By any measure, the period since the mid-twentieth century has been a golden age for both the science of sociology and the discipline (or business) of opinion polling. Never before have so many Americans been surveyed, measured, and compared on so many indices and by so many specialists.
Still, across the age of surveys, men and women who live without religion have had reason to feel neglected. Data on those who did not believe in God or did not go to church existed, but there wasn’t a great deal of it. Of greater concern, most of it had been collected as “bycatch” in studies designed primarily to measure the behavior of religious believers. Atheism, secularity, unchurchedness—when these things were measured, it was usually in the context of the study of belief in God or church membership. Irreligion was treated as deviance, often explicitly so. Moreover, by lumping all nonbelievers into a category such as the perennial “Other,” a group that was internally diverse was often treated as though it were far more homogeneous.
Nonbelievers had reason to feel that they stood apart from society, separated by some vast gulf, with their remoteness cutting them off from the sort of matter-of-fact attention sociologists and pollsters lavished on people of faith. This was a situation that could not continue indefinitely. The number of Americans who decline to claim any religious identity has doubled since 1990. In the mid-2000s, “new atheist” writing and activism achieved a prominence in the worlds of publishing and popular discourse never before seen. From mere doubters to “out” atheists, unbelievers enjoyed heightened visibility in numbers that could not be ignored.
For all these reasons, it is gratifying to see that at long last, the gulf between secular Americans and their indifferently secular homeland is being bridged at all levels of the social sciences. From atheists and humanists to self-declared “seculars” and the “spiritual but not religious,” Americans who have opted out of the traditional religious establishment are finally being treated as legitimate subjects of survey research.
In this feature section, independent scholar Frank L. Pasquale chronicles exciting new developments in the sociology of secularity. I follow up with a historical survey of unbelief as viewed through the lenses of sociology and surveys from the mid-twentieth century to the present. Readers are invited to consult the online version of these articles on www.secularhumanism.org, which include annotations withheld from the printed versions of these essays for reasons of space.
Like hands straining to reach across a chasm, America’s nonbelief communities, its academic community, and its survey-research community are stretching closer to each other. The prospect of understanding the social phenomena of unbelief, including secular humanism, in unprecedented detail is one of the reasons ours is an extraordinary time to live without religion.
Tom Flynn is the editor of FREE INQUIRY and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.