Humanism’s Chasm

Tom Flynn

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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?

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