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Recognizing and Categorizing the Secular: Polysecularity and Agendas of Polysecularism: New Directions in Research

John R. Shook
Recognizing and Categorizing the Secular:
Polysecularity and Agendasof
1Introduction: Seeking the Secular
What maycount as a secularorganization, or a secularmovement?How
should secular societies be studied, classified, and compared?The amount of re-
search into group manifestations of secular energy and activism has been limited
and disjointed, most likelydue to ageneral lack of clarity and rigor.
This chapter offers awell-defined framework for classifying and contrasting
the compositions and agendas of organizations for secular people. That frame-
work must be assembled graduallyand carefully, which requires initial sections
of this chapter for describing how the secular and secularity can be studied sci-
entifically. The second section shows how to liberate afree-standingconception
of the secular from pre-fabricated contrasts against religious normalcies. The
third section explains how to avoid the prevalent fallacies in the social sciences
that distort the identitiesofsecular people. Thefourth section introducesthe
idea of polysecularityto better discriminate the manytypes of secular people.
The fifth section introducesthe idea of polysecularismto cover primary modes
of activism chosen by some secular people in the publicsphere, which need not
be characterized onlybynegative opposition to religion. The sixth section orients
research into public secular attitudes through the positive self-identities and
chosen agendas of secular individuals.The highlydiverse array of choicesfor ex-
pressingsecularist views and participatinginsecular agendas in turn sets the
stagefor the seventh section, which categoriesavariety of prominent secular or-
ganizations in America according to their efforts to serveone or another portion
of that diverse array.Thischapter concludes by pointing out under-servedand
neglected segments of the sizable secular population in America,using the ex-
ample of New Atheism to illustrate how thatregrettable situation could occur
in the internet age.
The terms secularand secularitylend themselvestomultifaceted and
multidimensional conceptions, applicable in manywaystoindividuals,organi-
zations, social institutions, and whole societies (see Rechtenwald and Richter,
this volume). Despite their utilityfor analytic frameworks in research, the
work of observing secularity, tracking secularity,and explaining features of sec-
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ularity continues to be methodologicallychallenging. Expanding the field of Sec-
ular Studies on stablyacademicfoundations is difficult enough; presumptions
and stereotypes about the nonreligious continue to divert inquiries towards
dead ends. Suppositions that the secular is the realm of crudelymaterialistic
and utilitarian matters,secularityindicates an insensitivity or impassivity to re-
ligious or spiritual wonders,orthat secularism is basicallyabout anti-religious
antagonism, continue to exert open or tacit influenceacross academia.Secular
Studies could settle down wherereligious studies and theologywishesittore-
main, as asubfield subordinatetotheirsupervision. Alternatively,itcan clear
its own academic path with philosophical clarity and scientificrigor.
In the West,unbelief and its secularity has commonlybeen viewed as ade-
viant rebellion against theism. That perspective does simplify methodology. If
the secular is onlyperceivable through areligious lens, then secularity seems in-
conceivable except in relation to religion, and secularity has no meaning apart
from religious structures.Onlythe clarity of religious doctrine about divinity per-
mits anyshape and definition to nonreligion, this viewpoint goes on to suggest.
Even atheists often assume thattheism presents adoctrinallywell-defined target
for atheismsopposition (Clark 2015). Henceacademiasapproach, ever since
Christian universities arose, has been to let expertsinreligion handle explora-
tions into impiety and irreligion. Religious scholars have been devoted to ex-
plaining religionsreasonableness,its universality,its naturalness, and its use-
fulness. That devotion has convenientlyset standards of normality for judging
unbeliefsdeformities and deficiencies, and protecting society from secularitys
corrosions. Historically(and presently), theologyhas regulated the secular.
There is an alternative.Ascholarlyfield concernedwith the secular could
control its own methodologies,theoretical terminology, and interpretations of
empirical findings. Inquiry into the views, values, and motivations of nonreli-
gious people could begin with observations of them in theirown livedworlds,
instead of starting from theological portraits of religious people in theirs. Any
presumed naturality and normality to religion (Barrett 2012; contra position in
Shook 2012)can be bracketed away from sound methodology. Scholars and sci-
entists studying nonreligious people, in non-Western as well as Western societ-
ies, can investigate the affinities and affirmations behind apersonspreferred
secular views and activities (Beit-Hallahmi 2007;Zuckerman 2010;Caldwell-Har-
ris 2012; Coleman,Silver, and Holcombe 2013;Norenzayan and Gervais 2013;
Guenther 2014; Burchardt et al. 2015;Bilgrami 2016). Not believing in adeity,
or not behaving religiously, by itself tells us little about what aperson does ac-
cept and affirm.
The field of Secular Studies and allied disciplines are readyfor closer re-
search into phenomenaofindividual secularity using secular methodologies
88 John R. Shook
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and sensitivities to secularitysown histories and agendas. The reality of poly-
secularity,as Iterm it,awaits exploration at the individual level. Polysecularity,
in brief, refers to the broad diversity to secularitydisplayedbypeople throughout
their mundane lives. Secular people needntbedefined in terms of deviancy any
more. Some secular people are secularists offering resistancetoreligion, by par-
ticipating in the advancement of secularismsaffirmativeagendas. The diversity
and positivity inherent to secularist attitudes and activist agendas is here labeled
as polysecularism.
This chapter concludes by situating secular organizations in America within
this polysecularity-polysecularism framework. The frameworksclassification of
ideological niches situates wherevarious typesofsecular organizations can find
their corresponding sorts of supporters.The phenomena of polysecularity at the
individual level is accompanied at the social level by the polysecularism of or-
ganizational diversity observedinthe United States.This framework accounts
for the kinds of disagreements, and even inevitable antagonisms, among secular
Researchinto secularitytoo often proceeds as though being secular or not being
abeliever is predicable upon some basic, static, and singular construct.Theolo-
gy helpfullycleared the wayfor that procedure. With onlyone path up the moun-
tain to the sacred, there is onlyone path down. Secularization is just de-sacral-
ization; secular people descendingtothe mountainsbase are secular onlyfor
having taken the path in the wrongdirection. However,scholarlyresearch into
the pluralism of religions exposes difficulties for objectivelydefining religion
or faith. Whymust research into the secular wait upon anyfragile consensus
about which mountain is religionor which meaning to the religiousis
best?Noreligionstheologycould serveasagood guide for this rough terrain.
How about history?Historians have been heard proclaiming that irreligion is
but amodernist creation, emerging about the time when religionas aconcept
was invented. If religionis as artificiallyconstructed as some historians of
modernity think (consultNongbri 2012), wouldntde-centering modernist frame-
works bring authentic and non-essentialized secularity back into view?Besides,
atheists could not be as constructed to the samedegree as religionby modern-
ity,since real unbelief could not be produced by an unreal religion. Hence, his-
torians should not classify atheism as areligionsmodern spinoff or sect.Medi-
eval scholastics read about atheism from ancient Greeks (Shook 2015), and
atheists are visibleduringthe Renaissance (Wotton 1992).
