American Secular Identity, Twenty-First-Century Style:  Secular College Students in 2013

Barry Kosmin

The recent growth in the size of the secular population has been fueled by the young Millennial cohort, people born around 1990. It’s important that we know more about how they perceive and approach secularism. One fallacious argument concerning the rise of the “Nones,” as we at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) have labeled them, has been that many are merely anticlerical and are really religious searchers. They may be disillusioned by organized religion and clergy scandals, but they still remain theistic and will eventually find a compatible religious home. This view explains why investigators at the Pew Research Center have labeled them as religiously “Unaffiliated,” a term that presumes religious affiliation to be the norm. Researchers at Baylor University like to call them “Unchurched,” which presumes even more.

To the contrary, I believe that a fundamental change has recently occurred in American society and that there has been a significant generational shift away from religion and theism. In order to validate this thesis and discover more about its implications, in the spring of 2013 the Center for Inquiry (CFI) partnered with the ISSSC at Trinity College to survey the worldviews and opinions of a national sample of four-year college and university students. In total, over 1,800 students from a sample of thirty-eight universities representing all regions of the United States responded to our online survey.

Thirty-three percent of this young population answered “None” to the question “What is your religion, if any?” This rate far exceeded the 15 to 20 percent recently reported in surveys of the total U.S. adult population. Today, the majority of students on campus are women; 59 percent of our respondents were female. Although all rates of nontheistic identification are above the national average in this population, this gender skew still has considerable impact on the student profile, because the historical female preference for religion and theism surprisingly still persists into this generation. Whereas 37 percent of men self-identified as Nones, only 30 percent of women did so. The Nones category includes those who self-identified as atheists and agnostics, and here again a gender bias is revealed. Whereas 12 percent of men were self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics, only 7 percent of women were.

In order to ascertain their worldview, we also asked students to choose whether they would describe themselves as Religious, Spiritual, or Secular. The Secular were a heartening 28 percent of the total, only slightly less than Religious (32 percent) and Spiritual (32 percent). Nevertheless, there were more Nones (33 percent) than Seculars (28 percent) among these students. The Nones split 70 percent Secular to 30 percent Spiritual. This meant that 70 percent of the Secular worldview group was composed of Nones and 32 percent of the Spirituals were Nones. Why this discrepancy? It appears to reflect the plurality of females among the respondents—women who self-describe as Nones tend to avoid the Secular label and prefer to identify as Spiritual.

Identification patterns are changing, and young males seem to be much more willing than older generations to adopt the atheist or agnostic label. As a result, around 28 percent of those in the Secular worldview group self-identified as atheists and agnostics. This might be seen as progress, but figure 1 shows that when asked a theological question about the divine, just 77 percent of the Secular group provided atheistic or agnostic responses. Again we find a discrepancy, this time over the atheist self-designation: What does it mean when 42 percent of Seculars provide an atheistic response to a God question but only 12 percent self-identify as atheists on a religion question?

Figures 1-3

Much has been written about Americans’ prejudice against atheists; for example, repeated surveys show that fewer would vote for an atheist as candidate for president than for a candidate of any religious background, including Islam. Anticipating this finding, we included an item in the questionnaire to see whether young people today regard atheism as an impediment to success in society. Figure 2 shows how true respondents considered the statement: “Atheists have less chance to succeed in the USA.” As we can see, hardly any among this generation of young people, including large majorities of the Religious and the Spiritual, thought this statement was accurate. The Seculars group was the most emphatic in rejecting it: 88 percent of Seculars did so. So it doesn’t appear that fear of the consequences accounts for the failure of nontheistic Seculars and Nones to “come out” as atheists. Obviously we need to do more “market research” on this issue.

