Measuring Secularity

At the home of the first secular studies undergraduate program, amid dozens of secularity scholars from around globe, Tommy Coleman’s interview with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John Shook tackles big questions about the measurement of secularity and secularism, the positionality of secularity scholars, and the state of secular studies as a field. The 3rd annual conference of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) at Pitzer College, which I too attended, was indeed the perfect place for this conversation. Secularity scholars from all over, both geographically and epistemologically, came together to debate and discuss these very questions. In the interview, Zuckerman and Shook describe a burgeoning “field of secular studies,” and, for me, this conference was evidence of just that. Here, I will build on their points about measurement and positionality, arguing that the heterogeneity among those who claim no religion requires more attention than it has been given and that the emerging field of secular studies shows definite signs of rising to that challenge.

To start, Zuckerman and Shook emphasize that “secularity” is a much broader phenomenon than most scholarly research acknowledges and they have given themselves the task of putting together the Oxford Handbook of Secularism to begin addressing the gaps in secular studies that have historically focused solely on atheists and atheism. Many others at the NSRN conference made similar points, and presentations detailing the variety of labels, beliefs, and behaviors found among the secular dominated the panels. This is encouraging and, I would argue, a long time coming. The rise of the “nones” as a category in social science research, while a step in the right direction, is far from sufficient to address the increasing presence and diversity of the religiously disaffiliated.

Referring to a research project in which he attempted to measure the amount of atheists globally (Zuckerman 2007), Zuckerman admits that measuring secularity is no easy task. He questions the validity of global statistics on irreligion and both he and Shook discuss the importance of being sensitive to regionality and culture when measuring secularity outside of a Western, Christian context. I agree, but want to emphasize that we are still far from sufficiently measuring secularity and its effects within Western contexts. Most quantitative research claiming to say something about what the “nones” do and do not do, in contrast to the religious, typically collapses all of those who claim no religious belief or affiliation into one category. These studies often make claims about the benefits of religion based on comparisons with the “nones”, and the religiously affiliated have been found to be happier, healthier, and more engaged with their communities. However, while often rigorously testing for variance among the religious, these studies treat the irreligious as if they have a static identity, resulting in an elision of the range of beliefs and behaviors that have been found within this growing group.

Zuckerman calls on the three Bs – belief, belonging, and behavior – to define what it means to “be secular.” Social scientists often use these categories to measure religiosity, as these three ways of being religious have been found to have distinct, and often contradictory, influences on social attitudes and behaviors. The utility of parsing out these categories among the “nones” is becoming increasingly apparent. For example, Zuckerman details how an individual can be secular in one way and not in another. Someone can go to church while not believing in god(s), or, indeed, can believe in god(s) without affiliating with any religious institution. Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam (2010) found that Americans who claim no religious affiliation one year often join a religious institution the next, highlighting the fluidity and “liminality” of religious and secular belief, belonging, and behavior (see also Keysar 2014). However, Zuckerman asserts that one cannot be truly secular if they believe in god(s). While you can agree or disagree with his definition, the important point is that when these distinct ways of being secular are conflated, the result is often invalid categories and incomplete conclusions (see Joseph Blankholm’s insightful post on the same topic).

At the American Mosaic Project, a survey project I’m a part of at the University of Minnesota, one of our goals is to speak to this gap in the research. We have multiple measures of secular belonging and behavior, including four separate measures for irreligious belonging (atheist, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, and nothing in particular). Analyses indicate important distinctions among all four categories, as well as between those who take on a “none” label, those who have atheistic beliefs, and those who do not attend church. Other studies have found these distinctions as well, for example, Baker and Smith (2009) find that American atheists, agnostics, and unchurched believers each have distinct political beliefs and varying stances on religion’s place in public life.

A second aspect of measuring secularity discussed in the interview deals with its relation to religion. For Zuckerman, secularity is and always has to be in relation to religion. He argues, “If there was no religion, secularity would not have to be invented, we wouldn’t have to have a word for it.” Shook disagrees, rebutting, “There is no magic in language. Words don’t bring things into existence.” For Shook, secularism is an objective, measurable phenomenon that can exist with or without the presence of religion. He argues, “Just because the term serves as a contrary doesn’t mean that its existence is dependent on the contrary.” Their discussion in many ways parallels a conversation among scholars of nonbelief identities and communities. Scholars like Smith (2011) and Guenther (2014) argue that atheism in America is a “rejection identity” formed out of a rejection of religious belief and belonging. In contrast, LeDrew (2013) and Cimino and Smith (2014) highlight the ways that atheists and other nonbelievers are forming groups based on beliefs that they share instead of beliefs they reject.

What these discussions ultimately show is that individual and collective expressions of secularity vary across time and space, evolving even within the same community. In short, context matters. The political, cultural, and religious contexts of a given society influence the way secular ideals and beliefs are interpreted and enacted. Secularity, Shook explains, is set up in opposition to religion in some societies, like in the United States, but not all, and this can vary both between societies and within them. The research highlighted in this response has shown that there is a growing diversity of secular identities and ideologies, and what I’m seeing in the emerging field of secular studies is an increased sensitivity to the contexts and subjectivities under which these identities are taking shape.