Recognizing and Categorizing the Secular 89
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Either way, whethertheologysunreliablemap or historysdubious framings
arefollowed, confused theorizing ratherthanmethodical observationendsupdic-
tating whoisinhabitingsocieties.Thatsituation is notsustainable forascholarly
fieldaspiringtoany scientificstatus. Empiricalresearchalreadypoints towards
immensequalitative andquantitative variancesinthe beliefs, values,motivations,
andpsychological characteristics of individual nonbelievers.The people lacking
belief in deities maybemorevariedthanall thosewho do believeinadeity. Stud-
iesinto personal secularity areconfirmingthatpossibility;recentresearchhas ac-
cumulatedimpressive results(Hunsbergerand Altemeyer2006; Beit-Hallahmi
2007;Kosminetal. 2009;Streiband Klein2013; Silveretal. 2014;Keysar2015).
Despite what religionstheologians or modernityshistorians mayclaim, sec-
ularity is not reducible to afeature of secularism or aby-product of seculariza-
tion. Trying to reduce secularitytoany particular thing,much less something
that exists onlyinrelation to religion, is not provingtobeempiricallyorex-
planatorilysatisfactory.Secular people dontshare common routes departing
from religion, they dontmaintain similar attitudes about religion, and many
have no attitude or opinion whatsoever about religion. Secular people dontad-
vancethe samepriorities for opposing religion, and they typicallycantagree
about effectivestrategies for countering religion. In fact,itappears that more
secular people are not thinking about religion thanthosewho are, and those sec-
ular people who happen to ponder religion hardlyconsider the matter in similar
ways.Itisnot even the case that secularism is auniformlydefinable issue, an
adjunct or corollary to liberalism, or asingular ideology(Bilgrami 2014; Baker
and Smith 2015;Kitcher 2015).
Despite these warningsfrom empirical studies, sociologyand social history
have been largely following adictum accuratelypronounced by Rajeev Bharga-
va: It should be obvious thatthe secularand the religiousare always and ev-
erywhere mutuallyconstituted(Bhargava2011, 54).This dictum is false, and
Secular Studies must reject it.Its role as aplatitude says more about religious
scholarship thananything secular.Secular and religious scholars alike should
be able to register empirical facts before imposingparadigms.Most evident to
objective observation are the shifting culturalforces contending for social au-
thority over time in various countries.What constitutes religion, in the first
Religions are hardlythe solidlypermanent entities the unmovedmovers
that their followers presume or expect. They are continuallyreshaped and re-
formedbycritical attention, from within and without (Berger1967). Religions
sometimesencounter such attention in the form of resistance, by those trying
to modify the scope and degree of religious influencewithin society.When dis-
putes over religion escalate to the point wheresome people are questioning its
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validity,legitimacy,orauthority,these engagementsenter the arena of secular-
ism. While sharp criticism of religion is not the same as intentionallyadvocating
secularity, it can nevertheless have thatpractical effect.Noreligion fails to no-
tice. Questioning religion in public typicallyelicits defensive reactions, con-
cerned for repairing anydiminishment of religious conviction and public confi-
dence in religion. That is whypublic criticism of religion easilyarouses
theological surveillance and intervention, shoring up the reputation of religion
with justificatory responses. What starts out as the civil questioning of religious
involvement in society can easilytransition towards tendentious arguments over
doctrines defendedbytheologyand disputed by dissenters.Civic dissenters may
become defensive from accusations thatthey dangerouslydeviate from the cor-
rectreligious worldview.The mere ability of another person to consider serious-
ly aworldview that differsfrom onesown is aclear epistemological threat to the
religiouslystructuredway of life (Bergerand Luckmann 1966). Those courageous
enough to declare their doubts about coretheological creeds getcast into the
role of being areligious apostate, or perhaps even being an atheist.Critics
of religious controls over society and politics are then called secularistsbut
classified practicallyasatheists too.
So far,this account of religious-secular engagement can make Bhargavas
platitudeseem sensible. An account of civic dissent,astheologywould shape
it,revolvesaround unreasonable deviations from religious conviction and cor-
rectness.Nevertheless, that is not how civic dissenters necessarilydescribe
their motivations.The religious need not be constitutingthe secular,byany
means. Yes, public disputes are often draggedinto theological arenas,but that
hardlymeans that the inspiration to civic dissent is exclusively or even primarily
about religion itself. Civil dissent with religion can easilyerupt over civic matters
of concern to all society,not merelycreedal issues of theological interest.The
waythattheological defense mechanisms must regard civicdissent as unwel-
come unorthodoxy is just apartisan perspective.Itisjust one wayofframing
the matter in away favorabletoreligion, much in the sameway that entrenched
governing regimes can depict political dissidents as traitors motivated by un-
patriotic ideology, in order to depict the government as trulyloyal to the nation.
The process by which civic dissent from religion and religious influences
over society are usually framed as some sort of theological schism,orevena
chasm of apostasy,can make it appearthat dissenters cannot be understood un-
less and until ameasure of their theological distance from the religious hegem-
onyismeasured. The genuine motivations and goals of civic dissent can be easily
overlooked by such asingle-minded method, especiallythoseaspirations having
nothing to do with religiosity,but instead with secular hopesand ideals. Those
wanting the least do to with religiosity,desiring to associate with similarlysec-
Recognizing and Categorizing the Secular 91
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ular people in amore secular society,are hardly unbelievers”–they have all
sorts of secular motivations and civic goals. As far as religion can tell, however,
they are just impiousunbelievers and nothing more,bereft of the correctcon-
victions that ought to guide everyone. That negativity,from atheological per-
spective,istheir onlyreality.
Secular Studies researchers can remainbeholden to that dependent negativ-
ity,inseemingly innocuous ways.Atrained inability to apprehend or conceptu-
alize the secular in anyindependent manner onlydebilitates secular research,
renderingitvulnerable to religious paradigms.Intwo recent works,exemplary
for theirstrugglesagainst religion-inspired treatments of the nonreligious, we
can read the following:
Yet secularityis not independent of religionat all but is rather onlymeaningful in re-
lation to it.The idea of somethingbeingsecular is simplyunintelligible without an under-
standingofsomethingelse as religious and aview as to where the (moving) boundary be-
tween the twofalls. (Lee 2015,25)
Nonreligiondenotes phenomena that aregenerallynot considered religious but whose
significanceismoreorless dependent on religion (atheists areanobvious example).
(Quack 2014,439)
With such mantras securelyinplace, full recognitionofanything positive to re-
ligionssupposed otherwontbepossible. Allowing the meaning of the sec-
ularor the nonreligiousto be controlled by religious thinking is onlya(mov-
ing) measure of religionshegemonyoverscholarship. Distinguishing the non-
religiousapart from the secularso that one of these terms might betterapply
to matters more aloof from religion, all the while insisting thatboth terms can
onlyultimatelybeunderstood in relation to religion, onlyleavesthe subject
more confused and unscientific (Jong2015).Asfor atheists, they are indeedof
great significancetoreligion; appealing to them as exemplars of secularity
would be expectedfrom thatsame religious hegemony, not independent secular
Instead of waiting for religious thought to explain what secularmust
mean, Secular Studies could instead studysocial and individual phenomena,
noting those thatlack religious features and whose significanceisindependent
from anything religious. Despite the mantrasnow crowding religious studies,
and toomuch of secular studies, aperson can be quite secular regardless of
whether that personsthoughts have ever ponderedreligion or that persons
dailylife ever contacts anything religious. To claim otherwise commits either
the psychologistsfallacy or the sociologistsfallacy,explainedinthe next sec-
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Identifying secular people is one thing;secular identityisanother.Aperson can
be quite secular regardless of whether that person ponders secularity or encoun-
ters secularism. Being secular isntessentiallyabout having asecular identity,
anymore thanbeing secular is about having anonreligious identity.The ques-
tion must be asked, who is reallycontrolling the assignment of identity?Mixing
up social classificationswith personal identitieswasntinvented by theologyor
sociology. Society itself prefers to deal with evidentstereotypes rather than sub-
surface identities, and politics finds it convenient to reduceself-identitytogroup
Social scientists can avoid reifying stereotypes. Anyresearcher speakingof
identityshould make clear which sort of identity is meant (Turner 2013,
chap. 6). Amanageable waytodiscriminate typesofidentity can include:
Youare an Xif and onlyifyou should prefer others to regard youasan
X.[ideal identity]
Youare an Xif and onlyifyou prefer others to regard youasanX.