Not only are there gaps between the sexes regarding the appeal of the Secular worldview, similar gaps appear among racial and ethnic groups. Among the minorities, Asians are the most likely to be Secular (32 percent), and they comprised 11 percent of the whole group; Latino students were near the norm at 24 percent Secular, but only 16 percent of African Americans reported that they were Secular. Minority religions were also overrepresented within the Secular group. Aside from the Nones (70 percent), 11 percent of Seculars identified with minority religious traditions—half of these were Jews—while 11 percent refused to state a religion and so were probably also Nones. Only 8 percent of Christians said they were Secular, which suggests that these questions work well to accurately sort the population.

One important question that intrigues us is: How do people become secular? We asked the students about family background and how they were raised. Almost half the Secular group (49 percent) reported that they had attended religious services at least monthly when young. Only 28 percent were raised in irreligious families and never attended services. So we can conclude that the great majority of the Secular group comprises the “deconverted.”

What, then, are the causes of this alienation from religion? Many conservative religionists have posited that higher education itself undermines faith and is the major cause of alienation from religion. We explored the differences among the worldview groups as to the courses of study they were following. Perhaps surprisingly, there was no statistical difference between the patterns of choices of academic majors between the Religious and Secular worldview groups. Among the Secular, 38 percent had chosen science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM), 29 percent social and behavioral sciences, and 30 percent arts and humanities, with 3 percent undecided. In fact, the difference we did discover was between the Spiritual and the other two worldview groups, rather than Religious versus Secular. The Spiritual group was less likely to include STEM majors, probably due to that group’s female skew.

So what other influences are at play in the trend toward rejection of religion? One indicator of alienation besides respondents’ personal theological beliefs, discussed later in this article, is that 70 percent of the Secular group agreed with the statement, “Looking around the world, religions bring more conflict than peace.” This negative view of the role religion plays today is probably also a factor for the Spiritual worldview group, among whom 55 percent agreed with the statement. In contrast, the majority of the Religious, as might be expected, rejected the negative characterization of religion&
rsquo;s role in the world.

Though the Secular respondents were not believers, it’s possible that they retain a respect for religion that might explain their reluctance to self-identify as atheists. The students’ views about truth in religion, shown in figure 3, display great similarity among both the Secular and Spiritual groups. The Secular group was slightly harder in their rejection, but both groups were unanimous in denying that truth inheres in any single religion. Yet there is some evidence from their responses to the question about truth in religion to suggest that the majority of young Seculars and Nones are fair-minded, since majorities accepted that “there are basic truths in many religions.”

It is also worth emphasizing that the responses of the Seculars and the Nones are almost exactly parallel, though the Seculars tend slightly more toward being hardline and antireligious.

Figures 4-6

Religious thinkers often stress the relationship between belief and morality. Figure 4 shows that the Secular and None students overwhelmingly reject this proposition. Interestingly, the Seculars and the Nones answered this question almost identically, even though 30 percent of the latter group self-identified as Spiritual.

Since belief in God is not linked to morality, what then of the Bible? Figure 5 shows that hardly any of the Secular students regarded the Bible as a guide to morality today. Around one-third rejected any consideration of this proposition, and we may assume that they are probably antireligious hardliners on this question.

Having disposed of God and Bible, do other vestiges of supernatural belief remain today among young Secular Americans? We asked the students about traditional Judeo-Christian supernatural beliefs as well as Eastern and New Age esoteric ones. Figure 6 contrasts the differences in the response patterns of the 32 percent of students holding to the Religious worldview and the 28 percent who had a Secular worldview. The findings show very big gaps between opinions of Secular and Religious groups; 71 percent on miracles and 72 percent on life after death. The Religious score higher on every item, with 41 percent believing in spirits and ghosts in contrast to only 9 percent among the Secular. Interestingly, both groups overwhelmingly reject karma and reincarnation. These results, along with others, such as their 93 percent endorsement of evolution and 83 percent embrace of reason, suggest that Secular students were indeed committed to science, reason, and secular values.

