Tom Flynn – The Rise of the Non-Religious

June 23, 2006

Tom Flynn is the Editor of Free Inquiry magazine. A journalist, novelist, entertainer, and folklorist, Flynn is the author of numerous articles for Free Inquiry magazine, many addressing church-state issues, as well as The Trouble With Christmas, and has made hundreds of radio and TV appearances in his role as the curmudgeonly “anti-Claus.” He is also the author of the critically acclaimed anti-religious black comedy science fiction novel, Galactic Rapture. His lastest work, the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, is a comprehensive reference work on the history, beliefs, and thinking of America’s fastest growing minority: those who live without religion.

In the discussion with DJ Grothe, Flynn details numerous recent demographic surveys and new polling data showing a rise in the number of secularists, agnostics, atheists, humanists and other non-believers in the United States, especially among scientists.

Also in this episode CFI summer intern Colin Koproske, from the University of Southern California, with a word about the “Spiritual University”.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, June twenty third, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank working with the State University of New York on the new science and the public master’s degree. We also have ranch’s in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood and 11 cities around the world. Every week on point of inquiry, we try to look at some of the big questions of our society, and we focused mostly on three research areas. First, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. And third, we look at the intersection of science and religion in our society at secularism and nonbelief. We do all this on the show by drawing on the Center for Inquires relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Last week I announced that this week we would be joined by James the amazing Randi, really the central figure in the contemporary skeptical movement. Unfortunately, because of technical difficulties, James Randi will be joining us next week instead of this week. This week, we’ll be joined by Tom Flynn. He’s the editor Free Inquiry magazine. And we’re going to talk about new data about the growth of nonreligious people in our society. But first, one of CeaseFire’s summer interns, Colin Prosky. He’s from the University of Southern California with a word about the spiritual university. 

In the end of faith, Sam Harris argued that faith based belief systems ought to be examined and challenged in the same way scientific theories are. American culture, he claims, has become too forgiving a religion and superstition, endorsing belief in God and piety while elevating these beliefs beyond the reach of academic discussion and critical inquiry. OK, I suppose I can accept this cultural norm of tolerance, but surely there must be an environment where these important issues can be examined and discussed, right? Colleges and universities were created for that very reason to set aside all orthodoxy, dogma and sacred cows and really dig into the most important scientific and philosophical issues facing the world today. Sadly, this has become less and less the case, especially with respect to religion. The modern university has become a place where religious and spiritual beliefs are encouraged, nourished and incubated from attack or examination. It’s a place where students are encouraged not to analyze and restructure their view of the world, but to join with others of their specific faith and build upon their existing belief system. The only critical examination a student might face is the religious affiliation survey administered to wide eyed incoming freshmen. Which religion do you belong to? A soul searching moment, indeed. A recent survey showed that less than 20 percent of college seniors report having significant interfaith discussion about religion, life and the scientific outlook. And yet organizations like the Templeton Foundation and University offices of religious life are spending millions of dollars and man hours to support the view that spirituality is an integral part of academic life and college, and that religious practice should not only be accepted on campus, but actually built in the university’s structure and educational environment. So what does this all mean? It means the religious devotion and spiritual beliefs are applauded and celebrated. But philosophical or scientific discussion about faith remains taboo. Talk about God with others who agree with you, but express only distant appreciation for others with different takes on questions regarding life, death, meaning morality, ethics or cosmology. Learn to admire and tolerate widely different interpretations of who God is, what he or she commands of us, and whether we’re all doomed for eternal damnation. But don’t dare ask anyone why they believe what they believe or why nonbelievers lack such beliefs. So the question I’m driven to ask is, if we can’t examine these issues rationally and critically at a university, where in the world can we examine them at our jobs around the dinner table with our kids? The fact of the matter is, the four years you spend at college might be the only chance you get to engage in this sort of intellectual exercise and philosophical pondering. At college, you’re supposed to stay up late arguing about the meaning of life, the origin of morality and economic theory. You’re supposed to be exposed to history’s great thinkers, to classical arguments and philosophies, and to students or professors who force you to qualify and substantiate your views and opinions. This is what college is for. Unfortunately, forces from the ideological right and left have sought to make the university a mirror flexion of what they believe society should be. Many conservatives feel that more right leaning professors should be hired to mirror the political ratios of American voters. They feel that American history and capitalism should be taught more favorably and that multicultural course requirements. Affirmative action measures and women’s centers ought to leave the system for good. Many left wingers seek to make the university a cultural relativist bastion for tolerance of all views and approaches and a place where diversity matters more than the pursuit of knowledge and truth. They also believe that some things, namely race, gender and religion, are above scientific examination. But we don’t celebrate the diversity of economic theories of molecular conceptions or any other scientific approaches to natural phenomena. We weed out the unsupported hypotheses in search of scientific consensus. We use observation, reason and experimentation to get as close as we can to the truth. This same approach should be taken with matters of the religious domain. I think the academy ought to toughen up and withstand these threats to free inquiry by sticking to its original mission. The open, unbridled empirical study of any and all fields, issues and phenomena. The scientific method has been developed and refined over hundreds of years to ensure this very concept that those who might use it proceed without presuppositions, without bias and without fear in search of truth, wherever it might lead. But presuppositions, bias and fear rule their religious environment. Today, on college campuses, offending someone of faith could have dire consequences. They could even get you expelled from school. Students, professors and administrators need to learn that while religious coexistence and tolerance are worthy goals, exempting spirituality from discussion while encouraging it as a practice is antithetical to the university’s mission and role in society. The maintenance of cultural norms and personal views should take a backseat for at least these four little years of our lives. While we fearlessly endeavor to learn and to grow. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists who invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think and do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Regular contributors include Richard Dawkins, Wendy Kaminer, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer and Sam Harris. Their views are reasoned, thought provoking and to some, unpardonable, infuriating. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