[valued identity]
Youare an Xif and onlyifyou openlyagree that youare an X.[admit-
ted identity]
Youare an Xif and onlyifyou sincerelythink of yourself as an X.
[self identity]
Youare an Xif and onlyifXmeans Ytosociety and youthink of your-
self as Y. [socialidentity]
Youare an Xif and onlyifXmeans Ybydefinition and youhappen to
fit Y. [categorical identity]
Forexample, the classificationofatheistis acategoricalidentity:solong as a
person does not believeinany god, that person is an atheist, regardless of
whether that person thinksmuch about the matter or tells anyone else. (Similar-
ly,aperson can be atheist without ever visitingahouse of worship to pronounce
acreed.) In away,being an atheistisnothing personal despite being intensely
personal it isntultimatelyabout who aperson takes themselvestobe, or about
what sortofperson others expectyou to be. Sociologystheorists who narrow
atheismdown to classifications able to sort people by anti-religious signs,
such as Ihavelost my faith,”“Theresnogod,or Istand with atheism,
are not learning much about atheists in general. Religionsdefenders oftengo
Recognizing and Categorizing the Secular 93
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further,narrowingatheists to onlypeople standingout of the crowdasanti-the-
ists and anti-religion secularists. Sociology, by contrast,can be neutral on iden-
tity.Sociologists have every right to seek and find people fitting pre-set social
identities, if that proves methodologicallyuseful. However,pointingtoadmitted
identitiesorsocial identitiesasifpersonal identities have been revealed, or vice-
versa,isnever methodologicallysound.
Defendingreligion by taking advantage of lax psychologyorsociologyis
nothing new,and neither is the need to point out fallacious reasoning in aca-
demia. The psychologistsfallacy,as William James noted when psychology
was emerging as ascientificfield (James1890,I,196), occurs when the psychol-
ogistexpects the analyzedmatters described by theorizing to be prominent in a
subjectsown naive experiencing.The matters important and meaningful for re-
fined theory are often insignificant and meaningless for coarse experience, and
those matters maynot even occur within anysubjectsexperience.Correspond-
ingly,among manyfallacies from sociology, aparticular sociologistsfallacy
occurs whenever the sociologist expects that the social categories applicable
to people, while confirmed by sound social theorizing, must alsocharacterize
how thosepeople experience theirimmersion in the social environs around
The psychologistsfallacy is committed when the researcher presumes that a
person intuitively and self-consciouslyappreciates the matters of the mental life
just as described by psychological theory.Thisfallacy worsens when that psy-
chologist further expects thatapersonsthought processes relyonthose theor-
ized matters while reachingjudgments and making decisions. The fallacy is ex-
posed when it must be deniedthatpsychological characterizations determine
the entities of onesself-consciousness.The sociologistsfallacyiscommitted
when the researcher presumes that aperson automaticallyand habituallyappre-
ciates matters about the social life just as described by sociological theory.That
fallacy worsens when that sociologist further expects that peoplesjudgments
and actions rely on those theorized matters while conducting their social life.
The fallacy is exposedwhen it must be denied that social categorizations deter-
mine the identity of onesself-conception. Aperson will not necessarilyconceive
of themselvesinthe terms imposed by psychological or sociological theorizing.
They can be persuadedtodoso, in some cases, but that hardlyshows thatthey
weredoing so all along.
Consider this analogy. Vegetarian eating could surelybedone in aworld
wherenoone eats meat,despite the fact thatnoone in thatworld would
keep calling it vegetarianism,and the fact thatinour world there are self-pro-
fessed vegetarians sitting next to meat-eaters. We should not fixate on adefini-
tion of vegetarianas the eating of thingsthatare not meat.Surely vegeta-
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riancan be categoricallydefined in its ownright as avegetable diet,since
vegetables can exist regardlessofwhether meat also exists, eating vegetation
can be done withoutthinking about animals, and people can be vegetarian eat-
ers without thinkingabout their meatless condition. Theway that the popular
notion of vegetarianimmediatelyand primarilysuggests not eating meat
to manyminds simply reveals how meat-eating is taken for normality in many
Similarly,the waythat secularsuggests defying religionor disdaining
religiononlytells us about what is still taken for normality in our culture. An
assigned self identity or social identity within the context of asingle society is
not automaticallyavalid categorical identity for universal application. There
are legitimatelyscientific social categoriesand corresponding social facts that
are irreducible to social identities or self-categories, just as the reverse is true.
What maycharacterize so-called irreligiouspeople in Christendom duringre-
cent centuries is not axiomaticallydeterminative of all secular experience and
secular identity everywhere. In sum, secularityand secularization are not limited
to locales wherereligious people are talking about them. Again, nothing reli-
gious is required to constitutesecularity.
There is one type of secular person who self-consciouslyrejects gods and
openlydisdains religion: the secularist.Later sections explorethe identity of sec-
ularistsand their social agendas. However,the classification for secular person
in general can be acategorical identity,and unrelated to religion, if the secular
is correctlydefined.
4The Secular
The OxfordEnglishDictionary first lists this primary meaningfor secular:
Of or belongingtothe present or visible world as distinguished fromthe eternal or spiritual
world; temporal, worldly.
The OED,like earlier dictionaries goingbacktothe seventeenth century,assigns
the meaning of secularthrough twoconcepts: the temporal and worldly. Both
temporaland worldlyare terms definable withoutreferencetoanything re-
ligious. Therefore, etymologicallyand logically, the secularis properlydefined
without reference to anything concerning religion. That secularcan make
sense as aterminological (not logical) contraryofthe religiousis simply
due to the fact thatreligions usuallydescribe their sacred and divinematters
as other-worldly, eternal, and the like. In countries long dominated by Christian-
Recognizing and Categorizing the Secular 95
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ity,thatterminological convenience within European culturehas been hypostat-
ized into an ontological constraint,asifthe secularmust depend on religion
everywhere. In fact,thinking about the ontology of religious matters depends on
the ontology of this ordinary world, and not the other wayaround (Atran 2002,
chap. 4).
What is the secular?The secular is the temporaland worldly, spanning the
breadth of our travels and the course of our lifetimes. Takentoits broadest imag-
inable extent,the secular coincides with the natural, another concept definable
without anyreference to religion. Religion must define itself in conceptsbor-
rowed from the secular and natural realm in order to form ideas pointingbeyond
temporalorworldlymatters,but nothing in the secular realm must concern itself
with religiosity.That includes people. People can live secular liveswithout think-
ing about anything religious or nonreligious, or doing anything religious or non-
religious. Seculardoesntessentiallymean non-religiousanymore than
athleticessentiallymeans non-sedentary.To be athletic implies being
non-sedentary,but people do not consider themselvesasathletic simply because
they happen to not be sedentary.