Baker, Joseph and Buster Smith. 2009. “None Too Simple: Examining Issues of Religious Nonbelief and Nonbelonging in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 48(4): 719-733

Cimino, Richard and Christopher Smith. 2014. Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Oxford University Press

Guenther, Katja. 2014. “Bounded by Disbelief: How Atheists in the United States Differentiate Themselves from Religious Believers.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 29(1): 1-16

Keysar, Ariela. 2014. “Shifts Along the American Religious-Secular Spectrum.” Secularism and Nonreligion 3(1): 1-16

LeDrew, Stephen. 2013. “Discovering Atheism: Heterogeneity in Trajectories to Atheist Identity

and Activism.” Sociology of Religion 74(4): 431-45

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49(4): 596-618

Smith, Jesse. 2011. “Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism.” Sociology of Religion. 72(2): 215-237

Zuckerman, Phil. 2007. “Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns.” Pp. 47-62 in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by M. Martin. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press


3 replies
  1. Avatar
    Amber Griffioen says:

    I’m curious how ‘belief’ is measure in many of these studies. I assume it has something to do with what people assert or self-report. But even here there are huge connotative differences between, e.g., ‘belief THAT God exists’ and ‘belief IN God’. Further, there are huge differences between those who lack a belief that God exists (agnostics may fall into this category) and those who actively disbelieve.(We could cash this out as ~bel(E!God) vs. bel(~(E!God)).) I am fairly certain that there are a lot of religious non-believers out there (and likely some religious disbelievers), who not only attend church (say, out of habit), but who are actively religious – who engage seriously in and with religious practices and propositions. In any case, it doesn’t seem like belief should be the criterion (or perhaps even A criterion) by which we determine religiosity vs. secularity. It seems the relevant feature here is action and behavior, as well as commitment – though I’m not sure how one can quantitatively measure commitment…any ideas?

  2. Avatar
    Louis Frankenthaler says:

    Asking about nonreligion as an identity based on rejection or shared beliefs is an interesting and important question in order to further understand nonreligion. I would suggest, in following Lois Lee’s definition of nonreligion as “anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion,” nonreligion also be understood both as a space or a status for people who consciously discontinue a relationship with religion or resist religion or come to conscious nonreligion in another way. In other words does nonreligion (or secularity) necessitate active rejection of religion (through, for example, irreligion or deconversion) or is some other form of active arrival at this status suffiecient.

    Frost writes: “What these discussions ultimately show is that individual and collective expressions of secularity vary across time and space, evolving even within the same community. In short, context matters.”

    In my work on post-Haredi Jews (that is on the process of deconversion from ultra-Orthodox – Haredi in Hebrew – Judaism) it becomes clear that the young men I interviewed actively rejected their religion both theologically and practically and do not choose another religion. So they reached this nonreligious status. At the same time, In Israel there is an entire group of people who call themselves secular (hiluni in Hebrew) and for them, for the most part, they go about their lives with little voluntary involvement in religion (in Israel religious involvement is largely involuntary at marriage, divorce and death). Yet, at times they are confronted by what many see as religious encroachments, such as the “Haredi takeover” of a neighborhood. At times like this there is a conscious effort to join together in opposition. In this sense their nonreligious status is neither based on rejection nor is it based on an inherent shared belief but rather some sort of a fear of religious encroachment identity that requires some sort of effervescence without belief in order to resist a threat. This sort of crisis nonreligion is unfortunate on the one hand, but on the other, in one particular Jerusalem neighborhood what began in crisis now resulted in a loose “collective expression of secularity” .

    In this sense, picking up on a previous RSP interview, Gladys Ganiel on the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) mentioned that she prefers the term “orientation” to the term “identity” because thinking in terms of “orientation” is helpful in understanding that people are more than an identity but rather are a “multiple of identities.” Perhaps orientation is useful because according to Ganiel and her co-author, Marti, “orientation rather than identity better captures the package of beliefs, practices and identities shared by people within the ECM. Orientation allows us to convey that there is a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices within the ECM.” The ECM like nonreligion is in many ways a counter expression to the conventional institution out of which it emerges. Nonreligion, like the ECM and like the many people who have and are leaving religion are not highly organized Therefore in the differences inherent in post-Haredi Jews or in crisis secularity and in their difference to religion the idea of orientation can work well with identity.

  3. Avatar
    Edward Bailey says:

    I was interested to read your RS Project report of Jan 29 on the “Measuring Secularity” project. What I keep noticing as absent (and I hope the projected Oxford Handbook of Secularism will not make the same mistake: perhaps this could be forwarded to them?) is the study of what “ordinary people”, as we would tend to say in the UK, do have, in their secular lives, that takes the place of religion. The formal study of it began in 1968 as “secular religion”, but changed in 1969 to “Implicit Religion”. Academic conferences began in 1978, and the journal Implicit Religion (publisher, Equinox) in 1998.

    Not only would I suggest the value of this approach to the bulk of the population: I would also suggest the poverty of any new academic stream that overlooks such an existing one!

    Edward Bailey

    Editor Implicit Religion

    Founder CSIRCS


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