73 48.0% 47 30.9% 118 77.6% 59 38.8% 152
Freethought 12 41.4% 22 75.9% 11 37.9% 13 44.8% 12 41.4% 18 62.1% 14 48.3% 12 41.4% 16 55.2% 19 65.5% 29
Total (% of all respondents) 327 36.3% 562 62.4% 266 29.6% 656 72.9% 295 32.8% 524 58.2% 503 55.9% 331 36.8% 456 50.7% 356 39.6% 900
“Atheist(ic)” was chosen by majorities of Atheist, Secular humanist, Skeptic, and Freethought affiliates. Noticeably fewer Jewish and Unitarian humanists applied the term to themselves. “Agnostic” was chosen by little more than a third of all respondents. Nearly half of Unitarian humanists, but only a quarter of Atheists, applied it to themselves. 15
“Anti-religious” and “naturalist(ic)” were the least frequently chosen self-descriptions overall, with less than a third of respondents choosing each. Jewish humanists were least likely to choose “anti-religious,” followed by Unitarian humanists. (In fact, fewer Jewish humanists chose “anti-religious,” “atheist[ic],” “naturalist(ic),” “scientific,” “skeptical,” or “non/unbeliever” than other affiliates.) The limited number of affiliates of any kind who applied “anti-religious” to themselves is notable in view of fairly critical attitudes about something-called-religion indicated by many. Views of “religion.” Attitudes about “religion” were assessed several ways. When asked to what extent they would say they are “angry about the role, dominance, and/or effects of religion in the world,” nearly 80 percent indicated anger affirmatively (scaled responses from 5 to 7; 1 = not at all angry; 7 = very angry; Table 9). Comments provided by 79 individuals suggested that responses might have been more affirmative regarding words other than anger, such as “concerned,” “distressed,” “disappointed,” “distraught,” “frustrated,” “puzzled,” “sad,” “troubled,” “upset,” “worried,” or “aghast,” among others. While some writers made it clear that “anger” was apt and warranted, others said that there are more reasonable or productive sentiments.
Table 9. Reported anger about the role and effects of religion in the world
Humanist Secular Not angry (1-3) Scale midpoint (4.0) Angry (5-7) Total Count % Count % Count % N % 42 11.3% 32 8.6% 298 80.1% 372 100.0% Humanist Jewish 11 10.2% 14 13.0% 83 76.9% 108 100.0% Humanist Unitarian 17 13.7% 9 7.3% 98 79.0% 124 100.0% Atheist 6 6.0% 8 8.0% 86 86.0% 100 100.0% Skeptic, rationalist 31 20.9% 11 7.4% 106 71.6% 148 100.0% Freethought 3 10.3% 2 6.9% 24 82.8% 29 100.0% 110 12.5% 76 8.6% 695 78.9% 881 100.0%
Respondents were also asked to what extent they considered religion a harmful or positive force in human affairs (1=harmful; 7=positive). Roughly three-quarters of respondents considered religion more harmful than positive, but again there were considerable differences among groups (Table 10). Jewish humanists were least likely to consider religion a
harmful force followed by Unitarian humanists; Freethought and Atheist affiliates were most likely to be of this opinion.
Table 10. Religion as a harmful or positive force in human affairs
Humanist Secular 302 78.6% 19 4.9% 6 1.6% 50 % Harmful + positive (multiple checked) Total Count % N 13.0% 7 1.8% 384 100.0% Humanist Judaic 61 56.0% 10 9.2% 7 6.4% 29 26.6% 2 1.8% 109 100.0% Humanist Unitarian 81 63.8% 21 16.5% 5 3.9% 19 15.0% 1 .8% 127 100.0% Atheist 90 87.4% 5 4.9% 3 2.9% 5 4.9% 0 .0% 103 100.0% Skeptic, rationalist 110 72.4% 15 9.9% 13 8.6% 14 9.2% 0 .0% 152 100.0% Freethought 29 96.7% 0 .0% 1 3.3% 0 .0% 0 .0% 30 100.0%
A harmful force (1-3)
Count % Count %
673 74.4% 70 7.7% 35 3.9% 117 12.9% 10 1.1% 905 100.0%
Scale midpoint (4.0)
A positive force (4-7) Too complex a phenomenon (no scaled response)
Count % Count
Respondents were offered the opportunity to indicate that “religion is too complex a phenomenon to generalize about in this way” in addition to, or instead of, a scaled response. In Table 10, those who chose this option instead of a scaled response are reported. In Table 11, those who chose this option whether or not they provided a scaled response are reported. In both cases, Jewish humanists were most likely to feel that “religion” is too complex to generalize about in such a manner, followed by Unitarian humanists; Freethought and Atheist affiliates were least likely to do so.
