The State of Secular America

Jan 1, 2015

By Phil Zuckerman

Legally speaking, 2014 has not been a good year for secular Americans. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that closely held, for-profit corporations can claim religious exemptions from laws that go against their owners’ religious beliefs. They also decided that it is constitutional to kick off city council meetings with explicitly sectarian Christian prayers. Even the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared that the teacher-led, God-centric language of the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t discriminate against the children of non-theists. No wonder that Tom Flynn, the director of the Council for Secular Humanism, dubbed 2014 the “Annus Horribilis.”

And yet, despite these legal defeats, 2014 has actually been a wonderful year. A great year. In fact, things have never been better for the nation’s non-religious.

Consider the demographics. Back in the 1950s, less than five percent of Americans were non-religious, but today, according to the latest national surveys — for example,Pew Forum and WIN-Gallup — it is now somewhere between 19 percent and 30 percent, and among Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 specifically — 33 percent now claim to be non-religious. These are, quite simply, the highest rates of secularity the nation has ever seen.

Of course, not all Americans who say they are non-religious are necessarily atheist or agnostic. But according to the American Religious Identification Survey, somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent are; and around 75 percent of 20-somethings are. Thus, the rise of irreligiosity in America is also a rise of atheism and agnosticism, as well.


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8 comments on “The State of Secular America

  • I have been non religious all my life but only recently realised that i am an organic atheist but I am confused when you say that not all non believers are atheists or agnostics however the rise of irreligiosity is obviously a rise in atheism and agnosticism, am I missing something?



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  • Hi zula,

    I think he may be referring to deists who believe in some sort of vague god or force but don’t follow a particular religion. Many people don’t associate with a religion as such but believe in various cafeteria spiritualisms borrowed from various beliefs systems or even making up their own. I find the stats on this very hard to fathom. Even those who claim a religion are often all but atheist only attending once or twice a year and when questioned they are offended that you suggest that they might actually believe any of the central dogmas of their faith.

    I’m interested in your description of yourself as an organic atheist do you mean you just sort of grew into it? Did you come from a religious family? Cheers



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  • What does it mean to be “religious.” Does it mean only those who are formally affiliated with a religious denomination like Catholics or Lutherans or Anglicans or Presbyterians……and attend a church service on a regular basis.

    What about those who have a higher power (God the Father, God the Mother, Spirits of the Ancestors, the Intelligent Creator, etc…..). What if they get on their knees three times a day to pray to their higher power, but don’t attend church services and say they aren’t affiliated with one of the religious denominations? Are they “religious” ?



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  • Hasten Jan 4, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    What does it mean to be “religious.” Does it mean only those who are formally affiliated with a religious denomination like Catholics or Lutherans or Anglicans or Presbyterians……and attend a church service on a regular basis.

    The term is generally ill-defined, but usually means some sort of collective or personal supernatural belief.
    Some religious groups such as Catholics try to high-jack the term describing their own faith as “religion” while other faiths are collectively dismissed as “pagan”!



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  • Yes, I have also heard people talk about “organized” religion. This implies that there is also “unorganized” religion.

    The dictionary indicates that belief in a higher power or higher being or “God” is part of the definition of religious belief.

    Commonly, people talk about people with God-centered lives as being “religious.” Not necessarily that they attend church services on a regular basis.

    From a legal standpoint, praying is considered a religious activity, no matter where the praying takes place. Prayer does not have to take place in a church to be religious. If it takes place in a school it is still considered a religious activity, even if it is the school principal who leads the prayer, rather than a priest or minister.



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  • My latin tells me its root is “to bind” (religare). And looking it up, it was used in the middle ages as “to bind someone to a community” as in a monastery. “Religion” at its heart is about an obligation to a community and it practises are as much to demonstrate a steadfast binding to that community.

    Lenny Bruce had a joke that- more and more people are leaving religion and going back to God. Even though I am a Hitchens anti-theist, this thought (wish?) of his gives me great pleasure. Private theism I suspect may be “mostly harmless”, totally removing the bulk of the political evil done by religion and hopefully its proselytizing abuse of children. Such an idea unbound by the needfully strict rules of community would effortlessly grow to comport with reality and the moral values of the individual.



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  • Hasten Jan 4, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    Commonly, people talk about people with God-centered lives as being “religious.” Not necessarily that they attend church services on a regular basis.

    Moving the conversation on to Buddhism, Shinto, Ancient Egyptians, Incas, and Aztecs, tends to shake out some of the insular theistic assumptions!



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  • It’s likely referring to to individuals that profess to not believe in god, but hold other mystical beliefs like ‘karma’ or some other book-of-the-week metaphysical twaddle.



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