To be fullysecular,all one has to minimallydoistolead an entirelyworldly
and temporallife. One neednteverhavethe thought, My opinions and values
are not religiousor My daily experiences have nothing religious about them,
or My lifesactivities and associations are so worldlyand temporalcompared to
religious living.Imputing such thoughts to secular people, in order to assuredly
classifytheir secularityinsome minimallyreligious terms,has no academic le-
gitimacy.Committing the psychologistsfallacy or the sociologistsfallacy can be
Taking particular interest in secularity would be an expectedfeature of reli-
gion, of course. To satisfy thatreligious concern, inquisitors classifynonreligios-
ity into various types of deviances from religiosity or measured distances from
religious matters.But secular people have their own concerns, not involving re-
ligion. In societies whereareligion wields enough power to impact secular peo-
pleslives, secular people respond by defending their priorities. To the extent
that they succeed, secularizationmaybesaid to be occurringthere, and sec-
ular people who take actiontoresist religious influences and coercions may
be labeled as secularists.All the same, the livesofsecular people needntde-
pend on secularization. Secular people can exist wherenosecularization is on-
going,and they can live wherenosecularization has happened. To imagine oth-
erwise is to dream of amythical time when all humanity was uniformlyreligious.
It is the case that identifying the atheistand categorizing typesofunbe-
lievers as they are understood nowadays should take into account contemporary
secularityscontext within the wider field of civic engagementsoccurringwithin
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society.Demographic research abandoned biased and essentialist views of
atheistinheritedfrom religion to discover much variety within that classifica-
tion. Logically, not having belief in agod encompasses both the rendering of
judgment against gods and the withholding of belief about gods, as well as
the absenceofany thought about gods. Psychologically, the condition of
blank indifferencefeels very different from thoughtful doubt or conclusive deni-
al. That is whyathird sub-category,the apatheist,has come to light among the
Nones (noted by Marty 2003 and analyzed in Shook 2010). Apatheism serves as
the None of the abovecategory after religious and nonreligious identities are
abandoned. The apatheist givessolittle thoughttoreligion that the label of ag-
nostic or skeptic bestows too much creditfor contemplating the matter.Byde-
clining to accept anyidentity label for unbelief (atheist,agnostic, etc.) as well
as belief (Protestant,Catholic, etc.), and having little to no interest in opinions
about religion or God, apatheists end up as the Nones of the Nones.
Polysecularity,evenifits diversity is sorted in relation to religion, stretches
very broadlyfrom atheist activiststospiritual-minded seekers.Just asampling
illustrates this point:
(i) Atheists heartilyexpecting thatreligionsdisappearance would benefit hu-
(ii) Atheists skeptically doubting thatany gods reallyexist.
(iii) Agnostics judging that no one can know anything about god.
(iv) Agnostics simply admitting how they personally cantknow what to think
about god.
(v) Apatheists relieved to no longer be connected to areligion.
(vi) Apatheists who have never had the first thoughtabout religion.
(vii) Seekers avoiding religion but wonderingifsome faith will arrive.
(viii) Seekers sampling religious practices and expecting some faith to grow.
Does this list illustrate how secularity requires reference to religion?Quite the
opposite: all that is required are the affirmative reasons people happen to
have for occupyingtheir secular stances.They dontevenhavetorealize how
they occupy those positions. Religions can measure the distance of thosestances
from orthodoxy,but secular people needntmind, or care. Remember our vege-
tarians the existenceofmeat-eating isntresponsible for the existenceofveg-
etarians. The existenceofsecular people is not necessarilythe responsibility of
This point needs to be repeated. It is not religion which must establish the
possibilityofsecular nonbelief and atheism. Affirmativegrounds such as rea-
son, morality,and justice supplyample reasons for adopting alternativestore-
ligiosity.Theologians, it is true, have perpetuallyclaimedthat those grounds
Recognizing and Categorizing the Secular 97
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came from, or at least depend on, the divine. They have also proposed that un-
belief is due to depraved irrationality,deception by pure evil, willful loveofsin,
or anarchical rebellion. Setting aside magical thinking about impietysbases and
causes, explaining secular unbelief should be grounded in research attending to
secular peoplesown beliefs and life courses.Why do they find secular ways of
thinking and living moresatisfying than religious ways?Why have some never
shown anyinterest in religious matters?Why are manyleaving religious paths
to travel other lifestyle paths?For those still engagingwith religious matters
in their thoughts,bywhat criteria do they pass judgment upon religion?For
those choosing to engagereligiosity in society,what civic goals do they try to ac-
The macrocosm scale of group-level engagementsinvolving secularity,often visi-
ble in the form of social controversies and political struggles, have been high-
lighted by prominent scholars for over two decades (Casanova 1994;Bhargava
1998;Asad 2003;Taylor 2009). Their robust research demonstrateshow to be
sensitivetothe impressive variety of religious-secular stances taken by citizens
in manydifferent countries.Bhargavas(2014,330) attention to individual scales
as well as social scales has become even more pronounced. Although secular-
ismis usually used in onlyits political sense, it nevertheless can cover multiple
dimensions. He writes,
Ibegin by distinguishingthree senses of the term secularism.First,itisused as ashort-
hand for secular humanism. The second specifiesthe ideals,evenultimateideals,which
give meaningand worth to life and that its followers strive to realize in their life, Icall it
ethical secularism.Idistinguish this ethic from political secularism.Here it stands for acer-
tain kind of polity in which organized religious powerorreligious institutions are separated
from organized political power or political institutionsfor specific ends.
Secularism remains more useful for Bhargava primarilyasasocial and political
phenomena, rather than as afeature of social processes emerging from secular
individuals and their perspectives.
This top-down approach has been typical across much of secular studies, as
it was inheritedfrom sociological studies of religion. Monika Wohlrab-Sahr,as
another example, has discerned correlations between personal,social,and
civic-minded secularisms. Since no single pattern to such correlations could
be expected across societies, one can at best speak of multiple secularities,
as she has done (2012). One kind of secularityfound in one country maybalance
98 John R. Shook
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acertain distribution of religious and nonreligious people with givenarrange-
ments of civic power allotted to religions and the government. Other countries,
depending on their particular developmentasanation, have settled into quite
different distributions and arrangements (and these patterns are dynamic over
time as well). Like Bhargava, Wohlrab-Sahr ascribes secularity principallytocol-
lectivessuch as societies and nations, rather thantoindividuals.Classifying citi-
zens and their concerns is subsequent upon categorizations for social arrange-
ments and dynamics.
Although individuals hardly exist apart from theirsocial roles and functions,
and citizens surely have their political duties and powers,transposing socio-po-
litical classifications upon the individual level is methodologicallyhazardous.
Such transposition can seem justifiable. Whatever is studied at the personal
level should be correlatable, in some manner,with important features at
group, social,and national levels. Even large-scale processes of secularization
or re-sacralization concern how manypeople are managingtheir social and
civic relationships and thinking about theirown stances.But thosepeople are
not involved in anyuniformorpredictable way. Secular people do not have iden-
tical attitudes towards religion, they do not have the same priorities for opposing
religion, and they willnot usually agree about effective strategies against reli-
gion. Afallacy lurks in an expectation that people themselvesare well-catego-
rized for all purposes through the broad social categories for processes ongoing
in their locality.The reliable exception is the secularist.