Table11 . Religion too complex to evaluate generally as a harmful or positive force in the world
Overall, more than a third of respondents felt that “religion” was too complex to
Humanist Secular “Religion” too complex Total Count % of group N N 126 32.8% 384 Humanist Jewish 53 48.6% 109 Group type/affiliation Humanist Unitarian Atheist 55 43.3% 127 30 29.1% 103 Total Skeptic, rationalist 48 31.6% 152 Freethought 7 23.3% 30 319 35.2% 905
Additional items provided further insight into respondents’ attitudes about “religion” and related issues.8 In general, Jewish humanists were less critical of “religion” and more critical of “skeptical and nonreligious people” than others, followed by Unitarian humanists. Close inspection of the data indicated that this was true of both males and females in comparison with other affiliates. Atheist and Freethought affiliates tended to be most critical of religion. Skeptic and Secular humanist affiliates generally held the middle ground, with Skeptics leaning toward leniency and Secular humanists, toward criticism. Taking another look at (mean responses for) anger about religion (Appendix I, Table A), Skeptic affiliates registered the least, on average; Freethought and Atheist affiliates, the most. Only the Skeptics and Unitarian humanists were significantly less angry than Atheist affiliates (F 5, 875 = 4.34, p<.019). Looking again at (mean responses concerning) religion as a harmful or positive force in human affairs, and keeping in mind that 127 individuals did not provide (unequivocal) scaled responses due to the complexity of “religion,” Jewish humanists were least likely to consider religion a harmful force, followed closely by Skeptics and Unitarian humanists. These three groups were significantly less likely to view religion as a harmful force than the Secular humanist and Atheist affiliates (F 5, 772 = 10.04, p<.01). The Jewish humanists were most likely to feel, on average, that everyone benefits from a mix of religious and nonreligious people in the world (F 5, 802 = 11.19, p<.01) and that there are valuable pieces of religious wisdom in religious texts/traditions (F 5, 795 = 15.31, p<.01). They were significantly more likely to feel this way than all but the Unitarian humanists, who in turn felt significantly more than Secular humanists that we benefit from a mix of religious and nonreligious people, and more than Secular humanist, Freethought, and Atheist affiliates that there is wisdom in religious texts and traditions. Mean responses among Skeptics, Secular humanists, Freethought, and Atheist affiliates did not differ significantly. Although respondents generally tended not to condone ridicule of supernatural or superstitious beliefs, the Jewish humanists did so significantly less, on average, than other affiliates, who did not differ significantly among one another (F 5, 791 = 9.46, p<.01). They were also significantly less likely than others to feel that humans would be better off without superstition, supernaturalism, or the will to believe without evidence (F 5, 791 = 10.98, p<.01), and that religion fosters excessive group devotion (except in comparison with Skeptics, which did not reach significance; F 5, 792 = 9.88, p<.01). 18
The Jewish humanists were also most likely, on average, to feel that it is important in general to cultivate acceptance of other ways of thinking and behaving (significantly more than Skeptic and Secular humanist affiliates, F 5, 788 = 3.27, p<.01; with no significant differences among other affiliates; Appendix I, Table B). They were least likely to feel that skeptical or nonreligious people were more consistently ethical, considerate, responsible, or reasonable than religious people (significantly so compared with all other affiliates; F 5, 877 = 8.76, p<.01). And they were significantly more likely than Secular humanists, Skeptics, and Atheists to feel that whether one is religious or nonreligious is not as important as being a decent person (F 5, 795 = 4.48, p<.01). Skeptics were least likely to indicate that they would be unhappy if a friend or family member became a religious fundamentalist—significantly less than Judaic and Secular humanist affiliates (F 5, 796 = 3.95, p<.01). Atheist and Freethought affiliates were most likely, on average, to feel that their ways of thinking are discriminated against in society. Judaic humanists were least likely to feel this way—significantly less than Atheist, Freethought, and Secular humanist affiliates (F 5, 800 = 6.92, p<.01). The meanings of “spiritual” and “spirituality.” While in response to a scaled item (reported earlier) self-descriptions as “spiritual” were low overall, observation, interviews, and a prior pretest survey of a secular humanist group indicated a willingness, even among affirmative naturalists and secularist affiliates, to use “spiritual” or “spirituality” in particular ways. An item was devised to assess usage and meaning of these terms:
With regard to “spiritual” and “spirituality” . . . (check any that apply to you) __ I (tend to) avoid these terms; they do not apply to me or my experience __ I (may) use these terms, but only in psychological or experiential terms __ as a special state of being at peace or equilibrium or harmony __ as a process or experience of greater awareness or higher consciousness __ as a general feeling or experience of connection with others or nature __ I use these terms to refer to something that exists beyond physical nature and its properties (a force, energy, or entity, or multiple forces or entities), with which I/we can make contact
Among 896 respondents to this item, 58 percent indicated “avoid/do not apply” (Table 12). Thirty-eight percent indicated they may use the terms in a psychological/experiential sense. Only 3.5 percent indicated transcendental usage. While Jewish humanists were least likely to avoid the terms entirely, the majority of respondents indicated non-transcendental meanings.
