Preliminary Findings: Demographics and Secular Identifications

The Secular Communities Survey is the largest-ever study of secular joiners in the U.S. Nearly 13,000 (N=12,977) people completed the online survey over six weeks (March 1 – April 11, 2021). Respondents were recruited from national secular and nonbeliever organizations, their chapters and affiliates, and local independent groups via email, Facebook, and Twitter. We only contacted groups that had a presence online, so we may have missed groups that have no online presence. We define secular joiners, or organized nonbelievers, as people who belong to groups for atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and other secular or nonreligious identities.

Most of our demographic findings are in line with prior research on secular joiners. People who join secular and nonbeliever groups tend to be more white, male, educated, prosperous, and liberal than the general population. However, we find much higher rates of claiming LGBTQ identities (15%) than previous studies of secular joiners have shown. We also find secular joiners to be much more liberal than most other studies have found.

People who join nonbeliever organizations tend to be older. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of secular joiners are 50 years old or older. Baby Boomers are the largest generational cohort (39%).

Secular affiliates skew more male than the general population, but are also much more likely to be LGBTQ. 58% of secular joiners are male, 39% female, and 3% identify as transgender or nonbinary (0.7% transgender, 2% nonbinary or genderqueer). Secular joiners are as likely to self-identify as transgender (0.7%) as the general population (a 2016 report by the Williams Institute and a 2021 Gallup survey estimate that 0.6% of the U.S. adult population identifies as transgender). 81% of secular joiners identify as heterosexual, 15% as LGB, and 4% as other. Secular joiners are three times more likely to identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual than the general population (a 2021 survey by Gallup estimates the LGB population is 5.2%).

The vast majority of secular joiners self-identify as White. For race and ethnicity, respondents were asked to check all categories that apply. 93% self-identified as White, 4% as Hispanic or Latinx, 2% as Black, 2% as Native American or Alaskan Native, and 4% as other or multiracial. Of those who selected “other,” most wrote in “human” or Jewish.

Secular joiners are highly educated. 74% of secular joiners have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Of this population, 34% have a bachelor’s degree and 40% also have a graduate degree. In line with higher educational outcomes, secular joiners tend to earn more. 56% of secular joiners had an annual household income of $75,000 or more (the national median household income in 2019 was $68,703). Most secular joiners are middle or upper middle class.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of secular joiners are married or partnered, with 17% single (never married), 13% divorced, and 4% widowed. Most (59%) secular joiners have children and most (59%) live in a metropolitan area.

Secular joiners are overwhelmingly liberal. The vast majority of secular joiners are Democrats or independents who lean Democratic. 67% identify as Democrats, and 91% of independents (23%) lean towards the Democratic Party. Those who identify with so-called “third parties” (9%) listed Democratic Socialists of America, Green, Libertarian, socialist, leftist, and progressive. Only 1% of secular joiners identified as Republican.

84% of secular joiners identify as liberal or very liberal, with an additional 14% identifying as moderate. Only 1% identify as conservative or very conservative. Of the 95% of secular joiners who voted in the 2020 presidential election, 94% voted for Joe Biden. Only 1% voted for Donald Trump. (Of the 3% who voted for “third-party” candidates, most listed the candidates for the Green and Libertarian parties or wrote in Bernie Sanders.)

When asked to select various political labels that describe them, most secular joiners chose liberal labels. Around 70% identify as progressive or socially liberal and 60% as liberal. Just under half (44%) identify as antiracist. About a third (35%) identify as socialist and about a quarter (23%) as fiscally liberal. A quarter identify as independent (28%) and a fifth as moderate (19%), while only 15% identified as fiscally conservative. Other labels did not reach 10% or more, and thus are not listed here.

Looking at religious, spiritual, or secular identifications, it is not surprising that most secular joiners identify as atheists (79%), agnostics (18%), or simply “not religious” (24%). Respondents could select more than one current identification. Of the 10% who chose “other,” most wrote in humanist, secular humanist, and “atheism is not a religion”; other frequent answers included Satanist, Pastafarian, Pagan or Wiccan, secular Jew or secular Buddhist, and various combinations of labels.

Most secular joiners were raised in at least one religion, primarily a form of Christianity: 41% Protestant, 27% Catholic, 12% nondenominational Christian, and 3% Mormon (LDS). Of Protestants, the largest denominations listed were Baptist (18%), Methodist (16%), Lutheran (12%), Presbyterian (11%), Episcopalian (7%), and nondenominational (14%). 7% of secular joiners grew up Jewish (Judaism). However, a significant minority of secular joiners were raised (at least for some period) without religion: 8% simply “not religious,” 5% “nothing in particular,” 3% atheist, and 2% agnostic. Respondents could select more than one childhood religious identification. 16% of secular joiners claim to have been evangelical or “born again” at some point in their life, while 82% were never evangelicals.

Regarding belief in God, 82% of secular joiners express an atheist view while 14% express an agnostic view. An additional 3% believe in a higher power but not a personal God, while 1% express belief in God to varying degrees of certainty.

Of possible secular identifications, the most frequent label chosen by respondents was atheist (79%), followed by secular (74%). About two-thirds of respondents identify as secular humanist (68%), nonreligious (68%), nonbeliever (66%), freethinker (64%), or humanist (64%). Nearly three-fifths (58%) identify as skeptics. Just under half (45%) identify as non-theist, while about four-in-ten identify as rationalist (40%), ethical humanist (38%), or anti-theist (37%). About a quarter identify as agnostic (25%) or naturalist (22%). 16% identify as empiricist. Respondents were presented with a long list of possible secular or spiritual identifications, and they could select all that applied to them; only those that received at least 10% are shown here.

No single term encapsulates the variety of atheist, humanist, agnostic, secular, freethinker, and other nonbeliever identifications. Our data reveal some of the tensions, ambivalence, fluidity, and hybridity of secular self-identifications and worldviews.

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© 2021 Dusty Hoesly