Finding Humanists in Survey Data

Ryan Cragun

Humanists have an identity problem, and it’s a problem at multiple levels. I remember very clearly the first time I told my Mormon brother that I was a humanist in a discussion on Facebook. He initially thought it was a typo. When I told him it was not, he asked for clarification, as he thought I only identified as an atheist. As I detailed some of the beliefs and values of humanism, he slowly came to realize that he, too, is a humanist (but a religious Humanist). I can understand why a devout Mormon in Utah might be unfamiliar with humanism (I was, until I left Mormonism), but the identity problem is not limited to just devoutly religious people. Some members of the broader secular movement do not know the label “humanist” either.

While interviewing atheists in South America in the summer of 2016, I asked a number of individuals if they identified with a variety of common labels for nonbelievers (atheist, agnostic, skeptic, and so on). When I asked one of my interviewees if he identified as a humanist, he cocked his head and looked at me bewildered. He wasn’t sure what I was talking about. This individual was a successful attorney who speaks fluent English and has read most of the books of New Atheist writers. He asked for clarification and then noted that the label “humanist” (humanista in Spanish) was complicated in his country because a New Age group that had gained some prominence identified as humanists, and he most certainly did not identify as part of their group. As far as his beliefs and values went, he was a humanist, but he was unfamiliar with the label.

As these two examples illustrate, one of the obvious identity problems humanists have is that very few people know what humanism is. It’s difficult to identify as a humanist when you’ve never heard of the philosophy.

But there is another identity problem that humanists face, and it is on this problem that I will focus in this brief essay. How do we isolate humanists in survey data? In a prior publication,1 I tried to distinguish between New Atheists and, well, just plain atheists. Given the relatively clear criteria that some New Atheist authors have proposed for being a New Atheist, it was not particularly difficult.

However, identifying and isolating humanists poses a number of technical challenges. To begin with, depending on one’s interpretation of humanism, humanists can have a religious affiliation. Do we include individuals with a religious affiliation among the ranks of humanists? Or do we exclude them? Once the issue of including religious Humanists is addressed, what other criteria do we use to identify humanists? Can humanists hold supernatural beliefs? Can humanists attend religious services? And do people have to identify as a humanist in order to be considered one? While there is, of course, a long history of fighting over these very issues within the secular movement (see, for instance, my forthcoming chapter on splits in the secular movement)2, those debates do not readily resolve the issue of how to identify humanists in survey data.

In the interest of providing a first attempt at isolating humanists in survey data, I came up with some rather imprecise criteria for distinguishing humanists from non-humanists in the United States. Their limitations will be obvious, but I ask readers to recognize that the proper questions to isolate humanists have not been included in any existing data sets, and that this is just an initial attempt to distinguish between various types of humanists and contrast them with non-humanists. One of the best, nationally representative surveys in the United States is the General Social Survey (GSS), run by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. The survey has been fielded roughly every other year since 1972 and is funded by the National Science Foundation. The survey covers hundreds of topics and has a very high response rate (over 70 percent), which is much higher than most surveys and polls today.

Not surprisingly, there is no question in the survey that asks, “Are you a humanist?” But there are a few questions that have been asked over the entire span of the survey that allow for isolating three possible groups of humanists. Since 1973, three key questions have been included in the GSS. First is a question that asks about religious affiliation: “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” While humanists can report a religious affiliation, for the purposes of this cursory analysis, I excluded any individuals who reported having a religious affiliation as humanists. The second question asks about religious service attendance: “How often do you attend religious services?” Response options for this question range from “never” to “more than once a week.” I split humanists into two groups based on their responses to this question: (1) those who never attend religious services, and (2) those who attend religious services more than never. Finally, the third question, which is perhaps the most problematic given my aims, asks about belief in an afterlife: “Do you believe there is a life after death?” Response options are binary: “Yes” or “No.”

Based on their responses to these three questions, I isolated three groups of humanists. Individuals who identified as (a) having no religious affiliation, (b) never attending religious services, and (c) not believing in an afterlife I labeled as “secular humanists.” Individuals who identified as (a) having no religious affiliation, (b) attending religious services more than never, and (c) not believing in an afterlife I labeled “congregational humanists.” Finally, individuals who identified as (a) having no religious affiliation, (b) attending religious services more than never, and (c) believing in an afterlife, I labeled “religious Humanists.” The percentages of these three groups in the U.S. population from 1973 through 2014 are shown in figure 1.

Using these imperfect criteria (more on this below), it appears that, starting in the early 1990s, humanism began to grow. The greatest growth has been in the religious and congregational humanist categories. As of 2014, religious and congregational humanists made up the largest segments of the humanist population. Secular humanists remain a relatively small percentage of the U.S. population, around 1 percent.

As noted, these criteria are imperfect. For instance, many religious Humanists would prefer to be described as being open to the possibility of an afterlife or the existence of the supernatural, rather than being definitively described as believing in an afterlife. Likewise, there may be many people who hold humanistic beliefs and values who report having a religious affiliation. All such individuals are excluded from the categories depicted in figure 1. In short, the measures we have are not very good.

I’ll end this short essay with a request. If you find the measures above problematic, you’re not alone. I find them problematic as well. But fielding a nationally representative survey with better measures is not free. However, the cost of fielding such surveys has come down in recent years, thanks to the Internet and a new form of survey methodology called “panel surveys.” While there is still some question about the representativeness of panel surveys, there is growing acceptance of this methodology in light of the problems with phone surveys, particularly the very low response rates.

As a result, for just a few thousand dollars, well-trained social scientists could field a nationally representative survey about humanism that could include more relevant questions. For instance, a question could be included that asks whether Americans know what humanism is or whether they know anyone who identifies as a humanist. Likewise, a number of questions asking whether Americans hold humanist values could be included, providing a much clearer picture of how many Americans share humanist values, even if they do not identify as humanists.

We know that many Americans are leaving religions. We also know that confidence in organized religion has been declining for decades. But until we are able to field well-designed surveys that ask the right questions, we’ll continue to be ignorant about just how many humanists there are in the United States. And if humanists don’t know how many humanists there are, it is going to be virtually impossible to get non-humanists to pay attention to humanists. If a survey found that even 10 to 15 percent of Americans were arguably humanists, it would make them the third largest “religious” group in the United States, behind Catholics and Southern Baptists. That would go a long way toward addressing the humanist identity problem.

Thanks to Tom Flynn, who put me up to this, and Judith Walker, who put him up to it.



  1. Ryan T. Cragun, “Who Are the ‘New Atheists’?,” in Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts, ed. L. Beamon and S. Tomlins (New York: Springer, 2014), 195–211.
  2. Lori Fazzino and Ryan T. Cragun. “‘Splitters!’: Lessons from Monty Python for Secular Organizations in the US,” Organized Secularism in the United States, Religion and Its Others: Studies in Religion, Nonreligion, and Secularity, ed. by R. T. Cragun, L. Fazzino, and C. J. Manning (Boston, Mass.: De Gruyter, forthcoming.

Ryan Cragun

Ryan T. Cragun is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. His research interests include Mormonism and the nonreligious.

He is the author of more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles, including several for Free Inquiry, and half-dozen book chapters. His research is regularly featured in national media.

Humanists have an identity problem, and it’s a problem at multiple levels. I remember very clearly the first time I told my Mormon brother that I was a humanist in a discussion on Facebook.

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