It’s a pleasure for me to have on this week’s episode of Point of Inquiry, Tom Flynn, who is the editor of Free Inquiry magazine, the world’s largest and I’d argue most influential journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Tom Flynn has appeared very widely in the media on topics as diverse as church state separation and the trouble with Christmas. The title of one of his books. He’s here with us today to talk about the increase in the numbers of non-religious people in our society. Tom, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Oh, hi, D.J.. And it’s great to be here once again. 

Tom, in 2001, there was a study that purported to show that there was an almost doubling of non-religious people in the ten years before that study. 

That’s right. That was the American Religious Identification Study. And the acronym for that is ARRIS. And that was done by a group based at the City University of New York. This was a very wide ranging poll of opinions and positions on religious matters. The interesting thing about it was it was a replication of a study that had been done some years before the early 1990s. And so they were able to take a look pretty closely at a whole range of fascinating variables regarding religious belief and compare them to snapshots about 10 years apart, using exactly the same instrument. Now, one of the things they found over that period was the so-called nones. And by that I don’t mean the ladies in the black robes with the rulers. I mean people who answer the question, what is your religious affiliation? By saying none. People who claim no denominational or religious affiliation. Their numbers were a little bit under nine percent in the early 1990s, and by 2001, they were coming in at over fourteen point one percent. 

Now, that doesn’t mean people who are non-religious. That just means not identified with a certain denomination. 

Right. That could be people who are atheists or are secular humanist or hold to any sort of amorphous religious belief. Their spiritual leaders seeking they they have some vague belief about the cosmic muffin, whatever it might be. But that was one of the frustrations of the arrest data. There were several other polls that had covered similar ground over a period from the late 1980s to the dawn of the 21st century. A number of polls, using a number of different methodologies, had continued to show a steady rise and approximate doubling in the number of people who did not claim traditional religious affiliation. 

Is there any guess as to why there’s this increase of people who aren’t identified with a certain religious tradition? 

There’s been a great deal of speculation. There have been quite a few sociological papers written about this. Some authorities chalk it up to the decline in authoritarianism among baby boomers and their children. There have been a variety of explanations. And generally, anytime that you can get 10 sociologists in a room and get 10 explanations, it probably means that none of them know the answer. 

Give me a couple of the explanations people give why there’s been an increase. 