Table 12. Use and meaning of “spiritual/ity” among group affiliates Humanist Secular (Tend to) avoid; don't apply to me or my experience (May) use in psychological /experiential sense (Tend to) avoid + (may) use in psychological sense Use to refer to transcendent force(s) Psychological sense + transcendent contact Total Count % Count % Count % Count % Count % N 238 62.5% 127 33.3% 4 1.0% 9 2.4% 3 .8% 381 Humanist Judaic 33 30.8% 64 59.8% 0 .0% 9 8.4% 1 .9% 107 Group type/affiliation Humanist Unitarian Atheist 60 47.6% 60 47.6% 1 .8% 4 3.2% 1 .8% 126 76 75.2% 24 23.8% 0 .0% 0 .0% 1 1.0% 101 Total Skeptic, rationalist 99 65.6% 45 29.8% 4 2.6% 3 2.0% 0 .0% 151 Freethought 15 50.0% 15 50.0% 0 .0% 0 .0% 0 .0% 30 521 58.1% 335 37.4% 9 1.0% 25 2.8% 6 .7% 896
Among the respondents who specified psychological usage (Table 13), most indicated a feeling or experience of connection with others or with nature. Fewest indicated a process or experience of higher awareness or consciousness. Fittingly, being at peace, harmony, or equilibrium was in between.
Table 13. Use of “spiritual/ity” in specifically psychological/experiential senses Frequency Valid
1. as being at peace, harmony, equilibrium 2. as process/experience of higher awareness, consciousness 3. as feeling/experience of connection with others/nature
Valid Percent 14.5 5.7 46.1 11.0 4.4 18.3 100.0
46 18 146 35 14 58 317
1+3 2+3 1+2+3 Total10
Non-transcendental usage was not reported among the “softer secularists” alone. Among those who applied the term “atheist(ic)” to themselves (n = 556) 30.8 percent indicated such usage, as well as 23.8 percent of Atheist group affiliates (n = 104), and 23.5 percent of those who consider a transcendent entity, personal essence, or impersonal force meaningless/ nonexistent or unknowable (n = 535). Even 15.7 percent of those who flatly rejected notions of God, soul, force, or ultimate purpose as meaningless or nonexistent (n = 299)—the “straightticket rejecters”—indicated a willingness to use these terms non-transcendentally. Written texts were provided by 250 respondents (in response to an “Other” prompt following the scaled item). The great majority of these conveyed naturalistic or nontranscendental uses and meaning of “spiritual/ity.” (Sample texts are provided in Appendix II.) The most frequent meanings were: > Experience of/in nature > Awe, wonder, gratitude, or appreciation (about existence, nature, the universe): > A sense of social connection or generalized connectedness > Emotion(al) experience > Reaction to art, literature, music, aesthetic beauty > Psychological process > Sense of something greater than oneself (but not ontologically transcendental): Forty individuals supplied texts that suggest openness to or affirmation of transcendental ideas or phenomena. Some described themselves as “seekers” or “open” to transcendental possibilities, and others gave more specific transcendental, religious, spiritual, or supernatural references. Political secularism. With regard to views on the relationship between religion and government, respondents were overwhelmingly in agreement. When asked, “What is your attitude about keeping church and state, or religion and government, separate,” 95.9 percent of respondents (n=903) indicated that “we can never be too vigilant about this” (scaled responses from 5 to 7). Only 1.6 percent chose the scale midpoint and 2.6 percent indicated that “strict separationists take this too far” (scaled responses from 1 to 3). Responses were consistent across groups, with no significant difference among group means.
