Secularism and Social Progress

Phil Zuckerman

Now let’s not get too giddy. While it’s true that more and more men and women are letting go of religion and embracing secular living—at rates historically unprecedented—this does not automatically mean that racism will magically evaporate, sexism will disappear, homophobia will wither, dangerous levels of inequality will cease to exist, climate change will be managed, terrorism will end, STDs will vanish, and every single person will receive free blueberry pancakes for breakfast while accumulating no extra pounds. Not even close. We must soberly accept that the current rise of irreligion is no universal panacea.

But heck, it is a step in the right direction.

Religious faith—with its evidence-less claims, damaging superstitions, childish morality, contributions to tribalism and nationalism, patriarchy and homophobia, and divine justifications for injustice—thwarts human progress. The widespread weakening and waning of religion is, therefore, welcome news. And since secularism is correlated with a host of positive values, traits, and characteristics that are beneficial for humanity, its rise definitely portends societal betterment. As rates of secularity continue to grow, we can expect life to improve for many people, in varying degrees and on numerous fronts.

The Rise of Irreligion

There are now more nonreligious people than ever before in the history of the world, and in many societies the percentage of secular men and women has been skyrocketing over the last half-century.

Here are a few highlights:

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report titled U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious,1 the share of Americans who say they are “absolutely certain” that God exists has dropped from 71 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2015, and the percentage of adults who describe themselves as “religiously affiliated” has declined from 83 percent in 2007 to 77 percent in 2015. In terms of self-identification, American secularization is surging: back in 1981, only 8 percent of Americans said they were nonreligious, but that number had increased to around 28 percent today2; among Millennials, 36 percent now identify their religion as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular.3 In Canada, back in 1991, 12 percent of adults stated “None” when asked their religion; today that is 24 percent.4 In Australia, 15 percent of the population said they had “no religion” in 2001, and that group is up to at least 22 percent today.5 In New Zealand, 30 percent of the population claimed no religion in 2001, but that portion had risen to 42 percent in 2013.6

In South America, secularity is still very much a minority position but one that is increasing nonetheless. For example, according to a report from the Latin American Socio-Religious Studies Program,7 4 percent of Argentinians claimed to have no religion in 2000, but that group was over 17 percent by 2014. During the same period, nonreligious self-identification increased in Chile from 10 percent to 26 percent, in Costa Rica from 8 percent to 14 percent, in Mexico from 2 percent to 8 percent, and in Uruguay from 28 percent to 55 percent.

In Europe, secularity is exploding. Not only have baptism rates, Sunday-school attendance rates, and church attendance rates been plummeting for decades,8 but rates of religious belief are also at all-time lows. For example, consider Great Britain: back in the 1950s only 2 percent of British adults said that they did not believe in God, but today over 40 percent of British adults are either atheist or agnostic.9 And according to a 2010 Eurobarometer Poll, 19 percent of Spaniards, 24 percent of Danes, 26 percent of Slovenians, 27 percent of Germans and Belgians, 29 percent of Norwegians, 30 percent of the Dutch, 34 percent of Swedes, and 40 percent of the French claim to not believe in “any sort of spirit, God, or life-force.”10 In the Netherlands, two thousand churches are expected to close within the next decade,11 and there are now more Dutch nonbelievers in God than Dutch believers.12 Nontheists are also now in the majority in the Czech Republic13 and Estonia.14

Asia is home to hundreds of millions of secular men and women. For example, sixty years ago, about 70 percent of the Japanese claimed to hold personal religious beliefs, but today that figure is down to only about 20 percent. In 1970 there were 96,000 Buddhist temples in Japan, but in 2007 there were 75,866—and around 20,000 of those were unstaffed, with no resident priest. In the 1950s, over 75 percent of Japanese households had a kamidana (Shinto altar), but by 2006 this figure was 44 percent nationwide and only 26 percent in major cities.15 Irreligion in China is notoriously hard to assess, given that unfettered social science research is hard to accomplish, antireligious Communist dictators run the country, and there are penalties for people who identify as religious. That said, the Pew Research Center reports that over half the population of China is secular.16 And according to a WIN-Gallup Poll, while 11 percent of South Koreans were atheists in 2005, that number increased to 15 percent in 2012; during that same time period, the percentage of South Koreans who described themselves as religious dropped from 58 percent to 52 percent. And a recent Gallup poll found that when asked if religion was an important part of their daily lives, nearly 70 percent of Vietnamese adults said no.17

Rates of irreligion are relatively low in Africa, but there are some areas of secular note. For example, a 2010 census report from Ghana found that 5.3 percent of the population claimed no religion,18 and another study from 2012 found that 5 percent of people in Benin and Cameroon, 9 percent of people in Madagascar and Tanzania, and 11 percent of people in Gabon and Swaziland were nonreligious.19 Finally, approximately 20 percent of Botswanans claim to have no religion.20

