Secularization in the U.S.: Overblown Or Underestimated?

Self-professed atheists are the tip of a vastly larger secular population of nonbelievers and nominal believers.

By Douglas Laycock|November 5, 2015

Self-professed atheists are the tip of a vastly larger secular population of nonbelievers and nominal believers.
In the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), with a sample size of more than 54,000, we can get representative data even on very small religious groups. Only 1.6% of Americans reported their religion as atheist or agnostic in 2008, but 15% (including the atheists and agnostics) reported having no religion. Another 5.2%, demographically similar to the no-religion people, said either that they do not know their religion or that they refused to answer the question.
Pew Forum surveys, with sample sizes of more than 35,000, found 4% self-identifying as atheist or agnostic in 2007, and 7% in 2014. Pew gets consistently higher numbers than ARIS on this question; there may be a real increase over time in willingness to claim these labels and also some difference in how Pew asks the question. Pew in 2014 found another 15.8% who said their religion is “nothing in particular,” for a total of 22.8% reporting no religion, and only 0.6% who did not know or refused to answer.
These answers cannot be taken entirely at face value, but the likely exaggerations run in both directions. One study suggests that much of the growth in people reporting no religion is people disgusted with the religious right and trying to dissociate themselves from it.
Some of the no-religion people report rather conventional religious beliefs. In the 2014 Pew survey, nearly half the “nothing in particulars” and a majority of the atheists and agnostics also said that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives.

More remarkably, in the 2007 Pew survey, 21% of self-identified atheists said they believe in God or a universal spirit, and 10% of atheists said they pray at least weekly. You cannot assume that survey respondents all understand the questions the same way you do.
These answers suggest believers with no religious identity. But other Americans report a religious identity without having much in the way of belief.
When ARIS asked about the existence of God, 12.3% said “There is no such thing,” “There is no way to know,” or “I’m not sure.” These are the atheist and agnostic answers, and they appeared nearly eight times as often as people who labeled themselves atheist or agnostic.
Another 6.1% refused to answer. It seems unlikely that belief in God is an important part of the lives of those who refuse to answer the question. Another 12.1% said, “There is a higher power but no personal God.” That leaves 69.5% who said “There is definitely a personal God.”
A 30% minority is nearly a hundred million Americans with no strong belief in a personal God.
And of course, not everyone who tells a pollster he believes in God is actually religious. The religiously indifferent who rarely think about it much may report belief in God when asked. They may also live their daily lives on a thoroughly secular worldview, with belief in God rising to consciousness only when someone asks.
It is hard to get at these gradations of belief with a survey instrument. But the 2014 Pew survey reports that only 53% of Americans say that religion is “very important” in their lives. The 2007 Pew Survey found that only 29% say they rely mainly on their religious beliefs for guidance regarding right and wrong, and 34% say that “[r]eligion causes more problems in society than it solves.”
Religious behaviors are also consistent with a large secular minority. In the ARIS data, 30% of married Americans said they were not married in a religious ceremony, and 27% of Americans did not expect to have a religious funeral when they die. And that’s before we count the people who show up at church only to be married and buried.
I am not suggesting that the United States is on the path to secularization. We are still a highly religious nation. Fifty-three percent would be a comfortable win in any election; 69.5% would be a landslide.
But the secular minority is also large. Judges and legislators can no longer dismiss it as too small to matter.

Kosmin, Barry A. and Ariela Keysar. "Summary Report: March 2009." American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008), March 2009. Hartford, CT: Trinity College, 2009.
"America’s Changing Religious Landscape: Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow." Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015.
"U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic." Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, February 2008.
Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. “Why More American Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67:155 (2002), 178-89.

Author, Douglas Laycock, (J.D., University of Chicago Law School, 1973) is Robert E. Scott Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Virginia and Alice McKean Young Regents Chair in Law Emeritus at the University of Texas. A leading authority on the law of remedies and on the law of religious liberty, Prof. Laycock has testified before Congress and argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He has published two volumes of a four-volume collection of his writings on religious liberty. He is vice president of the American Law Institute.


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Joseph Connolly

The article from “Sightings” states this: “...ARIS asked about the existence of God, 12.3% said ‘There is no such thing,’ ‘There is no way to know,’ or ‘I’m not sure.’”

There is no way from the context of the quote to determine the exact wording of the question.  (I would presume it’s close to an accurate rendering.)  But whatever the answer given, saying that “There is no God” poses an interesting conundrum.

Once one says “There is no God” that, by definition, becomes a God.  You see, we all have ‘gods’ of some kind.  Claiming that there is no God could be considered just another god, no matter how much one protests they do not believe there is a God.

Which, in turn, would suggest the title of this “Sightings” entry, “Secularization in the U.S.: Overblown or Underestimated?” is spot on.