Discussion The groups identified for participation in this research characterize themselves as “secular,” “non-theist,” “non-supernatural,” and/or (religiously) “skeptical” in their public utterances and self-descriptions. This does not, of course, ensure that everyone who appears on their mailing (or email) lists is equally committed to such self-descriptions. Nonetheless, but for those indicating affiliation with Unitarian Universalism (particularly among the Unitarian humanist affiliates) these individuals indicated virtually no affiliation or identification with (mainstream) churches, temples, or other religious institutions. They are substantially nontheistic with respect to a customary conception of a transcendental entity (“God”). With 89 percent of respondents considering this meaningless/non-existent, unknowable, or metaphorical, this is a mirror image of many national survey samples in the United States (Bishop, 1999). Harris Interactive (2006), for example, found that 11 percent of respondents “believe [somewhat or absolutely certain] there is no God.” Green (2005) identifies 11 percent of U. S. Americans as “secular” (no religious identity or affiliation, minimal or no “religious beliefs,” or self-described “atheist” or “agnostic”). While these individuals may be substantially non-theist (in a narrow, customary sense) and nonreligious (with regard to identification or affiliation with mainstream religious traditions in North American culture), they are not equally irreligious (in Campbell’s sense of hostile rejection of dominant religious beliefs, traditions, or institutions; 1972, 1977). Nor are they equally naturalistic or non-transcendental (with respect, for example, to acceptance or rejection of an impersonal connecting force or energy in the world). Jewish humanists. Perhaps the most notable and distinctive “story” to emerge from the data is that of the Jewish humanist affiliates. U. S. American Jews have been characterized as an exceptional or distinctive subculture, and so it is here—but in a very different way. Whereas the great majority of American Jews are said to be exceptionally “secular” in comparison with the mainstream population (Kosmin, 2002; Smith, 2005), in the company of affiliated “secularists” their secularity—at least in the small sample assessed here—is distinctively “soft.” On most measures this applies to both males and females in comparison with other groups, so these findings are not attributable simply to the greater number of females in the Jewish humanist group.
The “softness” of the Jewish humanists’ secularity, as a group, is attitudinal as well as metaphysical, and again, this is generally true of both males and females in comparison with other affiliates. They are most likely to feel that everyone benefits from a mix of both religious and nonreligious people in the world, and that there are pieces of wisdom in religious texts or traditions (due, no doubt in part, to the fact that they themselves draw—sans supernatural references—from the well of Judaic thought and ritual). They are least likely to feel that religion is a harmful force in the world or, indeed, that religion can be evaluated in such general terms. They are least likely to think that religious and supernatural beliefs foster excessive group devotion or that supernatural and superstitious ideas deserve to be ridiculed. In general, they are comparatively less judgmental and most likely to feel that it is important to cultivate acceptance of ways of thinking and behavior other than our own. They are most likely to feel that skeptical or nonreligious people can be as closed-minded as the religious, and least likely to think that skeptical or nonreligious people are more consistently ethical, responsible, or reasonable than the religious. They are also, however, most likely—shoulder to shoulder with Atheist affiliates— to indicate that they would be unhappy if close friends or family members were to become religious fundamentalists. And they are not lowest in reported anger about the roles and effects of “religion” in the world. This finding, coupled with moderate attitudes about “religion,” may suggest wariness of perceived “extremism” of any kind. Unitarian humanists. The Unitarian humanists display a pattern of beliefs and attitudes similar to, but somewhat less “soft,” overall, than the Jewish humanists. This may be attributable, at least in part, to the historical meaning and role of “Humanism” within Unitarianism—as an affirmatively this-worldly, non-theistic, non-supernatural, and (to some) non-“spiritualistic” meaning system and manner. It may also reflect an important development (Lee, 1995) within Unitarian Universalism in recent years—a deliberate shift from a “Humanist” emphasis toward what is called, in Unitarian circles, “God-talk” (increased reference to “spirits” and “spirituality,” “transcendence,” or “God” and accommodation of pagan, pantheistic, or “New Age” worldviews). While some “Humanists” have remained within UU ranks, despite criticism of this shift and of perceived marginalization within the UU fold, some have shifted affiliation to (secular) humanist groups. It is quite likely that the Unitarian humanist affiliates sampled here fit this description—some still “in the fold” (as indicated by the 60 percent who indicated UU membership), some “on the line,” and some “on 23
