[Book Review] American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems

In this post, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi reviews Joseph Baker’s and Buster Smith’s latest book American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems (New York University Press 2015).


Americans have never ceased to amaze foreign observers with their high level of belief in souls,benny-bh spirits, and gods. Pew Research Centre (2014) found that nearly 9 in 10 (89%) Americans believe in ‘God or a universal spirit.’ Nevertheless, over the past few decades a significant rise in the proportion of Americans who were investing less and less in religious affiliation and beliefs has been noted. Kosmin and Keysar (2011) showed that the proportion of unaffiliated Americans has been growing since 1990. A few have even embraced the clearly unpopular labels of atheists or agnostics, despite Smith’s (2015:229) acknowledgment of the stigmatized and deviant status of atheism in America.

What the book is really about is secularity, the state of being secular, because ‘secularism’ usually refers to a vision of a world less affected by religion, and the authors indeed use the term secularity a few times. So the book is about secular Americans, from the unaffiliated to the atheists.

What is the theoretical framework? Baker and Smith state: “instead of a binary distinction, religiosity and secularity should be understood as poles of a continuum, ranging from thorough irreligion to zealotry” (p.  6). Moreover, “We consider theistic dis- or nonbelief to be the most salient marker of one’s secular identity. That is, self-identifying  as someone who does not believe in god is a more prominent marker of identity than saying one is not affiliated with an organized religion” (p. 16).

There is indeed a clear behavioral dividing line between spirit world adherents and non-adherents, and research indicates that the one question “Do you believe in God?” does a good job in separating two distinct populations.

I find myself really puzzled by another statement:  “Although criticism of religion is central to understanding secularism, restricting secularity today to opposition to religion denies secularists’ potential for edifying and positive values, furthering the polemical claim that to be secular is necessarily to be immoral” (p. 6). First, the rejection of belief in spirits is not criticism, but a total disengagement. Baker and Smith later report that 63% of atheists in one sample were uninterested in religion (p. 100). Second, the reference to “edifying and positive values” sounds like apologetics. The findings reported in the book demonstrate that the less religious and the irreligious are likely to be more politically progressive, but that will not persuade those who think they are immoral.

Is there a unique American secularization? The authors describe American freethought, starting in the eighteenth century, and offer a chronology of the ups and downs of religiosity in the United States, leading to the Great Abdicating after 1990. They connect the Great Abdicating to the 1960s counterculture and changes in the US family, together with political polarization and the “Culture Wars”. They do report a correlation between growing political polarization and the percentage of the unaffiliated in the population, as well as the tendency for the unaffiliated to vote Democrat in presidential elections (p. 79).

In their historical survey, they neglect the struggles over the secularization of public space and public education. Until 1934, playing baseball on Sunday was a major issue, and the elimination of Sunday blue laws is still continuing. Another aspect of the Culture Wars was the secularization of education, starting  already in the nineteenth century with  elite academic institutions  (White, 1896), and  then affecting all universities, colleges, and public schools in a trickle down process  (Hofstadter, 1963). Does anybody remember that until 1960, the American Baptist Convention considered The University of Chicago an affiliated institution?

It should be emphasized, something that the authors do not do, that after 1960 public education was completely secularized through legal rulings. Engel v. Vitale (1962), which disallowed prayers, and  Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), which disallowed Bible reading, could be compared in their impact to the 1954 Brown decision, related to the same social and historical forces. Similarly, recent challenges to the teaching of evolution followed the great historical loss by the Religious Right over religious activities in the schools. McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982), Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), and Kitzmiller, et al.  v. Dover School District, et al. (2005) became milestones in public secularization. Legal rulings do not change public opinion in many cases, but these symbolic (and concrete) victories added to the growing confidence of secular Americans.

Despite American exceptionalism, Baker and Smith show that the United States fits the worldwide correlation (p.74) between secularity and the Human Development Index (p. 203). What happens in North America is part of a global trend. The political context of secularity, which is discussed at length in the book, is also not unique to the United States.

The authors doubt the universality of sex differences in secularity, and  state  that “among Western populations, women are disproportionately prone to religiosity, in spite of the patriarchal power structure of most organized religions” (p. 141). However, a recent Pew report compared men and women on religiosity around the world, with data collected in 192 countries. It included 631 comparisons. There were 393 with no significant differences, 238 significant differences with women scoring higher, and just 4 with men scoring higher (Pew, 2016). So women’s higher religiosity may not be just a Western phenomenon, and the same goes for women’s lower secularity.

The book offers a wealth of writing genres, unlike a typical sociology text. It presents survey data together with vignettes and case studies, such as that of  Lester Young Ward, one of the pioneers of US sociology (pp. 26-34), and quotations from W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. There are also interviews, one with David Tamayo, Leader of Hispanic American Freethinkers (pp. 126-131), and then two interviews with secularists who tried to get elected to political office, which is next to impossible in the United States. My only complaint is that the book has 47 pages of detailed footnotes. The academic convention which expects the reader to tolerate this division of attention is unrealistic. Most of the material in the footnotes is interesting and important, and should be included in the main text.


Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Knopf.

Kosmin, B.A.  & Keysar, A.  (2011).  AMERICAN NONES: THE PROFILE OF THE NO RELIGION POPULATION. (with Ryan Cragun and Juhem Navarro-Rivera). http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/NONES_08.pdf

Pew Research Center (2014). Importance of Religion and Religious Beliefs. Pew Research Centre, November 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/chapter-1-importance-of-religion-and-religious-beliefs/#belief-in-god

Pew Research  Center (2016). The Gender Gap in Religion Around  the World.  PEW RESEARCH CENTER, March 2016. http://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/22/the-gender-gap-in-religion-around-the-world/

Smith, J (2010). Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism. Sociology of Religion. 72 (2) 215-237.

White, A. D. (1896/1993). A history of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi earned a Ph.D.  (clinical psychology and personality)  from Michigan State University in 1970. Since then, he has been the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of  22 books and more than 300 reviews, articles, and book chapters, focusing on personality development, history of psychology, the psychology of religion, and politics. Among his best known works are Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity  (2015), Psychoanalysis and Theism (2010), The Psychology of Religious Belief, Experience, and Behaviour (with Michael Argyle, 1997), and Despair and Deliverance (1992).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s