Figures 7-9

Another issue of importance to the future of secular humanism is whether the young carry over their philosophical beliefs into the realm of politics and public policy. Respondents were asked whether they supported the current system of tax privileges for the clergy and organized religion (figure 7). A majority of all students were opposed, but unsurprisingly, the Religious group favored this policy. A large majority (70 percent) of the Secular group was opposed and, interestingly, nearly half of the Spiritual group. This suggests that the Spirituals are potential allies for some purposes, since this and other items show that many Spirituals are suspicious and antagonistic toward organized religion.

Over the past few decades, the culture war in the United States has focused especially on abortion rights and women’s reproductive freedom. Respondents were asked if it was true or not that women needed to defend their reproductive rights today. Figure 8 shows that the Secular group was the most supportive of women’s rights. Not unexpectedly, the mainly Religious group, a majority of whom were Catholics and Evangelicals, were not favorable to this idea. Yet perhaps most significant is the fact that the Seculars outscored the Spirituals on this item, even though (as readers will recall) the Secular group was majority-male whereas the Spiritual group was majority-female. This goes some way toward undermining the claim, at least for the younger generation, that Secular men are antifeminist and unsympathetic toward women’s issues.

Given this result, it’s not surprising that 95 percent of the Secular group also believed that same-sex marriage should be legalized by federal government, while 71 percent supported assisted suicide.

So what are the politics of this younger generation of Seculars? Because they have come of age during an era when the Republican Party has been dominated by the religious Right, it’s not surprising that very few are registered Republicans. As a result, the pattern of political party preference reflects a generational skew and the “God gap” that is typical of current politics. The Secular students were 57 percent Democrat, 25 percent Independent, and only 5 percent Republican; Other/Don’t Know were 12 percent. Perhaps a better gauge is their actual political views. These showed a little more diversity: 4 percent Conservative, 7 percent Libertarian, 11 percent Moderate, 44 percent Liberal, 20 percent Progressive, and 14 percent Other/Don’t Know.

Finally, it’s useful for the secular movement to understand how the general public, particularly the younger, educated elements within it, interpret the terms it uses. What do people understand by the term secularism, and does it mean the same thing to all types of people? Figure 9 shows the responses to a question about the meaning of secularism for all three worldviews.

It was possible for the respondents to answer “yes” to each of the five interpretations or descriptions of secularism. The results show complexity, if not confusion, since there was clearly little consensus among the groups. Each worldview has its own particular rank order of responses. For the Religious, the most accepted concept was “Separation of religion from state/government” (55 percent) with “No identification or affiliation with any religious tradition” (53 percent) closely behind. The Spiritual saw secularism more as “Absence of supernatural religious beliefs” (61 percent); a majority of them also understood it as separation of church and state (55 percent). The Secular worldview group seemed disposed to a more philosophical interpretation, with 72 percent favoring “No identification or affiliation with any religious tradition” and 59 percent “Absence of supernatural religious beliefs.” More Seculars than others favored the “Tolerance for various religions and philosophies” (36 percent) option. What was noticeable was the low score for separation of church and state among the Secular group, at only 38 percent. Another significant finding is the across-the-board agreement that secularism is not atheism, with scores for all three groups in the 6 to 11 percent range.

Undoubtedly, these survey results and the trends they reveal are good news for CFI, the Council for Secular Humanism, and all secular organizations, as well as for the future of the United States. The findings clearly demonstrate that a large and coherent constituency is emerging among the younger generation that is favorable to our beliefs and agenda. Questions remain, but we now have much valuable information about our market and its attitudes and opinions. Going forward, these findings on the Secular student population can help CFI in branding and framing its message as well as in planning its educational programs.

Barry A. Kosmin is a research professor in the Public Policy and Law Program and director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College. He was the principal investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) series from
1990 to 2008. He serves on the board of directors of the Center for Inquiry, a supporting organization of the Council for Secular Humanism, and on the board of directors of the Council.

Barry Kosmin

Barry Kosmin is Research Professor of Public Policy and Law and the director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Connecticut. He has been principal investigator of the American Religious Indentification Survey since 1990. His books include Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non- Religious Americans (with Ariela Keysar, Paramount Market Publishers, 2006).