Toward a Robust Scholarship of Secularism

Tom Flynn

Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar (Hartford, Conn.: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, 2007, ISBN 0-979816-0-0) 168 pp. Paper $10.


Secularism is conspicuous in today’s news, sometimes by its presence and sometimes by its absence. Sociologist Barry Kosmin and demographer Ariela Keysar have made more than their share of that news. While at the City University of New York, Kosmin (later joined by Keysar) directed the landmark American Religious Identification Surveys (ARIS) of 1990 and 2001. ARIS 1990 provided the baseline against which ARIS 2001 documented a sharp and much-discussed rise in the number of Americans declaring no religious preference (the “nones”). Impressive in its scope and detail, ARIS 2001 generated a dataset that in many aspects remains unequaled.

Kosmin and Keysar have since moved to Trinity College, where their new Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) has done groundbreaking work, this anthology included. In Secularism and Secularity, leading researchers discuss and occasionally debate major issues in the much-underserved area of secularism studies. What is secularism? What is secularity? How are they expressed in countries across the world? In each country, to what degree does secularism constitute a “pure” metaphysical orientation? To what degree is it bound up with economic, political, and ideological factors?

Most writers associate secularism with more than the tendency to confine religion to private life. Several portray it as synonymous with modernity, as Anthony Giddens and others have described it: a broad process of “disembedding” through which increasingly atomistic individuals jettison their historic reliance on parochial institutions, religious and otherwise, in favor of unmediated engagement with higher-order cultural structures. (On occasion, I have labeled this tendency “exsularity.”)

Following an orientation chapter by Kosmin, the first part of the book probes what is known about secular populations across the English-speaking world (the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom). Kosmin offers a useful distinction between “hard” (atheistic) and “soft” secularism. Kosmin and other writers assume that most seculars are generically religious; arguably, the truly nonreligious get short shrift. Most contributors who treat U.S. demographics base their analyses almost entirely on the ARIS 2001 dataset. That’s not surprising; it’s the editors’ dataset, after all, and no subsequent study approaches ARIS’s richness and scope. Still, later surveys are unanimous in indicating that the “nones” category has continued to expand since 2001. Analyses based solely on ARIS data might thus undercount the nonreligious. Additionally, later work has clarified the composition of the “nones”; where ARIS data suggested that about two-thirds are generically religious, later studies indicate that the atheist-agnostic fraction predominates. (A 2004 Pew Forum-University of Akron study found that atheists, agnostics, and “hard seculars” make up twothirds of the “nones,” while a recent survey by Christian pollster George Barna pegs declared atheists and agnostics at a record 9 percent of the total population.) Some discussion of later work, if only as a context for the ARIS data, would have been welcome.

The second part of the book focuses on varieties of secularism as manifested in France, Denmark, Iran, India, and Israel. Nathalie Caron offers the clearest explication of French laïcité for English-speaking readers that I have seen; Lars Dencik sketches a disturbing view of ethnocentric Danish rightists adopting and reshaping secularist principles to buttress their belligerence toward Muslim immigrants. Curiously, Ashgar Ali Engineer presents Indian secularism as a wholly political phenomenon uninflected by religious unbelief. Engineer seems unaware of India’s explicitly atheistic rationalist and humanist movements, the world’s largest, which have done much to flavor Indian secularism.

On the whole, Secularism and Secularity capably addresses an important and, until now, underserved area of scholarship. The complete text can be downloaded free of charge at www.trincoll.edu/secularisminstitute or is available in paperback direct from ISSSC.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar (Hartford, Conn.: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, 2007, ISBN 0-979816-0-0) 168 pp. Paper $10. Secularism is conspicuous in today’s news, sometimes by its presence and sometimes by its absence. Sociologist Barry Kosmin and demographer Ariela Keysar …

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