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Questions You Should Never Ask an Atheist: Towards Better Measures of Nonreligion and Secularity

Aug 6, 2019

By Ryan T. Cragun


As interest in the nonreligious has grown, attention has turned to how to measure both the growth of and variation within the nonreligious. This interest has also revealed that prior measures of religiosity are often problematic. In this research note, I detail some of these problems. For instance, some measures fail to contrast nonreligiosity with religiosity. Other measures are double-barreled or one-and-a-half barreled, making them impossible for nonreligious individuals to answer. Finally, I note that how questions are worded can result in very different estimates of how many nonreligious people and atheists there are in a population.


Social scientists have known that religiosity is multidimensional since the 1960s (Glock and Stark, 1966). Since then, there have been numerous measures developed to try to capture individual religiosity, some with just a few dimensions, others with as many as eight dimensions (Hill and Hood, 1999). Various measures of religiosity continue to be used, depending on the context and group of interest (Cragun, Hammer and Nielsen, 2015). While those measures are varied, there seems to be growing agreement among scholars that there are least three core dimensions of religiosity that should be captured when trying to get a comprehensive measure of how religious someone is: belief, behavior, and belonging (Keysar, 2014).

We now know that measures of religiosity are typically not also measures of nonreligiosity or secularity (Hall, Meador and Koenig, 2008Hall, Koenig and Meador, 2009Hwang, Hammer and Cragun, 2011). Many measures of religiosity capture only how religious people are, ranging from very high levels of religiosity (presumably along the three dimensions just noted) to very low levels of religiosity. This is particularly problematic when researchers try to make comparisons between religious and nonreligious individuals as they may not actually be capturing whether or not someone is nonreligious or if they are affirmatively secular (Galen, 2012Baker and Smith, 2015). To what extent the problems in measuring nonreligion are intentional or unintentional biases of pro-religious researchers is unclear (Cragun and Hammer, 2011). Additionally, while there have now been some efforts to measure the dimensions of secularity (Schnell, 2015), it’s not entirely clear whether the same dimensions of religiosity (i.e., belief, behavior, and belonging) apply to the nonreligious (Lee, 2014). The answer to the question, “How are people secular or nonreligious?” is still an ongoing concern.

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