Humanism’s Chasm

Tom Flynn

Here is one of organized humanism’s most persistent puzzles: In an America where the number who live without religion has snowballed, why hasn’t the membership of national “movement” groups—atheist, agnostic, freethought, and secular humanist—kept pace?

I’ve been covering the “Rise of the Nones” since 1990, when Barry Kosmin (now a Center for Inquiry [CFI] board member) and his colleagues at the City University of New York released their first American Religious Identification Study. They announced that “Nones”—persons whose religious preference, when presented a list of creeds, was “none of the above”—had risen to a then-unprecedented 8 percent of the U.S. population. Of course, it kept on rising. Today, it’s estimated that 23 percent of Americans of all ages are Nones. (The number is sharply higher among the young.) There are about 329 million Americans, so that 23 percent equates to 75.67 million Nones. Granted, many Nones are spiritual seekers or other sorts of supernaturalists, eclectic and otherwise. Only a minority among them embrace the thoroughgoing naturalism of a life stance such as atheism or secular humanism. Still, let’s suppose (very conservatively) that only 10 percent of Nones live without a hint of the supernatural. (I presume the true figure is substantially higher.) Still, even at the 10 percent level, that suggests that 7.567 million Americans are atheists, freethinkers, or secular humanists. Yet across our nation, no “movement” organization boasts even 100,000 members. Moreover, membership numbers have held relatively steady, or at best grown modestly, for many years. (Even if an organization’s membership has doubled, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the potential for growth the number of Nones suggests.)

There isn’t just a gap between the “Rise of the Nones” and the membership growth of national secular organizations; there’s a chasm. In reason’s name, why?

I’ve been looking everywhere for the answer—and I had a lot of places to look.

I’ve enjoyed multiple vantage points from which to watch our movement’s dynamics. As a journalist, I got to cover the Rise of the Nones and then the explosion of original sociological research about the nonreligious that followed. As executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, I got to know hundreds of active members of face-to-face humanist and atheist groups around the country. During the same years, I enjoyed opportunities to meet young atheists and humanists through the Council’s Campus Freethought Alliance and more recently CFI On Campus.

Last spring, CFI CEO Robyn Blumner and I attended a scholarly colloquium in Greece that attracted some of the world’s top social scientists studying religious unbelief. I shared with them the ideas I’d synthesized based on what I’d observed from my assorted vantage points. The responses I received made me think I might just be on to something. (Or they were just humoring me.)

So here goes. I think organized secular humanism has reached a dramatic turning point. I speculate that the chasm between the breakneck growth of the Nones and the near-stasis of movement organizations actually reflects an abrupt change in the sorts of people who connected with movement atheism and humanism in decades past and those who do so—or don’t bother to do so—today. And I think this offers a possible explanation why secular movement organizations have grown so much more slowly than the nonreligious population itself.

Consider Free Inquiry. Its readership skews older. These days, most FI readers are Baby Boomers. Most grew up in a more-or-less traditional religious faith. Most of them thought their way out from under their childhood conditioning; many did that slowly, fearfully, and alone, only discovering that there was such a thing as “movement” atheism or humanism after becoming post-religious. Indeed, many thought (rightly or wrongly) that they didn’t know a single other unbeliever until after achieving unbelief themselves. (It’s true that some freethinking Boomers grew up in nonreligious households, but they make up a relatively small minority.) For most formerly religious Boomers, the passage toward unbelief wasn’t just arduous and lonely, it was perilous too: when Boomers were young, being an unbeliever carried substantial stigma. Therefore, following one’s reason away from religious belief wasn’t just an act of intellectual integrity; it required courage. For those reasons, Boomer unbelievers tend to view their deconversions from childhood faiths among their proudest achievements and as deeply central to their humanist or atheist identities.

Small wonder, then, that one of the features that has struck the most powerful chord with Free Inquiry readers was “The Faith I Left Behind.” Beginning in the February/March 2014 issue, this initial collection of FI readers’ first-person deconversion stories ran in four successive issues, comprising twenty-eight articles. Those essays—plus fourteen more that there hadn’t been room to print—were gathered together into a successful little book titled, yes, The Faith I Left Behind. And the deconversion stories kept coming—so that now, almost five years later, “The Faith I Left Behind” is the back-of-the-book department that boasts Free Inquiry’s deepest backlog of already accepted articles.

Make no mistake, most Boomer unbelievers cherish their deconversion experiences. (In this, they are like freethinkers of previous generations, reaching back at least into the early and middle nineteenth century.) By and large, Boomer unbelievers are endlessly curious about other people’s deconversion experiences. Moreover, that fascination extends to intense interest in a panoply of religious subjects. What creeds do the world’s religions teach, and how do we know they are untrue? What psychological mechanisms predispose us to believe in impossible and fantastic things, and how can we guard against them? Since the world’s religions are untrue—that is, since nothing supernatural ever informed their development—what did drive their history? What interplay of purely human and physical influences led them to assume their present forms? Many Boomer unbelievers have an appetite for such topics that seems limitless.