the outs,” but many having been affected by the shift away from a “harder (secular) Humanism” in Unitarian Universalism. In-depth interviews with two current and two exUnitarian humanists (now Secular humanist affiliates) support this view, as do reports and observations of former Unitarian church or fellowship affiliates joining (secular) humanist groups in the region in the past several years. Skeptics/rationalists. Unlike members of The Skeptic Society reported by Shermer (2000), among whom one fifth to one third (in two surveys) indicated some degree of belief in a “purposeful higher intelligence that created the universe,” only 4 percent of the current sample of Skeptic affiliates probably or definitely accept the existence of a transcendent entity, with 5 percent more who are unsure or waver between belief and disbelief. These tend to be “thoroughgoing” rather than “selective” skeptics (Pasquale, 2006) regarding metaphysical, as well as “paranormal” or “pseudo-scientific” claims, and as such, they are similar to the Secular humanist, Atheist, and Freethought affiliates. Attitudinally, however, there are signs of more muted criticism regarding something-called-religion in comparison with those groups. In addition to registering the least amount of anger about “religion,” on average, they are more likely than Atheist affiliates to think that there is some wisdom to be found in religious texts or traditions. And they are least likely to say they would be unhappy if a close friend or family member were to become a religious fundamentalist. Secular humanist, atheist, and freethought affiliates. Secular humanists frequently acknowledge kinship with Atheists concerning rejection of theistic or supernatural thinking, criticism of established or institutional religion, and support of church-state separation. But they also tend to distinguish themselves from self-described Atheists with respect to comparatively greater focus on positive social values and less on religious criticism. Whatever may transpire in their respective group meetings and private communications, the data here suggest more substantial kinship than distinctiveness between Secular humanist and Atheist affiliates with respect to attitudes about metaphysical ideas as well as something-calledreligion. Certainly, the Atheists tend to be more consistently resolute in their rejection of metaphysical ideas and criticism of “religion,” but this is by degrees. The Atheist and Secular humanist affiliates are both, on average, equally and comparatively more likely than others to consider “religion” a harmful force in human affairs and to feel least that we all benefit from a mix of religious and nonreligious people in the world. On other measures, while differences did not prove statistically significant, the pattern 24
of responses suggests that Atheist affiliates are somewhat more severe in their views of religion and supernatural ideas than the Secular humanists. Moreover, the data suggest that the Secular humanists are somewhat more likely to be (self-)critical (about “skeptical or nonreligious people”). The Atheist affiliates are least likely, on average, to feel that skeptical or nonreligious people can be as close-minded or dogmatic as religious people, for example. Little can be said with confidence, based on these data, about Freethought group affiliates due to small samples and widely divergent meanings of “freethought” and “freethinker.” While the small sample of (rationalist) Freethought affiliates analyzed here generally exhibit views resembling Skeptics, Secular humanists, and Atheists, very wide differences of opinion between male and female affiliates on several measures complicate the picture further. Public self-descriptions among groups that choose the (rationalist) “freethought” label suggest that they tend to be generalists—welcoming a wide range of secularists (including non-theists, atheists, secular humanists, unbelievers, skeptics, agnostics, rationalists, and freethinkers). The primary focus in some groups, particularly those indicating affiliation with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, is on separation of church and state. As such, they may tend to attract strong supporters of that cause whose personal worldviews vary more than in, for example, Atheist groups. But again, more representative data are required before anything can be said with confidence. Soft and hard secularism. It becomes clear that characterizations of secularity from “soft” to “hard” must be qualified. With respect to political secularism, or insistence on separation between religion/church and government/state, there is broad unanimity. In this sense, all of these individuals and group types may be said to be hard secularists. With regard to attitudes about something-called-religion, groups varied as follows: “Soft” (Less critical) -------------------------------------------------------- “Hard”(More critical) Jewish humanists Unitarian humanists Skeptics Atheists (Freethinkers) Secular humanists
It would be of value in future research to ascertain the conceptions of “religion” associated with use of the term by various secularists. Long observation among affiliated secularists, and text responses in the present research on attitudes about “religion,” suggest that while “religion” is typically used without qualification, when probed it most often refers to “monotheistic religion(s),” generally Christianity (and now Islam), and particularly the forms 25
of these phenomena said to be “fundamentalist” or “extremist.” The conception of “religion” in the minds of many Jewish or Unitarian humanists may well be something different (e.g., more “functional”) compared with what many Atheist or Secular humanist affiliates have in mind. With regard to naturalistic thinking, or views of metaphysical or other-worldly concepts, the continuum shifts somewhat: “Soft” (Less rejection) -------------------------------------------------- “Hard”(Stronger rejection) Jewish humanists Unitarian humanists Skeptics/rationalists Atheists (Freethinkers) Secular humanists
