American Secularism

Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems

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Joseph O. Baker, Buster G Smith
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , September
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


American Secularism begins with a provocative assertion: scholars’ common-sense understanding of the United States as an “exceptionally” religious country—when compared to other post-industrial nations—is incomplete. While partially valid, this reductive description of American religiosity problematically obscures the radical growth, magnitude, and significance of the non-religious in the United States (1). The US currently counts more individuals who consider themselves “not religious” than any other nation except China, and a variety of metrics indicate that this number is growing at a precipitous rate. These conditions—collectively labelled “the great abdicating”—demand careful scholarly attention, not only in order to ascertain why the country is experiencing such a shift in religious identity, but also to develop a better analytic lens for making sense of the diversity of beliefs, behaviors, and practices that are corralled, and potentially obscured, by the singularity of the label “secular.”

Authors Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith seek to address these scholarly shortcomings. They do so primarily by conducting careful analysis of the demographic and statistical trends collected from a number of national surveys, all of which unequivocally point to a growth in secularism. They also combine this sociological analysis with historical vignettes highlighting important moments and figures in American history that “echo” these contemporary changes in the religious landscape. In doing so, their book contributes more than just a consolidation and summary of the various data streams that confirm the legitimacy of these trends. American Secularism also interrogates the variety of beliefs and practices masquerading under the guise of a unified “secular turn.” Throughout this book, the authors make a compelling case for separating out a number of different categories—atheist, agnostic, non-affiliated, and cultural religious—that are obscured by the religious-secular binary. They then highlight how each of these secular sub-categories can, and do, have radically different orientations to issues related to institutional religion, private religious practices such as prayer and meditation, and church-state separation. Further, Baker and Smith make the compelling claim that “in essence, religiosity, ‘noninstitutionalized supernaturalism,’ and secularity can all be studied under the rubric of belief” (209). This claim is supported by the authors’ analysis of the variety of beliefs and commitments that undergird the variety of secularisms at play in the United States, including the a priori beliefs in science, rationality, and scepticism apparent amongst committed atheists, as well as the quiet forms of private ritual and prayer that secularists may practice while distancing themselves from any formal religious affiliation or church attendance.

While Baker and Smith’s theoretical redefinition of secularism provides the book’s frame, the bulk of the chapters elaborate on the cultural dimensions of secularism, which links secular belief to a number of other factors including race, ethnicity, gender, and politics. These chapters effectively highlight the importance of intersectionality when thinking about secular identity, as each of these different dimensions of identity complexly influences how secularism will manifest within a given demographic. For instance, given that secularity is generally considered deviant in the United States, it can be costly for people occupying minority status to actively embrace a secular identity (115). Therefore, a higher number of high-income, highly educated white American males exhibit strong expressions of a secular identity such as atheism, while black Americans are, in fact, more likely to be religious as social class increases (117-19). Such analyses, coupled with historical vignettes such as the description of W. E. B. Du Bois’s mobilization of religious idiom to articulate humanist philosophy, provide granularity to the narrative of contemporary secularization in the United States. While the repeated shift from particularistic narrative—historical biographies of Du Bois and Fanny Wright, or interviews with secular individuals navigating contemporary politics—to abstract survey data can occasionally be jarring, the logic undergirding this structure is sound. By attending simultaneously to both the particularistic, individual stories and the long-term statistical trends, Baker and Smith emphasize the diversity of individual beliefs and practices masquerading under the data points, thus demonstrating the growth of secularism.

Nonetheless, on occasion, the diversity of statistics that this book assembles suggest possible conclusions about the nature and logic of American secularism—and its current growth—rather than explicitly demonstrating them. For instance, the book’s analysis of the politics of secularity points to crucial links between secularism and various historical factors such as the Cold War and the waxing and waning culture wars, are worthy connections, however the nature and logic of which would require considerable historical analysis to fully elucidate. Further, Baker and Smith never fully interrogate the constitutive role that surveys and statistics play in making secularism visible as a category of religious identity and belief. In other words, the authors’ contention that secularism be treated as a structure of belief alongside other religious beliefs may, in part, be reached in that it is treated as such by polls that are required to produce categories accommodating the non-religious. Thus, following the lead of Robert Wuthnow’s Inventing American Religion (Oxford University Press, 2015), one might consider the degree to which data identifying “the great abdication” will play a role in producing new abdications and new articulations of secularity in the future. As such, readers might benefit from reading this book alongside Wuthnow’s work, or the historical analysis provided by Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Village Atheists (Princeton University Press, 2016), to build a suitably nuanced picture of contemporary American secularism. Nonetheless, American Secularism proves an excellent contribution to secular studies, both for the depth and range of data collected as well as its capacity to link secularism to other axes of culture, politics, and identity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Ventimiglia is a postdoctoral research fellow at the TC Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph O. Baker is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at East Tennessee State University and a senior research associate for the Association of Religion Data Archives. 

Buster G. Smith is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Catawba College. He is the co-author of Grounding Our Faith in a Pluralistic World.


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