An Evidence-Based Strategy for Sustaining the Growth of Unbelief

Barry Kosmin

To many people’s surprise, the early years of the twenty-first century have seen the American public trending away from its devotion to rel igion. We can envisage religiosity and religion as having three components—belonging, behavior, and belief. When secularization occurs, the “three Bs” erode at different speeds. The first component to go is usually belonging, which involves giving up membership or affiliation with a religious congregation. This is accompanied by a loss of respect for the clergy and a decline in their authority over moral and lifestyle decisions. This process has produced the rise of the Nones—often erroneously referred to as the “unchurched.” Religious behavior’s decline is usually somewhat slower because of the power of cultural and economic forces that underpin such things as the Christmas traditions. Nevertheless, it can be observed in the decline of attendance at worship services and private prayer, or alternatively in the rise in unsanctioned behaviors such as desecration of the Sabbath (the overturn of the Sunday blue laws) or the popularity of nontraditional sexual relationships and family patterns. Belief is usually the last element of religiosity to disappear at both the individual and societal levels. One reason is that it is malleable; any particular religious belief can be substituted very easily from an enormous palate of alternative superstitions. Our duty, as David Hume suggested, is “to weaken the hold of superstition,” but experience and the research of neuroscientists and psychologists have taught us that this is a difficult task.

As a result of the emergence of measurable evidence pointing to secularization, there has been a sea change in the media and academic discourse regarding the American religious landscape, which has, potentially, immense social and political consequences. Thanks mainly to the work of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC), which I direct, the term Nones has now become part of the national lexicon. Findings from the American Religious Identification Surveys (ARIS) of 2001 and 2008, produced by my colleague Ariela Keysar and me, showed a steady rise in the numbers and proportions of the American public who reject a religious identification. Our statistics, which were ignored and rejected until recently, are now accepted as hard facts and as sociological reality. In terms of belonging, behavior, and belief, it is now commonly realized that a significant and growing fraction of the U.S. population rejects all the myriad options offered in the well-stocked religious marketplace.

The “No Religion” population of Nones is an aggregate category covering atheists, agnostics, deists, humanists, skeptics, rationalists, and anticlericalists. Put another way, this group is an amalgam of nontheists and deists—of the antireligious, the irreligious, and the religiously indifferent, and so includes both “hard” and “soft” secularists. It’s very much a coalition with blurred boundaries, but it has the potential to be a real cohort. In most cases, this secularity is marked by mere passivity; only a minority of Nones has a well-defined secular identity and a clear intellectual and behavioral commitment. Nevertheless, over the past twenty-five years it has grown from one-twelfth to nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population. The rise of the Nones has been the most statistically significant trend in American religion, occurring in every region and state of the Union and among all socioeconomic and racial groups.

Today we can claim that the No Religion population is larger than that of any state or any racial minority or ethnic group. However, the laws of statistics teach us that the tendency for a population as it grows larger is for it to regress to the mean; it becomes more “normal.” This means that the Nones are getting harder to characterize and stereotype as a narrow group of outsiders and eccentrics. So secularists need to be hardheaded and accept that their expanding constituency—the demographic of fifty million adults—goes far beyond Berkeley and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The Nones are growing more diverse in sociodemographics, educational background, occupations, residential location, and ethnic and racial origins. For example, there are now millions of Latino, African American, and Asian Nones (see also Juhem Navarro-Rivera’s article in this section).

However, another demographic anomaly poses a different challenge. This is the marked and persistent gender imbalance among Nones—only 40 percent are women, whereas 52 percent of Americans are female. When men leave religion, they tend to say they are secular, but women who leave tend to prefer to identify as “spiritual.” Among the most ardent secularists—the self-described atheists and agnostics, who comprise 5 percent or so of Americans—the male gender-skew is even stronger. Explaining, as well as eliminating, this gender imbalance is a major challenge for organized secularists in today’s egalitarian social environment.


What do these population trends presage for the future of skepticism, secular humanism, and other freethought orientations? One result of the tendency toward a more typical national profile among Nones is a downside that exacerbates an already existing problem. That problem is the lack of institutionalization that has bedeviled freethinkers and secularists in the United States for more than a century. Secularism in America is a classic leaderless movement. Only a tiny percentage of freethinkers have ever been affiliated with secular organizations, whereas around 60 percent of the religious population currently belongs to a congregation. This affiliation, mobilization, and participation issue poses even more of a challenge in the current circumstances of a rapid increase in the potential constituency.

This analysis and explanation is familiar in secular-humanist gatherings where the “faithful faithless” lament the failure of nontheist organizations to realize their full political and cultural potential—their inability to penetrate their natural market. However, let me now offer an alternative diagnosis and approach to the mobilization of the Nones. I’d like to offer the insights I’ve gained during the past ten years directing the only academic institute in the United States dedicated to the study of secularism in society and culture—it’s what I’ve learned from the social scientific research done by my colleagues at ISSSC and from attending discussions and meetings of secular and freethought organizations across the country.


