Who Are the Secularists?

by Steve Hanway, Senior Staff Writer

According to aggregated Gallup Poll data collected throughout 2002*, only a small percentage of Americans (10%) say they have no religious preference. Even smaller percentages describe themselves as either "atheist" or "agnostic" (fewer than 1% combined). Gallup researchers examined the group that claims no religious preference (whom we'll refer to as secularists), and found that at least some of the commonly held beliefs about non-religious people -- that many of them tend to be young, liberal, and live in the Western part of the country -- seem to hold true.

Past Gallup analysis has shown that political ideology and religion are related, with more religious Americans tending to be conservative in their outlooks, and less religious Americans tending more toward a liberal point of view. This relationship is strongly evident among those who claim no religious preference -- secularists are significantly more likely to identify themselves as "moderate" or "liberal" than they are to say they are "conservative." Among non-secularists, there are about twice as many conservatives as liberals, but among secularists, the ratio is 1.5 to 1 in favor of liberals.

Given this finding, one might expect this group to hold unfavorable views of an outspokenly religious American president. However, despite George W. Bush's faith-based initiatives platform, he garnered a favorable approval rating (60%) from this group in 2002. While still positive, it is substantially lower than the average rating non-secularists gave Bush (75%). It is unclear if the lower rating among secularists results from Bush's religiosity or policy disagreements on issues such as the economy, terrorism, and moral issues.

The data also indicate that secularists are somewhat less likely to be engaged in the political process. Sixty-nine percent of those without a religious preference say they are registered to vote, compared with 83% of those who do express a religious preference.

Secularists also tend to be much younger than non-secularists. Younger Americans -- those between the ages of 18 and 29 -- are four times as likely as those aged 65 and older to be secularists, and twice as likely as those between the ages of 50 and 64.

The more youthful demographics of those without a religious affiliation could foreshadow increasing secularity in the future. However, this finding is also consistent with other Gallup data that indicate people are more inclined to become increasingly religious as they grow older.

We've all heard the saying, "birds of a feather flock together." There does seem to be a high regional concentration of secularists in the Western part of the country, where 15% of the population claims no religious preference, compared with 10% or less in the other regions of the country. Oregon and California have especially high concentrations of secularists**.

Secularists are more likely to live with a partner outside of marriage than are non-secularists. Nearly twice as many secularists (12%) as non-secularists (6%) say they are unmarried and living with a partner***.

Bottom Line

Much of the commonly held perceptions about Americans without a religious affiliation are true -- these Americans tend to be much younger and more liberal than those who have some religious affiliation. But in addition to being detached from the religious process, they are also apparently more likely to be detached from other American institutions such as marriage and the political process.

*Results are based on 14,928 telephone interviews accumulated in polls taken between January and December 2002 with national adults, aged 18 and older. This includes interviews with 1,543 adults who express no religious preference or say they are atheist or agnostic. For results based on this total sample of secularists, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

**The margins of sampling error are ±6 in Oregon, ±2 in California, and ±5 in Colorado.

***Results are based on 4,024 telephone interviews accumulated in polls taken between January and December 2002 with national adults, aged 18 and older. For results based on this total sample of secularists, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4%.

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