One of the more widely held is that there has been a decline in reliance on traditional authority structures in society so that people are more willing than they might have been a generation or two ago to set out on their own, on their metaphysical quest and unmoored themselves from traditional denominational labels. That what a few people did very, very visibly in the 1960s, most people seem to view now as an acceptable rite of passage. There’s another hypothesis, which is that for a variety of reasons, from the growing effectiveness of secularist outreach to a growing foot in mouth moments among fundamentalists, that in fact conservative religiosity may be being more discredited among a lot of, you know, more liberal, more open minded people. The jury’s still out. What we know is that according to a broad number of indices, the number of people who live without religion is growing. But up until very recently, that was all we knew about them. 

But here’s a paradox. It seems like the number of people who identify with extremist religion, my term, let’s call it evangelical conservative Christianity. The number of those people are also growing. So the middle number of people, the people who are neither secular or not religious nor the people who are evangelical Christian. That number seems to be going down very much. 

So what we seem to be witnessing pretty clearly is a growing polarization of society. The fundamentalist religious right has been growing very widely. Apparently, the secularist. Left, if we can call it that, has been growing pretty strongly, too, and most of this growth has been at the expense of the center, the traditional mainstream Protestant congregations have been famously losing members. The American Catholic Church would be losing members, but for very high levels of immigration, mostly Latino. So by and large, the religious middle is shrinking. Much of that benefit is going to the religious right. Some of that benefit is going to the indifferently religious or outright non-religious side of the spectrum. 

There’s new data out of the University of Akron. It suggests that the number of explicitly secular, atheist, humanist, agnostic people is growing more than it ever has before. 

Yes, this is an exciting new development. As I mentioned, the best data we had previously was the area study in 2001, which showed us that think was fourteen point seven percent of the population had no religious affiliation. But it didn’t separate between the truly non-religious and the spiritual seekers. One of a great many things that this University of Akron study did for the first time is it allowed us to separate those people. It had one category for the spiritual but non-religious and one category for the seculars. Now, let me tell you a couple of things real quickly about the University of Akron study. This was a study that was administered to a large nationwide sample during the run-up to the 2004 election. And it was intended principally to look for religious and philosophy of life, variables that would help in predicting voting behavior. And in that regard, it was very successful. Now, this study showed an overall level of religiously unaffiliated people. That was the highest number ever recorded, 16 percent. Again, further growth, another one point three percent over the area study. They didn’t use exactly the same methodology, but it was one more piece of evidence that the unaffiliated population was growing that sixteen point zero, though not explicitly atheist, agnostic, secular. Well, that’s the beautiful part. The University of Akron. A Pew Center study went further and asked additional questions and broke down that 16 percent out of that group. Five point three percent were spiritual but non-religious. Was the label they used the spiritual seekers? Ten point seven percent were explicitly atheist, agnostic, humanist or secular. Now, this was quite surprising and Free Inquiry magazine. About three years ago, we ran an article by the late sociologist Otis Dudly Duncan, one of the grand old men of the field who rolled out a whole number of reasons why the spiritual seekers should significantly outnumber the explicitly religious. And here for the first time, we had hard numbers showing exactly the opposite, that the secular population is almost twice the size of the religious seekers. 

This is the first time in American demographic history that explicitly atheist, agnostic or secular people past that 10 percent mark. 

Exactly. In fact, it’s the first time we’ve had any really solid data on that. And as it comes in, we see that we are above the 10 percent mark, which is kind of a magic number in American minority politics. There seems to be a tendency in American life that when you’re a member of a group that can claim 10 percent or more, as African-Americans have for many years, as Hispanics have for quite a few years, as the JL Beatty population claimed for quite a while on the strength of numbers that may be questionable today, but they were widely believed in their time. What we know is that either the fact or the perception of making up 10 percent of the population earns you a place at the table. 

Was there any suggestion in this polling data that the explicitly secular, atheist, agnostic people that they voted a certain way? 