In particular, it was something of a surprise that the response pattern concerning an impersonal force did not resemble that for a transcendent entity or a personal essence (broad dismissal as non-existent or unknowable) or an ultimate purpose in existence (either dismissal or a metaphorical view of the notion). Since ultimate purpose is the most abstract of these ideas, it was expected that this would be dismissed least often, simply on this basis. Willingness to entertain the possibility or reality of an impersonal connecting force suggests the relevance of some notion of “spirituality” among a substantial minority of these selfdescribed secularists, and, indeed, a substantial minority indicated willingness to use these terms as a description of self or personal experience. But what, precisely, does this mean? Meanings and meaninglessness of ‘spiritual/ity.’ The majority (58 percent) of all respondents indicate that they prefer to avoid these terms since they do not apply to their experience or (based on written texts) are too ambiguous to be meaningful. Most of those who are willing to use “spiritual/ity” indicate that they do so in purely this-worldly, psychological or experiential rather than transcendental, terms. This most often refers to a sense of connection with others or with nature, or experiences of peace, beauty, art, awe, or appreciation for sentient existence. With regard to the six categories of “spiritual/ity” suggested by Unruh, Versnel, and Kerr (2002), virtually none of these individuals use these terms to mean “a relationship with God, a spiritual being, or higher power.” If used at all, they are most often associated with “transcendence or connectedness, unrelated to belief in a higher being” or “meaning and purpose in life.” 26
A noticeable minority, among the Jewish humanists in particular, entertains the reality or possibility of an impersonal force or energy that connects all living (or existing) things. This is not in a metaphorical sense, since this option was available but not chosen. With regard to the basis for perceived order in nature, there is a hint of (call this small-“t”) transcendental (but not “theistic”) thinking among the 17 percent of respondents who view this as a coherent organizing force pervasive in the universe (but do not see this as an organizing principle that “transcends” the universe). For this minority, something that knits everything together in some “coherent” fashion, but which we do not fully comprehend, is brought within nature rather than residing outside it. It is, one might say, something more than animism but less than pantheism. Thematic emphasis on “secular spirituality” can be found in material on secular and humanistic Judaism. Yakov Malkin (2004) devotes a chapter to “The spirituality of secular Jews” in Secular Judaism: Faith, Values, and Spirituality (with an approving introduction by Sherwin Wine, founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism). He writes that “[o]ne of the grave dangers facing secularism in general, and Jewish secularism in particular, is the apparent loss of spirituality or even the perception of its need, as if spirituality somehow needed to be ‘religious’” (p. 37). He proceeds to describe “secular spirituality” in exclusively this-worldly terms—with reference to social and communal connection, awe and appreciation for existence, uplifting aesthetic experience, a larger sense of purpose, focus on values and experience beyond the mundane or everyday, and dedication to matters beyond self and self-interest. Many of the Jewish humanists,’ and most other affiliates,’ use of “spiritual/ity” would seem to conform to such a this-worldly meaning, but by no means all. It certainly cannot be assumed, as often seems to be the case, that use of these terms signals alternate forms of (transcendental) religiosity. Depending upon the worldviews and intended meanings of those who use them, they may reflect (“hard”) naturalistic secularity. To quote one resolutely naturalistic respondent, experience of “the paradoxes of existence” or of “the mystery of the human condition” is not unknown to these people. Use of “spiritual/ity” to describe such experience by substantially naturalistic individuals would seem to reflect a limitation of language when it comes to capturing an affirmatively this-worldly sensation or sensibility that human beings experience (regardless of their ontological interpretation of it). The polysemy of “spiritual” and “spirituality” presents challenges not only for these respondents, but for productive and consistently meaningful empirical investigation of human
meaning systems or worldviews. There are innumerable uses and meanings for these terms, as Bregman (2006) observes. Here, three distinguishable meanings have been explored: 1. Supernatural (relationship with an autonomous entity apart from “nature”) 2. Immanent (a meta-empirical dimension pervasive within nature that is experienced) 3. This-worldly (a purely psychological or affective experience or state of being). As respondents’ texts indicate, the last of these may be as simple as a sense awe or wonder, or as complex as an intense, multi-dimensional state of being that (some) human beings experience, report, and apparently enjoy (of connectedness, expansiveness, immersion, letting go of a sense of self or self-consciousness, and so on). But for many this is interpreted as a psychological, experiential, and wholly this-worldly phenomenon. This is distinct from either an immanent/meta-empirical or a supernatural frame. The latter is overwhelmingly dismissed by these individuals, but a minority seems willing to embrace an immanent conception of their experience or the nature of reality. What would seem to be required are different words for each of these phenomena and their attendant interpretive frames. The use of “spiritual/ity” for all of them serves only to obfuscate distinctions—and subjective experiences—that are of apparent importance to people. Concluding observation. As others have found (e.g., Bishop, 1999; The Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, 2006), when more nuanced questions are put to people about their existential or metaphysical thinking, customary categories erode. It becomes increasingly difficult to decide where definitive lines may be drawn between “naturalistic,” “transcendental,” “supernatural,” or “theistic” when we probe beyond conventional notions of a personal transcendent entity (“God”) or personal essence (“soul”) to those, for example, of an immanent connecting force or an ultimate purpose or directionality in existence—and metaphorical conceptions, as well as acceptance or rejection, of such ideas. We have barely begun to map varieties of human experience at “the other end of the metaphysical spectrum,” whatever we may wish to call this domain. The closer we look, the more we may find that customary categories dissolve into continua or complex mosaics of thought, attitude, experience, and interpretation that defy simple categorization.