Secularism is primarily about effortstodiminish religious control over social
structures and publicthinking.There is no uniformorunified waythat secularity
manifests itself as apublic agenda. There are manyagendas of secularism, de-
pending on the type of religious control to be monitored and challenged. Forex-
ample,political secularism seeks adjustments to the relative control of religion
and government over each other.There are multiple secular agendas, and
manytypesofactivists supporting one or another of those agendas, that do
not necessarilycooperate or even cohere. That absenceofunity,and readyca-
pacity for fractiousness, calls for the recognition of polysecularism.
The evident fact that no two countries arrangepolitical stabilities in religion-
state relations in the samemanner points to multi-secularity,asweobserved.
The less-noticed fact that secularist agendas within acountry have distinct ideals
and goals, and maynot care for consensus among them, points to polysecular-
ism. Polysecularism in turn drawsattention to the diversity of roles for the pro-
secularism citizen, the secularist.Secularistscan have allies. Participation in a
particularsecularism agenda, such as political secularism, is by no means lim-
ited to nonbelievers. Areligious citizen who supports public education over pa-
rochial education or supports separation of church and state should not be la-
Recognizing and Categorizing the Secular 99
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beled as asecularist without strict qualifications. Nonreligious citizens(atheists,
in the basic sense) who advocate for some secularism agenda(s)can accurately
be classed as secularists.
Core agendas of secularism, and secularist supporters of those agendas, typ-
icallyalign with one or more of these activities: (a) endorsing the reasonableness
of personal secularitybycontesting religious claims about unnatural/transcen-
dent divinitiesand values;(b) groundingmoralitywith ethical systems consis-
tent with secular personal living and human welfare; and (c) justifying freeso-
cieties having political systems promotingindividual liberties and civic progress.
It is no coincidencethat these threesecular agendas lookfamiliar to intellectual
historians recountingmajor kinds of popularfreethought and secular thinking in
western civilization (Putnam 1894;Larue1996). Nor is it acoincidencethat de-
mographers tracking secularist attitudes in populations can also detect that fa-
miliar pattern.
The demographic studyofasocial phenomenon like religiosity,orsecularity,
can identify three primary features of an individualsoutlook: onesbelief, be-
havior,and belonging. These features are organicallyinterfused, so an isolation
of one factor is at most auseful abstraction (Day2011), but they can suggest cor-
relations with other social features and culturalfactors. Polysecularism displays
three general modes based on belief, behavior,and belonging concerning
onesworldview,onessocial ethos, and onescivic participation. As bothschol-
ars of intellectual history and social movements have noted, irreligion and anti-
theism are frequentlymotivated by objectionstoreligiositysreliance on faith, or
to areligionsethical lapses, or to religionsdetrimental effects on societies.
Three primary agendas of secularism manifest at the individual level in the sec-
ularist;three idealizedtypes are henceavailable for the secularist:
(a) The secularist is the anti-theistic and anti-metaphysical thinker denying re-
ligious dogmas.
(b)The secularist is the anti-religious moralist accusingreligion and religious
people of ethical failings.
(c) The secularist is the anti-clerical activist demanding that denominations re-
nounce governing power.
Idealized manifestations of the secularistcan also be phrased in terms of pos-
itive agendas and loyalties:
(d) The secularist is astaunchadvocate of reason and science, over superstition
and religious faith.
(e) The secularist is adedicated subscriber to asecular ethics, placing humanity
first instead of agod.
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(f)The secularist is an equalcitizen of asecular polity,keepingother group
memberships subordinate.
Where religion exercises cultural dominance,the secularist can stand out as a
radical freethinker,awise sage, or adangerous agitator.Inacountry already
fairlysecularized in manyways, such as the United States,secularists would
not stand out so prominently, but they do attempt to sustain momentum inher-
ited from past secularist efforts.
Polysecularity is one kind of phenomenon, while polysecularism is quite an-
other.Onlyaminorityofsecular people ever become secularists and participate
in one or another of secularismsagendas. That fact is often overlooked or mis-
interpreted, even in otherwise reliable histories of freethoughtand secularism.
All too often, one feature of secularism is taken to characterize all of secularity,
or to define the essence of atheism. Models designed to explain group behavior
or make crowd action understandable seek out characteristic social identities,
but they dontnecessarilycharacterize all concerned. Social histories focusing
on asingle erawilldiscern how one or another type of secularist then holds cen-
ter stage, but extrapolatingthat starring role across other eras or cultures is un-
wise. The next sections describe how these threep
rimary agendas (along with
manysecondary agendas) are capable of being equallypotent; they are not nec-
essarilyallies, and they donteasilyblend together or even cooperate in align-
ment with each other.Antagonisms are certainlypossible, and probablyinevita-
ble, as the next section explores.
6Polysecularity and Polysecularism Today
Toomuch research conducted on secularity has tended to assign nonbelievers
into atheismfor their group identity, and jointlyassumedthatsecularist acti-
vism is characteristic of atheism, since activism is an obvious place to acquire
observations of atheists. Such presumptions have allowed much research to ex-
pect manyormost nonbelievers to share acommon psychological profile, de-
spite the waythat common perceptions of atheism do not essentialize atheists
to ahighdegree (Toosi and Ambady2011). Trying to explain the atheist,and
what atheists are all doing,works betterwith apre-prepared essentialization
for atheism, of course. Previous sections of this chapter have raised worries
about that essentialization. It is not an unreasonable concern that religious
bias against atheists has been predisposing psychological researchtodiscover
negative personality traits in atheists in order to fit evolution of religionnarra-
tivescomposed to normalize religiosity across humanity. Disordered brains
Recognizingand Categorizing the Secular 101
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would bring disorder to society,after all. Depicting unbelievers as readypartic-
ipants for disrupting civil stability with unrulysecularist activismhas long been
astereotype perpetuated by religion.
What do secular people actuallytake themselvestobethinking,and doing?
Much data can be gathered from open and self-identified atheists alreadyattend-
ing atheist, skeptic, humanist,orfreethought groups,orparticipating in online
forums sharing those interests (Cimino and Smith 2007;Pasquale 2010;Smith
2010;Baker and Robbins 2012; Williamson and Yancey 2013). Recently, Christo-
pher Silverand Thomas Coleman (2014) led aresearch team investigatingan
even broader spectrum, looking for motivations and priorities of nonbelievers
who mostly do not affiliate or participate with anygroup of like-minded nonbe-
lievers. Their research findingsallowed them to distinguish six main types of sec-
ular people, lending additional empirical support to the sketches of polysecular-
ity and polysecularism in this chapter.These six typesdonot deviate much from
prior understandingsofthe nonreligious gained by demographers (Kosmin et
al. 2009), and they dontappear to divergegreatlyfrom other recent hypotheses
for arrangingaspects and scales to secular/atheist identities (Cragun, Hammer,
and Nielsen 2015;Schnell 2015;Vainio and Visala 2015). These six typesare also
easilyrecognizable to secular leaders (such as myself)who are experienced with
grassroots recruitingamong nonbelievers.
Earlier sections of this chapter highlight threemain distinctions within pol-
ysecularity (skeptical, agnostic, and apathetic) and threemain modes to polyse-
cularism (intellectual, moral, and civic). Interestingly,Silverand Colemansclas-
sification of six types of nonreligious people easilyfit six of the boxesina3x3
table resulting from crossingpolysecularity with polysecularism.
