Study reveals sharper picture of our civically active humanist community

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Last week I joined the authors of Secular surge: the new fault line in American politics for a panel discussion on their new book. Like any good student, I read the book in preparation, which resulted in too many annotations, notes and tangential research burrows. If you give a mouse a cookie …

While normally I would write a book review after such an event, I would rather delve into the rich data these authors have uncovered about members of the American Humanist Association (AHA) and our humanist community. Over the past 19 years, our former Managing Director Roy Speckhardt has enabled authors to Secular push to survey our members three times: in 2002, 2011 and 2018. In 2017, the authors also conducted a “Secular America Studies” survey, designed to measure the positivist non-religious identity of the general American population. The longitudinal nature of the study of our members, coupled with specific questions aimed at understanding what makes us tick (in the proverbial sense), is the gold of the research.

As humanists, we believe in being guided by the obvious. Much of the data collected and analyzed for this project is new information for us and can be valuable in guiding our work. Here are some important points:

As expected, the majority of our members are white, college educated, well-off and over sixty. When asked how we identify with ourselves, we say that we are humanists, atheists, agnostics and secularists. And unsurprisingly, more than 90% of AHA members surveyed said they “regard non-religious beliefs, such as those derived from science or philosophy,” as important parts of their lives.

But these findings about our collective and individual identities are not the most informative data gathered in the book. The book accomplishes what many in our community have been asking for years: a study that separates us from the catch-all category of non-religious. Campbell, Layman and Green were able to distinguish between those who are generally not affiliated with a particular religion (“nones”) and those who have an affirmative identity as a humanist, free thinker, and so on. What they found after making this distinction is illuminating.

Historically, we have seen that ‘no’s’ are not very involved in civic life, and humanists have had an idea that we do not really fall into this category, but we have a hard time proving it. And generally, the data presented in Secular push reaffirms this belief; the authors show that non-religious people are what they call “civic dropouts”: none are engaged in politics, civic volunteering or other participatory measures. Yet humanists, free thinkers and atheists do not fall into this category at all. Instead, the authors found our community to be among the most civically active. For example, 34% of AHA members attended a rally or protest in the past year (remember the survey was conducted before the global pandemic).

When you separate us from those who select “none of the above” in the religiosity or religious identity surveys, you see a different and more defined picture of our community. And we are, without a doubt, very active in civic life.

  • While non-religionists are divided equally into Democrats, Republicans and Independents, those who have a positivist identity as a humanist or free thinker are overwhelmingly Democrats;
  • The laity are motivated more by fundamental values ​​than by loyalty to the party;
  • Much more than non-religionists, we care deeply about social welfare and environmental protection;
  • Humanists, free thinkers, atheists, etc. are more likely than others to move in liberal political directions over time and people with democratic views are more likely to identify with our community over time;[1]
  • 98% of AHA members surveyed voted in the 2016 presidential election.

And the most interesting information I found in the book: When the authors interviewed delegates to the 2016 Democratic Convention and Democratic Conventions from the states of Iowa, Minnesota, Texas, and the state in Washington, our community was the largest Democratic Party group. activists in each of these states in relation to religious, non-religionists and lay religious. And our community made up almost half of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention.[2] We are incredibly active and over-represented in democratic politics.

While I found fault with the book’s thesis – that our rapidly growing and very active minority group in a highly religious country polarizes American politics – the data that led them to this questionable conclusion is invaluable. Their original data sets (of which there were plenty) revealed that our community is spurred to action by core values ​​deeply rooted in the dignity of individuals, separation of religion and government, and liberalism.

A final nugget of information: 95% of members surveyed have a favorable opinion of the American Humanist Association. I smiled while reading this. It means that we are doing something right. The evidence says so. But there is still a long way to go to take full advantage of the civic engagement of our members. There are more rallies to organize, more Senators to call, and more voters to register. We have our work cut out for us.


[1] Note that the study does not claim a causal relationship here.

[2] If you haven’t suppressed the memory of the 2016 election, you’ll remember that Bernie Sanders supporters were particularly active at conventions, but, if the authors show our community preferred Sanders, they don’t think that explains our over-representation.


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