Yes, actually, there is a fabulous article in The Atlantic Monthly. January, February 2006 by Steven Waldman, who is the CEO of Beliefnet, and John C. Green, always one of the senior researchers on the University of Akron study. And they used the data from that study to break up the American electorate into twelve lifestyle and religious and socio economic groupings, which they called the 12 tribes. Now, one of the interesting things about this grouping is that out of these 12 tribes, they explicitly secular at ten point seven percent are actually the fifth largest group. 

So fifth largest according this study. Now, on adherence, dot com, at least according to the research they have, secular, non-religious, agnostic or atheist, is the third largest belief group around the world. One point one billion people self identify with that of. At least according their research. Now, according to the University of Akron data, it’s the fifth largest belief group in America. That’s still a sizable minority. 

That’s correct. And it’s kind of amazing when you contemplate that. On the one hand, we’re the fifth largest minority and on the other hand, we are the minority group whom a majority of Americans still say they would not vote for one of us for president because of our Athie ism. And yet we’re the fifth largest group. I think there is a disconnect here. But you asked about voting behavior among the seculars and Waldman and Green divided up the 12 tribes by colors. Of course, the handy red blue index. We seculars are among the blue tribes. We tend to be in the politically left and to vote Democratic, although, as you would, I know there are certainly exceptions to that, to the consternation of many of my friends. 

Yes, there are. 

But of the 12 tribes, just to run them down very quickly on the the red tribes, the ones who consistently vote Republican. There was the religious right at twelve point six percent. These are culturally conservative evangelicals. The heartland culture warriors make up another eleven point four percent. Now, how is that different from the religious right? These are politically and socially conservative, largely Protestants, but they are not evangelical. They haven’t had a born again experience. They don’t have that whole cluster of fundamentalist or evangelical theologies. And then there are moderate evangelicals who are in a little similar position religiously but somewhat more politically moderate. They still vote Republican, centrist Republicans, if you will. And their ten point eight percent of the population. So your your hard GOP base, if you will, is basically made up of these roughly 43 percent of the population and because of their religious background, largely influenced by that. And it certainly it certainly influences the issues that they respond to. So, you know, when you look at the you look at the very conservative voices on Capitol Hill who are trying to muster popular support around opposition to gay marriage in some of these hardcore religious right hot button issues, they’re aiming principally at their religious right base, which, interestingly, for all their power is only twelve point six percent of the electorate. Now, on the Blue Tribes, things are a little more diverse. We have the religious left. These are mainstream Protestants who are more socially liberal and vote Democratic. 

Their religion motivates them to work for social justice as opposed to fight culture wars. 

Exactly. Exactly. Of course, we have the five point three percent who are spiritual but not religious. They tend to vote rather left. Black Protestants still continue to vote relatively liberal, or at least if they’re culturally conservative. There’s still a strong proclivity to vote Democratic Jews, Muslims, other religious groups, four point six percent tend to vote pretty strongly Democratic. And of course, the seculars, a ten point seven. So you put all that together. You’ve got another similar sized group. The Reds and the blues are pretty much balanced, which is how we wind up having these nail-biting elections every four years. Now there’s another group in the middle. These are what Walderman and Green called the Purple Tribes. These are your white bread Protestants. They’re eight point one percent. They’re theologically middle of the road. They’re politically centrist. They may vote either way. They’re declining rapidly. They used to be 18, 20 percent of the population. You go back 15, 20 years. Now they’re eight point one. They’re where the religious right and the seculars are drawing many of their recruits. Interesting. The non Latino Catholic population is down to seven percent. And again, they tend to be rather unpredictable. Bringing up the end of the list is the Latino Christians. Some of them are Catholic, some of them are Protestant. They are as numerous as the non Latino Catholics. And again, they tend to be pretty evenly divided between conservative and liberal voters. The Latino Christians are seven point three percent of the population. So that takes us up to a little over 20 percent. And this is this is the purple tribes, the swing vote. The amazing thing when you look at this data is how much correspondence there does seem to be between denominational affiliation, personal theology, philosophy of life and voting patterns. They do tend to hang together. 

Earlier you said that this new ten point seven percent of the population, atheist, agnostic, secular, maybe humanist, that this segment is the most despised, the least likely to be elected in a public office, for instance. Is there any data that suggests why? 