Secularist organizations today do indeed face a social marketing problem. They have failed to affiliate even a fraction of the more than ten-million-strong core constituency of self-identifying atheists and agnostics, the most radical secularists. Marketers teach us to target a demographic and a psychographic. The key question is: Do we want to stay focused on the 5 percent of Americans who self-identify as atheists and agnostics—or should we expand to reach the 23 percent who no longer identify with a religious tradition, or even the 30 percent who don’t wish for a religious burial or service at their death? Those people, in Hume’s words, appear to endorse “love of life without fear of death.”

Do we want to be an insignificant minority or a major force in society and the body politic? Do we want to develop a narrowcasting or a broadcasting strategy? Secularist organizations have no real need to proselytize since they already have a fifty-million-strong potential constituency. Organic economic and societal forces have created this social momentum toward mass secularity. Thus the present challenge is not to produce growth but to build self-awareness and mobilize this population so that the recent trends and gains are maintained into the future—and so that backsliding is prevented insofar as possible.

If secular and freethought organizations are to expand their base and influence, they need to face the realities of contemporary society head-on. I believe secularists and humanists have to approach the outreach challenge like successful religious organizations. The mega-churches and evangelical preachers make intelligent use of the available social data and statistics. Paradoxically, in this arena the clergy are very rational and calculating in their use of the tools of marketing and market research—in the effective use of the insights provided by sociology, demography, psychology, and economics.

If secularist organizations want to succeed and break out of the narrow ghetto they find themselves in today, they too need to be practical, sophisticated, and a little cynical. The first steps are to create a brand and identify a target demographic or two. As we’ve seen, the natural constituency is male—we need to use that information to our advantage. We’re the natural men’s movement. Super Bowl Sunday is the great national secular holiday that empties the churches—let’s celebrate that. Let’s try to associate ourselves with the Olympic Games, an international movement that is essentially secular in ideology and purpose. In the United States, our natural constituency also includes Westerners and former Catholics—play to those audiences. It’s also Asians; they are twice as likely to be Nones as other Americans and nearly three times as likely as African Americans—so valorize Confucius more and that worthy cleric the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a little less.

Marketing involves branding. There’s a need to make secularism culturally and socially respectable in mainstream—and on Main Street—America. This requires encouraging civic education and critical thinking, especially in the public square. Secularism needs to be marketed and branded as a great American tradition, not an alien European import. The None population tends to respond positively to references to the Enlightenment and the intellectual provenance of the Founding Fathers of the republic. They want to maintain the values of the Enlightenment, of Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Paine. Secularism needs to be branded as American and patriotic. In fact, the religious recognize this historical fact, and that’s why they are constantly campaigning to assert the Christian identity of the Founding Fathers, along with the ridiculous notion that they wished to establish a Christian nation. So there is a struggle for the historical record, which means secularists need to pay more attention to history and the educational curriculum in civics. We need to fight less about the Bible and more about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention. The public schools and the history curriculum are an important arena for this campaign. Pardon the pun, but the textbook example of education’s importance in the culture war is the Texas School Board.

One particular failure that needs redress is to build educational institutions—and this applies particularly to higher education. ISSSC is the only institute in higher education with secularism in the title, whereas there are literally thousands of departments of religion and theology at universities and colleges not counting the religious seminaries. In contrast, only at tiny Pitzer College in California can one earn a college degree in secular studies or humanism. There are no humanist seminaries producing chaplains for hospitals, prisons, and the military.

Involving the young adult population of Millennials is the key to the future, but it’s a challenge: 25 percent of them are Nones, but the vast majority tends to be passive adherents. We find that both Generations X and Y particularly dislike labels and ideology. Students, on the other hand, are a natural market. There are thousands of college campuses, but only a few hundred have chapters of CFI On Campus or the Secular Student Alliance. We need to be substantive and impactful working with today’s students. There’s no need to sacrifice intellect to attract them, but they favor entertainment-style communication. A major initiative in the area of social networking is required. We can maintain integrity and still market to this new constituency. Moreover, trends among teenagers seem to be positive for secularism. According to research by the evangelical Barna Group, teenagers today are less inclined toward spirituality than a dozen years ago. Key teen religious activities are at their lowest levels since Barna began tracking these behaviors—including prayer, Sunday-school attendance, and evangelization among Christian teens.