APPENDIX I: Table A. Attitudes about religion and supernatural beliefs Jewish Humanist (JH) Favorable views > “Religion is generally a harmful (1)…positive (7) force in human affairs > “We all benefit from… and nonreligious people” > “There are valuable pieces of wisdom in religious texts/traditions” Critical views > “…Angry about the role, dominance, or effects of religion in the world.” > “The human species will be better off when it outgrows… superstition, supernaturalism, and the will to believe without evidence” > “Religions & supernatural beliefs…foster excessive devotion to particular groups, ideologies, or lifestyles” > “Superstitious and supernatural beliefs deserve to be ridiculed”
* p<.01 ** p<.05 ***p<.10
Unitarian Humanist (UH) 2.36
> SH*,A** > FR***
Skeptic/ Rationalist (SR) 2.37
> SH*, A*
Secular humanist (SH) 1.82
Atheist (A) 1.78
Freethought (rationalist) (FR) 1.70
> SR, SH, A*
> all* but UH***
> all* but UH
> SH*,A* > SR** > FR***
< A* < SH***
< all* but SR***
< all* but SR**
APPENDIX I: Table B. Measures of acceptance and self-criticism Jewish Humanist (JH) > “It is important to cultivate acceptance of ways of thinking and behaving different from one’s own.” > “Whether you are religious or nonreligious…is of little concern. What is important is [being] ethical, considerate, responsible, and reasonable” > “Skeptical or nonreligious people can be as closeminded or dogmatic as religious people” > “Skeptical or nonreligious …are likely to be ethical, considerate, responsible and reasonable more consistently than religious people.” > “I would be very unhappy if a close friend or family member became a religious fundamentalist” > “People with my way of thinking are generally discriminated against in society”
* p<.01 ** p<.05 ***p<.10
Unitarian Humanist (UH) 5.38
Skeptic/ Rationalist (SR) 5.15
Secular humanist (SH) 5.30
Atheist (A) 5.18
Freethought (rationalist) (FR) 5.24
Average response 5.38
> SR,SH* > UH***
< JH* < SH** < A***
< A,FR* < SH**
Appendix II. Written texts on use/meaning of “spiritual/ity”
> Experience of/in nature: > Appreciate the wonders of the natural world > If you remove religious connotations from it, I consider myself spiritual and in need of relaxation via calm music or walks. . .on nature trails. > . . .[A] sense of serenity in wilderness areas > Love of the out of doors > Awe, wonder, gratitude, or appreciation (about existence, nature, the universe): > It is possible to be in awe of the universe as it is shown to us by science, but I do not believe that there is any supernatural energy or personification in the workings of the universe > Ethical, aesthetic, empathy, open to wonder & the unexpected, positive & optimistic > I look with wonder upon the universe without bringing in a deity > I'm often in awe and full of gratitude which feels "spiritual" to me > Awed by the amazing creative power of the universe > I feel "inspired" by beauty, truth, and nature > Emotional sense of wonder, awe, beauty, inspiration > Similar to Carl Sagan > A sense of social connection or generalized connectedness: > Love of family and work, care for others, seems spiritual to me > A sense of connection to and responsibility for the earth and humanity > . . . [A] sense of oneness with the world when I am hiking, walking > . . . [A] sense of shared responsibility > "Interconnected" to all elements in universe. > Identify with the interconnected web of all life. > Emotion(al) experience: > Can be emotional - attributed to biochemicals, beauty in nature > I believe most people interpret human emotions as spirituality > Emotional reaction to grand/beautiful aspects of nature > I trust my intuition; I follow my feelings. > Reaction to art, literature, music, aesthetic beauty: > Music can be a "spiritual" experience where I feel connected to something very powerful and timeless > I do appreciate some non-material phenomena (e.g., sunsets, music) > I do like music and resonate to natural beauty - but as a rationalist > I can rise above mundane cares by viewing great art, reading great writers, etc. > This is a very controversial term; most people associate it with religion, but it isn’t necessarily. My human spirit is very affected by, say, a newborn baby, a solo walk in the woods, a Beethoven sonata, a fine (in my opinion) piece of poetry, etc. > Psychological process: > I avoid these words, dislike them a lot, but recognize as valid to me the three "psychological or experiential" descriptions [given in the survey] > Not the belief in a higher power, but happy to be conscious and thinking > Power of subconscious to work out solutions (this is physical or spiritual) > Sense of something greater than oneself (but not ontologically transcendental): > Feel people can evolve to a higher sense and to work towards that > Spiritual feeling of something greater than myself - part of nondenominational group of like-minded people