There is a little bit. The election data was based on a poll that came out again before the 2004 election. There was a Gallup poll that gave a long list of. Minority groups and ask people to say which ones they would not vote for for president. And you could pick blacks or gays or Mormons or women, whatever it might be in. One of the choices was atheists out of this whole laundry list of minorities. The only one for which more than half of the respondents said they would not vote was atheists. On the other hand, being just over 50 percent is the best we’ve ever done. And they about 40 years that Gallup has been asking that question. There was also a University of Minnesota study that came out in early 2006 that gave a little bit more insight. In particular, this study asked questions like which groups don’t share your view of life? Which groups don’t share your view of America? And I don’t recall the exact number, but a significant number of respondents in the largest number of respondents cited atheists as people who don’t share my view of America. Well, actually, if if Pat Robertson wants to say that I don’t share his view of America, I don’t view that as a calumny. I view that as a fact. So, you know, even looking at that survey data, it’s hard to say how much we should worry because some of these respondents may simply be saying, hey, these people see the world differently. And that’s true. Atheist, agnostic, secular people do see the world differently than religiously, politically active people. Absolutely. And we know for a fact that a lot of religious believers do attach a negative valuation to that. They may think that atheists and humanists are untrustworthy because they don’t believe in the next life or whatever it might be that there’d be no motivation to be good if you don’t believe in God. Exactly. We know these ideas are widespread, but this is an area that could stand a lot more sociological study past the anecdotal point. It’s really hard to get down to the root of why and if explicitly atheist, agnostic, secular people are above that 10 percent level and we’re going to be going out there in the society and demanding better treatment as a significant minority. The reasons that underlie popular prejudice against folks like us would certainly seem to merit further study. 

It seems like you just characterized the rise of the nuns as being a phenomenon that merits political action, even that it merits. 

What Richard Dawkins has referred to is consciousness raising. Taking it, I guess, from the feminists. Would you have any advice for our listeners who buy into the scientific world view people who are skeptical maybe of God’s existence, who are atheist, agnostic? Would you have advice to these listeners if they want to get involved in that consciousness raising? 

Absolutely. And in this, I’m I’m really drawn by a very successful example of the gay and lesbian community, which built a whole very successful consciousness raising campaign on the theme of We Are Everywhere. They worked out of data that suggests that the 10 percent of the population was gay and lesbian, and they used that data very skillfully. And one of the things they did was they encouraged members of their community to be more out to out themselves in some controversial cases, to out other people, but to make average Americans aware that, in fact, there are a lot of gay people in society, people they know and respect are gay or lesbian. And I think in the same way, an awful lot of non-religious Americans, skeptic’s freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, humanists, we need to come out of the closet. Most Americans still think they don’t know a single non-religious person well. 

And some of us are, even if you can’t imagine such a thing. Gay atheists, of course, Tom. There’s some data. A few years ago, and I guess since we’re talking about data about nonbelief in America, we should at least touch on this. Said something like 96 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, the most prestigious scientists in America, that they’re atheist or agnostic or secular. 

Yes, was very high number. It varied somewhat by specialty. The least likely to be religious were biologists. And it’s part of a larger network of studies which found that scientists in general were far less likely to believe in God than the population as a whole. Why do you think that is? Well, perhaps because they’re better looking at the evidence. But the interesting thing with this is scientists in general, about 40 percent of them believed in God, which is a number far lower than the population as a whole. The most distinguished scientists, depending on the specialty, only seven, eight or nine percent believed in God. So the top scientists were far more likely to be non theists than scientists as a whole, who in turn were far more likely to be non theists than the population as a whole. And these were people who make their living studying reality and thinking very rigorously about what they observe. I rest my case. 

Lots of food for thought. Thanks, Tom, for being on point of inquiry again. Thanks, T.J.. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for that conversation with James, the amazing Randi to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode about the rise of nonreligious people in our culture. Go to w w w dot CFI dash forums, dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded here at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. 

Executive producer is Paul Kurtz pointed inquiries. 

Music is written and composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailed. Contributors to today’s show include Thomas Donnelly, Tom Flynn, Sarah Jordan Debbie Goddard and Colin Caprock. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.