Nevertheless, we need to be realistic about how far we still have to go even with our most sympathetic demographic. According to recent Pew polls, the percentage of Millennials with a positive view of religious organizations fell from 73 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2015. But that’s still a majority opinion. (For proportion’s sake, 55 percent also hold a positive view of banks.) To put it into a different perspective, religion does far better than the news media, which only 27 percent of young people view favorably.

So it’s doubtful if woolly minded, fashionable, campus-style progressivism will work to motivate the majority of people in our currently unaffiliated base. The base is suspicious of all religions, so it would be a mistake to favor one form or type of religion or supernaturalism over another. So let’s not offer a soft spot or special pleading for Muslims and Islam, Pagans and Wiccans, or the Hindu elephant god of prosperity, Ganesh. On the other hand, it’s probably wise not to be seen as intolerant, too strident, too adversarial, and antireligious. Most nonatheist Nones abjure dogmatism and are temperate in their hostility toward religious believers, especially the Christian majority among their own family or friends. Our natural constituency among the sober-minded bourgeoisie prefers a more civil and constructive, rather than critical, tone to its commitments. There is a positive sentiment toward a science-based or naturalistic liberalism that advocates for the use of scientific techniques for managing human reproduction, suffering, and illness based on individual choice. So the secular and humanist brand has to publicize scientific advances, technological innovation, and human achievement. In order to come across as a broader and less militant movement, another theme worth pursuing is to emphasize our roots in the humanism of the Renaissance and associations with high culture: music, museums, and the arts generally. Secularism needs to be seen as a positive force in society, as culturally enriching both for the individual and the community. Our intellectual and philosophical tradition is essentially optimistic and life-affirming, so let’s leave pessimism, apocalyptic predictions, and notions of original sin to the religious.


At the moment, Nones as a group still need validation in contemporary American society. They need to forge a collective identity. To achieve these goals, I believe the social-movement frame makes sense as the institutional model; its focus should be to target discrimination and injustice against Nones and laws and regulations favoring organized religion in everyday life—in education, health, taxation, and the like. Many of the big issues and opportunities for secularism are in the legal-constitutional field. Where can we apply this insight? The best example of the men’s-movement syndrome is of course the military. It’s a population of nearly two million, mainly composed of young males aged eighteen to thirty. The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers did a wonderful job in prising religious-identification statistics out of the Department of Defense. Perhaps surprisingly, the military has a religious profile very similar to that of the total U.S. population. Today
, 23 percent of military members self-identify as Nones. They outnumber Roman Catholics, the largest American religious group. The challenge is how to service them, since there are no nontheistic chaplains. In fact, over two-thirds of military chaplains hail from evangelical Christian denominations, despite the fact that evangelical Christianity accounts for only 19 percent of military personnel. It’s a real scandal that the religious Right illegitimately dominates the chaplaincy. Here’s a genuine grievance and a political issue we can pursue that can embarrass opponents and reinforce our organizations’ patriotic motivation.

Unfortunately, the 2010 ISSSC report on Latinos has been ignored by secular organizations. This failure epitomizes the issue of secularist organizations being oblivious to important facts and opportunities. The findings show that despite the stereotype of Latinos being a naturally religious community, there is a new and expanding constituency of Nones among college-educated and English-speaking Latinos. These people are completely invisible to the media, scholars, and unfortunately to most secular organizations. The explanation is that they don’t fit the common stereotype of the religious Latino. That’s explicable for the media—which loves stereotypes and values exoticism and photogenic Catholic processions—but secular organizations should be more skeptical, notice social reality, and act accordingly.

Now let’s consider our political options more closely. Nones are disproportionately political independents, but in elections since 1990, their votes have tracked away from the Republicans and toward the Democrats. They are political independents because they’re not joiners; they are as skeptical of politicians as they are of religion. They are disproportionately civil libertarians; they are also mostly socially liberal but not necessarily economically or fiscally liberals. The general consensus among Nones is that religion breeds conflict and that religious people are too intolerant. Their key issue is separation of church and state, and they won’t compromise on this. Anticlericalism is a stimulus to action, and the Nones want to keep clergy of all types out of politics and public office. Their anticlerical sentiment means they are more roused by the sins and hypocrisy of religions’ local representatives than concerns about their supposed head office in the sky. They are more opposed to organized religion than to God—use that information. Atheists especially lament the lack of like-minded elected officials. Again, the religious Right indicates the route for Nones to follow. They put a lot of effort into grassroots political activity at the local level, especially getting their people elected to local school-boards. That is the necessary first step to overcoming the ludicrous situation whereby 23 percent of the population has zero representatives in Congress—so fewer Nones in positions of political leadership than was the case in 1790!