Forty individuals supplied texts that suggest openness to or affirmation of transcendental ideas or phenomena. Some described themselves as “seekers” or “open” to transcendental possibilities: > The path from my parents' Atheism to mine included exploration of Christianity, Depak Chopra's Quantum Physics, and New Age through and transcendental meditation. I'm neither a strictly rational, logical, critical thinker, nor a spiritual person. I don't see the world in black & whites or rights and wrongs (regarding religious beliefs). I do have ethics and values, but am completely non-theistic, though I'm open-minded. > WE DON'T KNOW! The transcendental may be possible - so I'm open to it. > There are some mysteries we cannot yet explain > There could be something on the other side. WE DON'T KNOW! > Am exploring my spirituality by trying. . .to realize what is spiritual for me. > Still searching for answers > Seeking Others gave more specific transcendental, religious, spiritual, or supernatural references: > I believe in a nonpersonal creative intelligence > Believe there is collective intelligence > Believe in unity of all nature and all life - evolution to higher states of consciousness > Belief in scientific studies of "near-death" experiences; also belief in "past lives" as removed from Bible by Catholic (Vatican) and others > Universal energy - I do energy and "light" work > I believe in a superior spiritual process > I consider myself spiritual, close to nature, believe in afterlife > I do believe that all we have around us came from something more than inanimate matter, but I have no idea what. > Only in the sense that there could be something on the other side. > Decided to believe in God, e.g., as Deist > More associated to a Deistic philosophy or Emersonian view > 12-Step recovery programs - Higher Power - . . .six years clean! > The power that exists within the infinite universe, and is exemplified in the natural laws that govern it, is way beyond our puny human intellect to fathom. I pray (for enlightenment) to "the powers that be" in the universe. Still think ghosts MAY be real. > Spiritual in a kind of non-religious Buddhist, yoga kind of way > Somewhat "spiritual" - very interested in Native American spiritual life > Native American community building rituals for stewardship of land > I feel that the concept of Kharma applies. Expecting and living for good attracts it. > Sense of wonder, amazement at the beauty of the universe. A bit pantheistic, maybe. > Quasi-Taoist tree-hugging dirt-worshipper > I like Zen or Tao philosophy > Buddhist atheist > Taoist > Pagan
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“A ‘meaning system’ can be thought of as a group of beliefs or theories about reality that includes both a world theory. . . and a self theory” (Hood, Hill, and Williamson, 2005: 14) or, borrowing from Wong (1998: 368), “an individually constructed cognitive system that endows life with personal significance.” Here, “worldview” and “meaning system” will be used synonymously.
Unless specified otherwise, “transcendent” and “transcendental” are used here in an ontological sense, that is, “existence beyond; independent existence” (Honderich, 2005: 922) or “existing apart from, not subject to the limitations of, the material universe (The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus: American edition, 1996: 1623).
Atheist, skeptic, or rationalist student groups at some universities in the region were not sought out for inclusion in the study. Membership is customarily small and shifts annually as students matriculate and graduate.
The investigator is grateful for a Shand Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion which helped defray distribution costs.
It should be noted, too, that the nature and quality of mailing lists varied noticeably among the groups. This reflects, in part, differences in the purposes, activities, and nature of affiliation in these groups. Some exhibit formal organizational structure with governing boards, committees, regular meetings, and clearly defined levels of membership. Others are less structured networks of interested individuals and supporters who meet irregularly, distribute newsletters or other bulletins, maintain continuing contact largely via email, and have less well-defined affiliation levels or requirements, As a result, some were clearly regularly updated lists of active or dues-paying members, while others were less frequently updated and/or more inclusive lists covering both active participants (in meetings, email correspondence, or other activities) as well as people who had inquired about the group or asked to receive electronic or printed newsletters.
Nearly 60 percent of Unitarian humanist affiliates indicated affiliation with a Unitarian church or fellowship, while in other groups 10.5 percent or less did so.
Does not total 299 since one respondent did not indicate gender.
These were among the appended questions distributed to all but the first two groups, resulting in samples of 353 for the Secular humanist, and 59 for Atheist, affiliates.
Unless otherwise noted, Tamhane post-hoc analyses were performed due to unequal variances between groups. Does not total 335, as in Table 12, since 18 respondents did not check particular psychological/experiential senses.