There are many other nations with significant populations of nonreligious people—including Slovenia, Israel, Finland, Hungary, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Iceland, among others—but a nation-by-nation breakdown is not possible here. Suffice it to say that most countries have experienced notable degrees of secularization over the past century, and that for the first time in the world’s history, there are some societies where being secular is more common than being religious. Finally, the sheer number of secular men and women on planet Earth is remarkable—according to the Pew Research Center’s latest estimates, there were 1,131,150,000 nonreligious people in the world in 2010, and that number is expected to increase to 1,230,340,000 by the year 2020.21

A Plethora of Positive Correlates

The so-called “rise of the Nones” detailed above has been news for some time now. What hasn’t been as widely discussed is that it isn’t just news—it is also good news. Put simply: secularity is strongly and significantly correlated with a host of positive traits, characteristics, and values. And while correlation must never be mistaken for causation, the data below is reason enough to generate a good deal of optimism concerning secularism’s rise and its accompanying goodness in many areas of social life.

Take racism: it is noxious, damaging, and deadly. When a team of scholars undertook a meta-analysis of fifty-five different studies measuring religiosity and its relationship to racism, they found that the least racist respondents were the secular ones, particularly those who identified as agnostic.22 As psychologists Ralph Wood, Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka have concluded, based on their assessment of decades of research: “As a broad generalization, the more religious an individual is, the more prejudiced that person is.”23 Are there racist secular people? Of course. But the data shows that secular men and women are less likely to be racist than their religious peers. Indeed, secular white people were more likely than religious white people to support the Civil Rights Movement,24 and secular white South Africans were more likely to be against apartheid than religious white South Africans.25

Consider sexism, another historic blight and ongoing ugly barrier to social progress and human flourishing. Decades of sociological and psychological research have found that the more religious a person is, the more likely he or she will be opposed to various degrees of equality between men and women, while the more secular an individual is, the more likely he or she will support greater equality between the sexes.26 To take a specific example: while nearly half of strongly religious Americans believe that wives should obey their husbands, only 15 percent of secular Americans hold such a view.27

And then there’s homophobia, another perniciousness that is highly correlated with strong religiosity. Secular folks tend to be far more accepting of gays and lesbians and most supportive of their human rights.28 In fact, being religious (or secular) is far more determinant of an individual’s homophobia (or lack thereof) than other common factors, such as race, sex, political orientation, educational attainment, age, or class.29

How about child abuse? Yet again, secularity proves to be the more humane orientation. Religious people are, on average, much more supportive of corporal punishment, while secular people are much more likely to be against it.30 According to sociologist Ryan Cragun’s research, while 85 percent of religious fundamentalists think spanking is a good method for disciplining children, only 57 percent of secular parents think so.31 And this difference clearly plays out at the macro level: the rates of children being beaten to death by their parents are markedly higher in the most God-believing and church-attending states in this country and significantly lower in the least God-believing and least church-attending states. For example, the child-abuse fatality rate in Mississippi is twice that of New Hampshire’s, and Kentucky’s is four times higher than Oregon’s.32

While on the subject of raising kids: we also know that secular parents do a much better job educating their teenagers about safe sex. Sociologist Mark Regnerus found that secular parents are generally more comfortable talking about sex with their teenage children and end up providing them with better information about sex and safe-sex practices than religious parents.33 Sociologists Brian Starks and Robert Robinson found that secular parents are more likely to value and seek to cultivate autonomy in their children, rather than obedience—the latter of which tends to be of greater value to religious parents.34 Indeed, according to various national surveys, when asked what characteristics they’d like their children to exhibit, secular parents are far less likely than religious parents to list “obey parents” and more likely to list “think for oneself.”35

Of course, none of these things will matter if climate change continues unchecked. If global warming persists, life on planet Earth will truly be nasty, brutish, and short. So it is good news that—Robert M. Price notwithstanding—secular people are far more likely to understand, accept, and take seriously the science that explicates the causes and consequences of climate change, and they are more likely than their religious peers to want to do the most to heal the planet.36

Other studies have shown that secular people are more scientifically knowledgeable than their religious peers,37 more likely to be concerned with the suffering of animals,38 less vengeful,39 less nationalistic,40 less militaristic,41 and more tolerant, that is, more likely to support the rights and civil liberties of groups they oppose or people they disagree with politically.42

The Future

Admittedly, not every difference outlined in the above paragraphs is the direct result of the secular/religious divide. In many instances, certain differences in values, opinions, or characteristics are most likely caused by some other factors, such as class and/or educational attainment. But in other instances, when we do control for these other factors, secularity still holds as the deciding factor—as is the case with decreased homophobia, for example.

We also often don’t know which is first: the chicken or the egg. Does being secular cause a person, for example, to be more supportive of women’s rights and more sensitive to the suffering of animals, or is it the other way around? In short, when it comes to understanding and teasing apart the correlations between secularity and progressive social values and traits, we have a lot of work to do. But that said, I still believe that the correlations themselves allow for the following prediction: as more and more people shed their religious faith and embrace a secular worldview, women’s rights will increase, acceptance of homosexuality will increase, racism will lessen, child-abuse rates will decrease, STD rates will decrease, and there will be increased understanding of the need to combat climate change.

