Organized Secularism in the United States: New Directions in Research, edited by Ryan T. Cragun, Christel Manning, and Lori L. Fazzino (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017, ISBN 978-3-11-045742-1) 321 pp., Hardcover, $114.99.
In November 2014, Pitzer College, home of prominent secularism researcher Phil Zuckerman, hosted the third international conference of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN). Fifty-five scholars from nine countries attended.
Researcher Frank L. Pasquale gave the then-fledgling NSRN its first writeup in Free Inquiry in the February/March 2012 issue (“The Social Science of Secularity”). This was the first of several issues whose cover features would document the burgeoning phenomenon of the objective study of religious unbelief by social scientists.
This redoubtable if relatively compact volume, an anthology of papers presented at the 2014 conference, manifests how rapidly the social science of unbelief has grown up. Even if it is now a few years out of date, Organized Secularism in the United States accessibly illustrates the range of lenses through which social scientists are at long last studying … you know, us.
Several of the authors will be familiar to FI readers. Coeditor Ryan Cragun has contributed to no fewer than four cover features on the social science of unbelief. Barry Kosmin, who provides the book’s final essay, has contributed to three FI cover features and authored several op-eds. In addition, he is a member of the Center for Inquiry’s board of directors. John R. Shook is a former FI associate editor. And coeditor Christel Manning has been an FI contributor. There are also numerous contributors of whom few FI readers will have heard. The social science of unbelief is maturing, and one of the strongest signs of that is that the field has an impressively deep “bench.”
By coincidence, this academic field came of age at about the same time that American unbelief entered a dramatic growth spurt. The phenomenon known as the “growth of the Nones” erupted in the 1990s; by the mid-2000s the so-called New Atheist bestsellers burst onto the scene. So rapidly has the movement grown that in one paper, Joseph Langston, Joseph Hammer, Ryan Cragun, and Mary Ellen Sikes feel compelled to remind us: “It is worth bearing in mind that the nonbeliever movement did, in fact, exist prior to the year 2000.” (The freethought historian in me cringes to read a passage like that, but the movement today is home to a great many fractious activists who know nothing of its history prior to The End of Faith and The God Delusion, published in 2004 and 2006, respectively.) These relative newcomers differ from the secular humanists, atheists, and freethinkers of the twentieth century in significant ways. They tend to approach the classic divide between religious and secular humanism differently, giving rise to what James Croft, Greg Epstein, Jennifer Kalmanson, and I dubbed “congregational humanism” (see the cover feature “Religious Humanism: Dead, Alive, or Bifurcating?” FI, October/November 2013). The Sunday Assembly phenomenon receives substantial attention in this volume. Significant numbers of the new unbelievers did not grow up in a demanding religious tradition and had no personal experience of self-emancipation from a childhood faith, something the vast majority of their elders in the movement had in common. Perhaps most important, while millions of newcomers entered the ranks of the nonreligious over the past two decades, only a tiny fraction of them engaged with one or more of the existing national organizations (the Council for Secular Humanism, American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and so on). Clearly the movement as old-timers have known it is not delivering what most of these newcomers are looking for. Or perhaps they are not looking for the benefits that come from alignment with a lifestance-centered movement at all. (It’s particularly intriguing—or disturbing, depending on one’s point of view—that younger unbelievers seem to attach so little importance to the separation of church and state. Yet that is what much research has revealed.)
For movement leaders and for anyone concerned about how what is known about unbelief has come to be known, Organized Secularism in the United States makes indispensable reading. It’s not clear why De Gruyter, a German academic publisher, came to release this volume (though it dovetails nicely with that house’s series, “Religion and Its Others: Studies in Religion, Nonreligion, and Secularity”), but the result is a curious pricing policy. In hardcover the title is off-puttingly expensive. There’s no paperback. But economy-minded readers can download individual-chapter PDFs free of charge from the publisher’s website. As the saying goes, this is not a promotional offer.*
* I thought you’d never ask. It’s https://www.degruyter.com/viewbooktoc/product/466728.