To examine Free Inquiry is to conclude that its hardcore readers, nonreligious as they are, are nonetheless obsessed with religion—and most are.

In the cohorts that have followed the Boomers, that obsession—and that personal background—are far less apparent. Younger cohorts were born into an era of greater religious diversity and more open tolerance. Today’s young people—at least, those of them born in the United States—were born into a culture in which the Rise of the Nones was already underway. Among them, only a minority had grown up in a traditional religion they found demanding or repressive—precisely the opposite of their elders! As I noted in a recent review of a sociology-of-unbelief book, “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.”

Here, I think, we find the roots of the chasm. A majority of younger unbelievers are profoundly unlike those who preceded them. Most have had little experience with—and, surely, little sense of oppression in connection with—a childhood religion. Vastly more among the young grew up irreligious or in a household where what one did or didn’t believe about the supernatural simply wasn’t a big deal. Being an atheist, agnostic, humanist, or freethinker carried little stigma. Most in this cohort knew plenty of others who saw the world as they did, so for them being an unbeliever was neither dangerous nor particularly special. (That’s not to say that unbelievers obsessed with religion and angry about their childhood hoodwinking no longer exist; from its origin in 2006, the New Atheist movement recruited quite a few young activists meeting that description. Nonetheless, based on the surveys and my personal experience, such “angry unbelievers” make up a minority among young unbelievers, in much the same way as unbelievers who’d grown up without religion compose a minority among unbelieving Boomers.)

For all these reasons, religion is nowhere near as weighty a concern for most younger unbelievers as it was for their elders. As a cohort, they tend not to care about a new interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls or in what order the various characteristics attributed to Jesus first appeared in Christian thinking or even whether the Qur’an explicitly incites violence. They’re not going to be snatching up Free Inquiry (literally or digitally) and paging toward the back of the magazine to read the latest “Faith I Left Behind” installment first.

If I’m right about this, it’s a vast generational shift. Most atheists, humanists, and freethinkers older than age forty-five or so have very different motives—and a markedly different psychology—than their younger counterparts. Yet the existing national organizations are finely attuned to serve a public that’s fascinated with religious controversy and views any opportunity to associate with like-minded people as a welcome—and rare—respite from a society that generally discriminates against the nonreligious.

That’s just not how most younger unbelievers see things. This 180-degree reversal in motivations and interests between older and younger nonreligious individuals is, I think, the chasm we face. I suspect it’s the main reason, while millions of newcomers entered the ranks of the nonreligious over the past three decades, only a tiny fraction engaged with one or more of the existing national organizations. It’s the reason, to quote my review again, “the movement as old-timers have known it is not delivering what most newcomers are looking for.” It offers an explanation why younger unbelievers seem to attach so little importance to the separation of church and state, as multiple studies have revealed. It’s hard for people who care little about religion and have never known discrimination because of their unbelief to get worked up about Mr. Jefferson’s Wall.

Finally, the idea of the chasm helps us understand another reason younger unbelievers may not be looking to join atheist or humanist organizations: when unbelief is just one aspect of your identity rather than central to it and when you have never knowingly experienced social disapproval on grounds of your life stance, you may see few benefits from aligning yourself with a life stance–centered movement in the first place.

Among the national movement organizations, the Center for Inquiry (CFI) has probably done the best job of realigning itself to meet the coming generations—but at best, it is meeting them halfway. CFI combines classic humanist and skeptical interests with a strong scientific viewpoint. It organizes a campaign to rescue endangered secular advocates from countries where religious fanaticism is rife, a focus that appears to engage younger people otherwise apathetic about religious matters. It conducts legal activism state by state to win equal rights for nonreligious celebrants—not as a First Amendment (that is, church-state) issue but rather on grounds of equal protection. (Other national organizations have experimented with equal-protection litigation also, mostly in hopes that conservative judges would be friendlier toward it than toward Establishment Clause litigation.) CFI also undertakes varieties of activism that no purely humanist or atheist organization could tackle, such as an ambitious lawsuit challenging the way CVS markets worthless homeopathic medications side-by-side with science-based medicines.

The chasm is sobering to contemplate. Since the nineteenth century, organized freethought has focused on serving hardy, lonesome iconoclasts who had thought their way out of oppressive childhood creeds, were resigned to a lifetime of discrimination because of their way of thinking, and sought out rare interludes among the like-minded as a primary source of solace. If you’re a Boomer like me, you belong to (probably) the last generation of nonreligious Americans who may come anywhere near fitting that profile.

What does the future of organized secularism hold? Right now, I’m not sure anyone knows. What a voyage of discovery lies before us!


*Tom Flynn, “The Sociology of Irreligion Grows Up” (review of Organized Secularism in the United States: New Directions in Research, edited by Ryan T. Cragun, Christel Manning, and Lori L. Fazzino). FI, October/November 2018.


Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).