Table1.Classifying the nonreligious by Silver and Coleman
types of polysecularism
types of polysecularity pro-reason pro-ethicspro-civics
atheist IAAAT
agnostic SA RAA AAA
apatheist NT
Abrief overviewofthese six types, quoting from descriptions by Silverand Cole-
man (2014, 993996), shows how to situate them.
Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic (IAA). IAA typologyincludes individuals who
proactivelyseek to educatethemselvesthrough intellectual association, and pro-
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actively acquireknowledge on various topics relating to ontology (the search for
Truth) and non-belief. IAAs associate with fellow intellectuals regardless of
their ontological position as long as the IAA associate is versed and educated
on various issues of science, philosophy, rational theology, and common
socio-political religious dialogue.These secular people are open about theirun-
belief and irreligious dissent on intellectual grounds,and they like to associate
with others on thosebases. The IAA type lies at the congruence of apro-reason
motivation and skeptical atheism.
Anti-Theist (AT). [A]ntitheists view religion as ignorance they view the
logical fallacies of religion as an outdated worldview that is not onlydetrimental
to social cohesion and peace, but alsototechnological advancement and civi-
lised evolution as awhole. They are compelled to share their view and want
to educateothers SomeAnti-Theistindividuals feel compelled to work against
the institution of religion in its various forms including social,political, and
ideological, while others mayassert their view with religious persons on an in-
dividual basis.Anti-theists are primarilydissenters against religion in society,
more than against godinheaven; the anti-theist type is ardentlyantagonistic
against what religion stands for in society and what religious people do. The dis-
tinctionbetween IAA and AT types is familiar to sociologists as something akin
to the divide between HighChurch (intellectual) and Low Church (emotional)
sides to an ideological movement or religious denomination. The AT type exem-
plifies combiningthe skepticallyatheist stance with the civic and political sec-
ular agenda to limit religionsinfluenceinsociety.
Activist Atheist/Agnostic (AAA). [T]hey seek to be both vocal and proactive
regardingcurrent issuesinthe atheist/agnostic socio-political sphere. This socio -
political sphere can include such egalitarian issues, but is not limited to con-
cerns of humanism, feminism, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgenderissues, so-
cial or political concerns, human rights themes, environmental concerns,animal
rights, and controversies such as the separation of church and state.The AAA
type often seeks alliances with other movements, prioritizingpositive civicand
political agenda(s) without worryingmuch about labelingasatheistor agnos-
tic.In the grassroots arena, this type tends to prefer non-confrontation with re-
ligion, and often seeks inter-faithwork with religious groups on shared civic
goals. The AAAtype results from combiningthe tolerantlyagnostic attitude
with civic secular agendas.
Ritual Atheist/Agnostic (RAA). TheRAA holds no belief in God or the di-
vine, or they tend to believeitisunlikelythat there is an afterlife with God or
the divine. [T]hey mayfind utility in the teachings of some religious traditions.
They see these as more or less philosophical teachingsofhow to live life and
achievehappiness rather than apath to transcendental liberation. Ritual Athe-
Recognizing and Categorizing the Secular 103
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ist/Agnostics find utilityintradition and ritual.This type perpetuates traditions
of religious or spiritualhumanism or religious naturalism, and manycongre-
gatewith Unitarian Universalist churches or Ethical Culture societies, or other
sorts of humanist communities.They are often intellectual, and they endorse
worthycivic and political causes, but they typicallyput more of their energies
into local communal activities rather thanantagonism against religion. The
RAA type connects the agnostic attitude with the secular priority of living an eth-
ical life.
The last twocategories are for people who arentsecularistsin the strict
sense of participatinginthe advocacy of secularization, although they do con-
tribute to the overall secularityinasociety.
Seeker-Agnostic (SA). [R]ecognizes the philosophical difficulties and com-
plexities in making personal affirmationsregardingideological beliefssimply
cannot be sure of the existenceofGod or the divine. They keep an open mind in
relation to the debate between the religious,spiritual, and antitheist elements
within society.These seekers often turn up in polling as transientNones;
they maybeattending churches (irregularly)because they care about finding
areasonable fit with their flexible worldview(s). Affirming atheists can disap-
proveofthe SA type for appreciating too manyperspectives, but the SA type
wontput all their faith in asingle confiningworldview,evensciences. This
type of nonreligious person represents the combination of an agnostic attitude
with search for areasonable lifestance.
The last category is the Non-Theist(NT). Forthe Non-Theists, the alignment
of oneself with religion, or converselyanepistemological position against reli-
gion, can appearquite unconventional from their perspective.However,afew
terms maybest capturethe sentimentsofthe Non-Theist.One is apathetic,
while another maybedisinterested. The Non-Theistisnonactive in terms of in-
volving themselvesinsocial or intellectual pursuitshaving to do with religion
or anti-religion.These individuals are prototypical apatheists, avoiding cogni-
tive or culturaltensions about being nonreligious. They arentanything like non-
conformists or anarchists that would requiretoo much effort as they partic-
ipate in lifestyles they judge best.
This sortofclassification for typesofsecular people onlysuperficiallyclas-
sifies people by their evident priorities, as they explain thosepriorities them-
selvesinsofar as they are nonreligious. This classification cannot and does not
mean to imply, for example, that IAA types arentethical or dontcare about
the civic life. An IAA or AT (etc.) maybeahighlyenergetic promoter for asecular
cause or give generouslytothe Red Cross or the United Way. This sort of classi-
fication is about how people connect their nonreligious attitude with their sec-
ular views and preferred activities.
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There are atotal of nine possible combinations. Three boxesstand empty
onlysofar as Silverand Colemansinitial presentation of theirresearch is con-
cerned. There probablyare nonreligious people in theirdata better fitting into
these three boxes. The top middle boxisfor people too anti-religious to enjoy
congregating,while preferringsome sort of lifestyle humanismexpressing
their personal principles, so they affirmhumanist ideals without communal val-
idation. The lower left boxisfor people too apathetic to have an opinion about
religion so they arentusing logic to argueagainst it,yet they feel stronglydevot-
ed to advancingcritical thinking and rational analysis,sowecan label them as
rationalists.The lower right boxisfor people apathetic about bothreligion
and ethical ideas. They arentprotesting against religion using government,
but they do support acivil order guaranteeingstability and liberty for everyone
regardlessofreligiosity,sothey can be called republicans.(The lower-case re-
publicansadvocated constitutional democracyinthe annalsofpolitics, while
Republicansbelong to aparticularpolitical party.)
No ideal schema awaitsatthe endto this kind of research, but more de-
tailed classifications have theoretical value in conjunction with further produc-
tive investigations. An example is provided below,taking cues from polysecular-
ity.Itprovides arow for those occasionallyseeking religious inspiration, and a
column for those expecting science to refuteand replace religion.
Table2.Classifying the nonreligious by attitude and agenda
Secular agenda
Nonreligious attitude pro-logic pro-sciencepro-ethicspro-civics
skeptical IAA confrontation
lifestyle humanism
agnostic SA NOMA RAA AAA
apathetic rationalism
NT secular republican
seeking Platonism
deist republican
With anysuch classification, no presumption should be made that an individual
fits onlyasingle classification, thinks of onesself as fitting acategory,orunder-
stands that categorysintellectual history.