I emphasize education and politics because I doubt the efficacy of some alternative approaches often pursued by secular organizations. The research on affiliation and membership patterns among secularists done by my ISSSC colleague Frank Pasquale suggests that one should be skeptical about the prospects for the success of a congregational model such as Sunday Assemblies. An organizational model parallel to organized religion has been tried by Ethical Culture and the Unitarian Universalists but has not taken off. Secular humanism cannot easily reproduce the family and generational nexus of ties that religion offers. Nones tend to be individualists and skeptical of organizations. They were never the types who joined the Elks, Rotarians, or Masons—the traditional membership organizations, which are in any case on the decline in the contemporary world of “bowling alone.” The character of the secular impulse itself tends to militate against institutional participation specifically on the basis of metaphysical worldviews. Indeed, as we noted earlier, only a small percentage of seculars belong to explicitly secularist groups. My reading of the situation is that the most viable model for mobilizing the Nones is analogous to affinity groups such as the AARP, Sierra Club, or American Automobile Association—groups with looser, nominal, episodic ties and a broad consensus “common good” agenda.

Another factor that militates against affiliating most Nones is their individual psychological profiles. Nones tend to be analytic and critical. They have difficulty endorsing standard-issue statements of opinion. They’d rather dissect and discuss than offer straight opinions. Most dislike labels and labeling. Whereas atheists tend to be confident in their identity and to hold strident opinions, by way of contrast the agnostics, humanists, and “softer secularists” hold to more moderate and qualified opinions. Their openness to alternatives and unwillingness to commit to a single viewpoint makes them particularly hard to organize. Thus secularism (unsurprisingly) has no official hierarchy or leadership. The obvious contrast to this semi-anarchic situation among freethinkers is the authoritarian personality types found in fundamentalist religious groups, composed of individuals who are anxious to submit to an authority and to follow a charismatic and often disciplinarian leader.

Nevertheless, in reaction to the increased salience of religion in American public life, a range of affirmatively secularist, nontheist, and antireligious organizations has proliferated in recent years, meeting needs for life-cycle events and social networking. They operate under the banners of atheism, freethought, humanism (secular, Jewish, Unitarian), rationalism, and skepticism, among others. While many of them share broadly skeptical or irreligious commitments, their discourses, philosophies, and activities vary in important ways. That doesn’t mean they can’t mobilize as a lobby, especially on the agenda around the “culture war.” That’s why ideas such as a Secular Coalition for America and the Reason Rally are valuable.


It’s a challenge to decide how to use to best advantage the groundswell of popular sentiment and opinion and the organic secularizing trends in society and economy. We have to realize that membership organizations are hard to maintain and resource in today’s society if you are not offering tangibles, power, or salvation to your followers. Our aim is to fight for their hearts and minds but not their souls. That requires learning new ways and techniques to acquire their loyalty. The role of the Internet in creating networks of seculars into new organizational forms should be a paramount concern. There’s always been a lot of concern about beliefs and belonging, but recent neuroscience and behavioral economics research suggest that changing people’s individual behavior may be the best way to grow a movement. The human brain is best attuned to deal with problems that are really close and immediate. So the solution may be to create a “behavioral wedge” to sustain an organizational need to focus on tasks that are urgent at the household level. Another way that has recently become popular is public signaling—stickers, flags, T-shirts, and advertising posters on buses and on the highways.

Yet in 2016, I doubt it is necessary to spend too much time and resources on reminding the public of the deficiencies, scandals, failures, and dangers to well-being posed by patriarchal organized religions; that much is obvious to any casual observer of the daily news. Rather we need to valorize our alternative worldview with its embrace of science, reason, logic, and critical inquiry. Our message should stress optimism and our belief in human progress and freedom. Our strength is that historically, secularism has advanced alongside rising material wealth, which seems to expand minds as well as wallets. We need to ensure that secularism is linked in the public imagination with the benefits of urban modernity, while religion is relegated to an association with poverty, superstition, and the prejudices of the rural past.

So in conclusion, the key challenge for secular humanists is to use our imaginations constructively to engage an increasingly skeptical and diverse American population and lead it toward unbelief. An assessment of the existing evidence-based research suggests that the best strategy is to build a loose coalition, a social movement around political, educational, and biomedical issues. Paradoxically, in order to achieve this result, we shall probably sometimes have to go beyond a focus on intellectual and cerebral concerns—on philosophy and metaphysics—to matters more mundane than belief. The challenge requires greater investment in social and market research because, in the twenty-first century, knowledge is power and self-knowledge is an essential first step. In this process, we’ll discover what it really means behaviorally, socially, and emotionally in contemporary America for people to be nontheistic and belong to no religious institution. That information in turn will teach us how to mobilize the public and enable us to progress toward a future society anchored in the values of secular humanism and the freedom of unbelief.

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).

The key challenge is to use our imaginations constructively to engage an increasingly skeptical and diverse American population and lead it toward unbelief.

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