Of course, none of these predictions will come to pass if their disparate root causes are not addressed—and as stated up front, not all of these root causes are necessarily religious in nature. But secular humanism—with its emphasis on reason, rationality, tolerance, evidence-based decision making, treating others the way we wish to be treated, supporting human rights, and care of the planet—is surely prodding humanity in the right direction.


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  8. Steve Bruce, Secularization (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  9. Accessed December 16, 2015. See also Samuel Bagg and David Voas, “The Triumph of Indifference: Irreligion in British Society,” in Atheism and Secularity: Volume 2, edited by Phil Zuckerman (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010).
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  15. Ian Reader, “Secularisation, R.I.P.? Nonsense! The ‘Rush Hour Away from the Gods’ and the Decline of Religion” Journal of Religion in Japan 1, no. 1 (2012):7–36.
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  19. Jenny Trinitapoli and Alexander Weinreb, Religion and AIDS in Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
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  22. Deborah Hall, David Matz, and Wendy Wood, “Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 14, no. 1 (2009)):126–39. See also L. Jackson and B. Hunsberger, “An Intergroup Perspective on Reli­gion and Prejudice,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38 (1999):509–23.
  23. Ralph Hood, Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka, The Psychology of Religion (New York: The Guilford Press, 2009), 411.
  24. K.W. Eckhardt, “Religiosity and Civil Rights Militancy,” Review of Religious Research 11 (1970):197–203.
  25. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, “Morality and Immorality Among the Irreligious,” in Atheism and Secularity, Volume I, edited by Phil Zuckerman (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010). B. Beit-Hallahmi, “Atheists: A Psychological Profile,” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by Michael Martin (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  26. Ryan Cragun, What You Don’t Know About Religion (But Should), (Durham, N.C.: Pitchstone Publishing, 2013); L. Petersen and G.V. Donnennworth, “Religion and Declining Support for Traditional Beliefs About Gender Roles and Homosexual Rights,” Sociology of Religion 59 (1998):353–71; J. Hoffman and A. Miller, “Social and Political Attitudes Among Religious Groups: Convergence and Divergence Over Time,” American Sociological Review 36 (1997):52–70.
  27. Cragun, What You Don’t Know About Religion (But Should), 113.
  28. Accessed December 17, 2015. See also Wade Rowatt, Jo-Ann Tsang, Jessica Kelly, Brooke LaMartina, Michelle McCullers, and April McKinley, “Associations Between Religious Personality Dimensions and Implicit Homosexual Prejudice,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45, no. 3 (2006):397–406; T. Linneman and M. Clenenden, “Sexuality and the Secular” in Atheism and Secularity, edited by Phil Zuckerman (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2009); Lisa Schulte, Lisa and Juan Battle, “The Relative Importance of Ethnicity and Religion in Predicting Attitudes Towards Gays and Lesbians,” Journal of Homosexuality 47 (2004):127–41.
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  30. Christopher Ellison and Darren Sherkat, “Conservative Protestantism and Support for Corporal Punishment,” American Sociological Review 58 (1993):131–44; Christopher Ellison and Darren Skerkat, “Obedience and Autonomy: Religion and Parental Values Reconsidered,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 32 (1993):313–29.
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  33. Mark Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 66–81.
  34. Brian Starks and Robert Robinson, “Moral Cosmology, Religion, and Adult Values for Children,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 46, no. 1 (2007):17–35.
  35. Cragun, What You Don’t Know About Religion (But Should), 87.
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  37. Cragun, What You Don’t Know About Religion (But Should), 57.
38. J. DeLeeuw, L. Galen, C. Aebersold, and V. Stanton, “Support for Animal Rights as a Function of Belief in Evolution and Religious Fundamentalism,” Animals and Society 15 (2007):353–63.
  38. A. Cota-McKinley, W. Woody, and P. Bell, “Vengeance: Effects of Gender, Age, and Religious Background,” Aggressive Behavior 27 (2001):343–50.
  39. Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout, The Truth About Conservative Christians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 83; T. Grant, “Patriotism God Gap: Is the U.S. the Greatest Country in the World?” Christianity Today Politics Blog, August. 5, 2011.
  40. Corwin Smidt, “Religion and American Attitudes Toward Islam and an Invasion of Iraq,” Sociology of Religion 66, no. 3 (2005):243–61; James Guth, John Green, Lyman Kellstedt, and Corwin Smidt, “Faith and Foreign Policy: A View From the Pews,” Review of Faith and International Affairs 3 (2005):3–9.
  41. Robert Putnam, Robert and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 482–84; Paul Froese, Christopher Bader, and Buster Smith, “Polit­ical Tolerance and God’s Wrath in the United States,” Sociology of Religion 69, no. 1 (2008):29–44.

Phil Zuckerman

Phil Zuckerman grew up in Southern California, but has lived in Oregon, Israel, and Denmark. He is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California. He is the author of several books, including Society Without God (NYU Press, 2008) and Faith No More (Oxford U. Press, 2011).

Unprecedented secularization across the world isn’t just news; in innumerable ways it is good news.

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