Agnostics who appreciatescience can be comfortable with truces sounding
like NOMA: science and religion are non-overlappingmagisteriathat yield dif-
ferent yetvalid knowledge.(Religion knows what happens after death, some-
Recognizing and Categorizing the Secular 105
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thing science could never refute.)Bycontrast, staunch skeptics relying on sci-
ence demand non-negotiable confrontations with religion over the truth. Those
apathetic about religion can drift into optional stances.Logic-lovers will find ra-
tionalismsneutralityquite sensible(lending appeal to stoicism), while admirers
of science will expect it to admit that plentyofreligious views getscientificcon-
firmations (It looks like evolution works best when God causesmutations.)Pri-
oritizing civic order findsagnostics advocating,with Thomas Jefferson, acivil re-
public that stays strictlyneutral about religion.
Lookingacross the bottom row, seekers have several options. Fewseekers
know anything about Plato, for example, but seekers expecting logic to identify
god(or be god) would head towards adualistic metaphysics like Platonism. Sci-
entific-minded seekers will expect asynthesis of divine guidance with natures
laws, so some sort of syncretic worldview (DeismorTheosophy, for example)
can appeal to them. Seekers prioritizingethics gravitate towards eclectic reli-
gious or quasi-religious communities.Seekers prioritizing civic order may
judge,asJames Madison did, that aprovidential godfavors agod-fearingrepub-
lic over decadent aristocracies.
7Organized Polysecularism
Organizations advancingthe interests of secular people can be classified using
these sorts of frameworks,because public support rests on thoseable to play
the role of asecularist through their attendanceatevents and financial giving.
Like individuals,organizations mayormay not neatlyfit asingle box. However,
few attempt to equallyrepresent manyboxes, because of the inherent discrepan-
cies and disagreements among them, as the theory of polysecularism explains.
This theory also can account for the kinds of disagreements, and even antago-
nisms, between secular organizations, and the fragile nature of alliances.
Researchinto secular movements and organizations has acceleratedrecently
(Smith 2013;Cimino and Smith 2014; Langston, Hammer,and Cragun 2015;Le-
Drew 2015b). Seculariststrying to find or re-shape their identitiesare participat-
ing in dynamic and growingorganizations from neighborhood- to nation-level
sizes, which are simultaneouslymolding their messages to attract participants.
The typical type of organization at the local level is the single-issuesecular
group, so that even asmall city has pro-science,atheist, and humanist meetups
(see Schutz this volume). Largerorganizations take a small-clusterapproach
covering afew neighboring boxes, such as AmericanAtheists at IAA/CON/AT,
or the AmericanAssociation for the Advancement of Science at NOMA/ACC.
Some national-level organizations are horizontally-integratedto represent an
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entire row the Center for Inquiry,for example, from IAA to AT.Very few organ-
izations would or could attempt avertically-integrated approach the American
Humanist Association is the closest example by clustering at HUM/RAA/AAA
(for more on these national groups,see Fazzino and Cragun, this volume).
Deep fault-lines between manyofthe boxesare sufficient to prevent anysin-
gle secular organization from growinginto alarge cluster,and oftenobstruct al-
liances among secular organizations.
First,promotingahumanist ethics about equalityand rights agreeable to
people of all faiths can be deeplyupsetting to anti-theists unwilling to set
aside objectionstofaith just for the sake of social harmony.The anti-theism
agenda can sound out of tune with the humanist ethics agenda, because human-
ism is unwilling to denigrate or demonize religious believers for their foolish
faiths. Promoting ahumanist ethics about equalityand rights agreeable to all
peoples can collide with anti-theismstypical degree of intolerance towards re-
ligious believers. Anti-theists wontsee anything ethical at all about faith, de-
spite humanismseffortstounderstand religion as something quite human,
and anti-theismwontaward anyrights to religion justfor the sake of social har-
Second, the anti-theism agenda doesntharmonizewell with the secular pol-
ity agenda. Prioritizing open attacks against the reasonableness or even sanity of
religious believers will alienate the believers who do agree on separation of
church and state.Religious believers couldntreallybeblamed for losing interest
in apolitical alliance with anti-theists to reduce denominational control in gov-
ernment.For their part,advocates of asecular politycan tolerate non-theocratic
religions as legitimate social organizations promotingthe good life for their
members, but anti-theismrefuses to recognize churches as trulyhealthyfor
their congregants.
Third, the anti-clerical agenda can sideline the humanist ethics agenda. Pri-
oritizing the establishment of asecular government on value-neutral principles,
as liberalism proposes,demotes secular ethics to privatevalues instead of potent
political ideals. Humanist ethics are demoted from auniversal framework of
principled ideals down to just another lifestyle choice for people who happen
to be secular.Humanism once upon atime positioned itself as the supreme ar-
biter of human rights and democratic values. It gave birth to liberalism, which
went on to disavowits heritagewhile searchingfor non-ethical foundations to
political rights and institutions. Liberalism,for its part,has stakedits legitimacy
on lacking anypartiality towardsone or another competingviewofthe good life
or acomprehensive conception of the good.That excludes anyfavoritism or
relianceonhumanism, so humanism is reduced to the samecivic status held
by every religion, and loses its distinctiveness alongsidethat company.
Recognizingand Categorizing the Secular 107
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Polysecularity is the demographic backdrop to the culturaland political
stagewherepolysecularism is enacted in multiple agendas and secularists
choose their preferred roles.Polysecularity forbids anysimplistic reduction of
secularitytosomething uniform and predictable. Homogeneity and consistency
will not be found anywhere. Whether secular organizations like it or not,the
three main secular agendas are difficult to pursue simultaneously, and in fact
they usually tend to frustrate and obstruct each other.Asthe second table re-
veals, more nuanced discriminations among secular viewpointsand secularist
positions onlyexpose additional fault-lines.
The course of New Atheismalso illustratesboth polysecularism and its
challenges. Self-identified new atheists dontsound like humanists (Cragun
2015;LeDrew 2015a), but their distinctive tone conveyedsubstantive agendas
(Kettell 2013;Kettell 2014). Feworganizations seemed readyfor those agendas.
Secular organizations that re-arranged priorities after the rise of New Atheism
in the mid-2000s, for example, promptlygenerated external scrutinyand internal
challenges. Wasthe energy of New Atheism about science confronting religions
illusions (CON), or was it more about shamingreligion for its social conservatism
and complicity in rights violations (AT)? Perhaps both, but it causedorganiza-
tional strain to divert resourcestobothsimultaneously. (Full disclosure: this au-
thor was astaff member of twomajor secular organizations duringthe height of
New Atheism.) Fortheir part,humanists didntsee how those controversies help-
ed deconvert religious people through values, while agnostics didntsee science
disprovingGod or the Bible, so New Atheism left both typeswondering how
much they reallyhad in common with aggressive atheists. As for New Atheism,
it quicklyidentified traitors NOMA, ACC, and AAA while dismissing human-
ist communities as too religious(They are still singingtogether?!). Mobiliza-
tions in defense of AAApriorities (such as Atheism+and The Orbitinitia-
tives) distanced themselvesfrom New Atheism. The secular organizations
focused on church-state separation clustered with AAA/SEC and tendedto
avoid New Atheism bombast,while largerorganizations mimicking New Atheism
rhetoric found fewer allies among religious organizations alsodefending church-
state separation.
In the meantime,vast constituencies are still getting overlooked. Seekers
comprise alarge majority of the Nones. Types of seekers such as SYNand
CON want toleration and church-stateseparation. They could supplyvast ideo-
logical and financial support to coresecular agendas, but they have been mostly
108 John R. Shook
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An accurate definition of the secularrelieves it from conceptual dependency
upon religiosity.The diverse secularityofindividuals can thereforereceive empir-
ical studyand classification independentlyfrom religious categories. Religions
typicallyregard anything too unorthodoxasatheistic, and anyalternative to
their social domination as anti-religious secularism. Throughthat biased lens,
secularitywould appeartoowe its nature to religiosity,but academic study
can reach for objectivity.The phenomena of polysecularity and polysecularism
are accessible to fallacy-free psychological and sociological research. The evi-
dent diversity to positive secular agendas contradicts simplistic views offered
by either religionsdefenders or New Atheism.
Nevertheless, organized polysecularismneed not be an oxymoron. That
breadth to polysecularity provides manysocial niches for successful organiza-
tions servingtheir circumscribed but focused bases. Temporary alliancesonspe-
cific secular agendas can be powerful in democracies that payattention to multi-
ple interest groups able to work together.After all, flourishing secularity and
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... In short, the secular is presumed to be the opposite of whatever "religion" is (cf. McCutcheon 2007;Shook 2017;Schaefer and Cotter 2016;Juergensmeyer 2017). Further yet, in attempting to explain secular worldviews, some have made the assumption that the default and most intuitive worldview is religious, and so to have a secular worldview one must violate that predisposition (Whitehouse 2016;Norenzayan and Gervais 2013;Bloom 2007;Boyer 2008). ...
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For over a century social scientists have been dealing secular individuals a bad hand of cards. They have either characterized secular worldviews as empty and deficient for lacking religion or have attempted to undermine their reality by labeling them implicitly religious. In the present commentary, we draw attention to these “card tricks” and offer an appreciative response to Donovan Schaefer’s “Is Secularism a World Religion?”, for keeping the secular intact.
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Those who have shaped the modern human sciences have been preoccupied with explaining the phenomena of religion and religiosity. Accounting for the absence of religious faith has never been of much concern to them. The reasons for the neglect of atheism as a phenomenon in need of explanation are twofold. First, religion, and religiosity, seem to be adhered to by the majority of humans, and thus explaining their existence and survival is called for. Second, explaining religious beliefs is urgently called for if those doing it do not share those beliefs. And this indeed has been the case. Most of the great names in the history of modern human sciences have been atheists or agnostics, and we can recall Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Max Weber. They looked at religion from the outside, and explaining why they did not believe in any of it was unnecessary. ATHEISTS AS DEVIANTS Most theories of religion assume that it stems from universal aspects of the human condition or the human mind. Classical explanations used the notions of such universal and automatic psychological processes as projection, animism, or anthropomorphism. In some more recent theoretical formulations (Boyer 2001; Atran 2002) the framework is cognitive-evolutionary and assumes that the brain is a machine operating according to rules developed through evolution. The question is that of the seeming plausibility of religious ideas for most humans. Religion uses the basic and ordinary cognitive processes that are the evolutionary endowments of every human. The belief in supernatural agents is a by-product of naturally selected cognitive mechanisms.
LeDrew uses a comparative approach to highlight the different ways in which atheist group identity is being expressed. LeDrew begins with a historiography of two branches of atheism: scientific atheism and humanistic atheism. He describes scientific atheism as originating in Enlightenment-era rationalism and the natural scientists, explaining that scientific atheists see religion in terms of its explanative function. Humanistic atheism, on the other hand, derives from the social sciences and humanistic atheists understand religion as a social phenomenon. LeDrew explores how these two ways of understanding the nature of religion contributes to tensions between and within groups of atheists and humanists, particularly with respect to the desired goals of social movement activism.
The organized atheist and secular humanist movements have long operated under the premise of secularism progressing in American society. In the last two decades, however, progressive secularism has come under increasing criticism. This article examines how atheists and secular humanists—collectively, “freethinkers”—have responded to the failure of secularism to become a dominant force in the United States and how they have rethought their role and strategy from that of acting as the secular vanguard to assuming a subcultural identity and engaging in defensive competition in order to find a place in American society. They have done so by adopting three strategies: (1) creating a niche for secular humanism among the unchurched and “secular seekers”; (2) mimicking and adapting various aspects of evangelicalism, even as they target this movement as their main antagonist; and (3) making use of minority discourse and identity politics.
The book draws on empirical research exploring mainstream religious belief and identity in Euro-American countries. Starting from a qualitative study based in northern England, and then broadening the data to include Europe and North America, the book explores how people 'believe in belonging', choosing religious identifications to complement other social and emotional experiences of 'belongings'. The concept of 'performative belief' helps explain how otherwise non-religious people can bring into being a Christian identity related to social belongings. Further, it is argued that what is often dismissed as 'nominal' belief is far from an empty category, but one loaded with cultural 'stuff' and meaning. Day introduces an original typology of natal, ethnic and aspirational nominalism that challenges established disciplinary theory in both the European and North American schools of the sociology of religion that assert that most people are 'unchurched' or 'believe without belonging' while privately maintaining beliefs in God and other 'spiritual' phenomena. Day creates a unique analysis and synthesis of anthropological and sociological understandings of belief and proposes a holistic, organic, multidimensional analytical framework to allow rich cross cultural comparisons. Chapters focus in particular on: methods for researching belief without asking religious questions, the acts of claiming cultural identity, youth, gender, the 'social' supernatural, fate and agency, morality and a distinction between anthropocentric and theocentric orientations that provides a richer understanding of belief than conventional religious/secular distinctions.
More and more Americans are opting out of religion. Who are these people that reject religion, and what motivates them? What actually causes a person to lose his or her faith? This book offers an in-depth exploration of the reasons, experiences, and values of people who were once religious but are no longer. By analyzing their personal stories of how they transitioned from religiosity to secularity, key patterns are explored and many insights provided. Rather than living up to the cliché of the angry, nihilistic atheist, apostates are life-affirming, courageous, highly intelligent and inquisitive, and deeply moral. It is predicted that this trend toward nonbelief will likely continue and the sooner we recognize that religion is frequently and freely rejected by all sorts of men and women, the sooner our understanding of the human condition will improve. The first book of its kind, Faith No More will appeal to anyone interested in the ''New Atheism" and indeed to anyone wishing to more fully understand our changing relationship to religious faith.
In this article, we provide a classification of contemporary atheism based on the kinds of worldviews and beliefs atheists hold. We suggest that at least four general types of atheism can be distinguished: scientistic atheism, philosophical atheism, tragic atheism and humanistic atheism, which can then be divided to various subclasses. With this classification, we aim to challenge the view that atheism is not a belief system but merely the lack of belief in some transcendent being. Moreover, there seems to be no single atheism
Beliefs about the world affect experiences and behavior. While much is known about beliefs pertaining to religion, or the supernatural, secular identifies have, to date, remained largely neglected. To allow for dimensional assessment of different aspects of secular identities, the Dimensions of Secularity (DoS) inventory has been developed. It measures degrees of atheism, agnosticism and several philosophic orientations (scientism, personal responsibility, humanism). As an “open” inventory, these constructs are not seen as comprehensive, and researchers are encouraged to add further scales. The DoS shows good reliabilities and a clear factor structure. CFA confirms the theoretically proposed model. Correlation patterns with discriminant measures (religious belonging, belief, spirituality, numinous experiences) support the instrument's discriminant validity. Associations with sources of meaning (SoMe) contribute to construct validity. Demographic relationships are reported and discussed.