On January 26, the leaders of several secular organizations met to capitalize on the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, commonly known as “Nones.” However, although they currently represent nearly 1-in-5 Americans, harnessing this fast-growing but diverse demographic may pose a challenge for America’s secular leadership.
According to PRRI’s 2012 Pre-Election American Values Survey, the religiously unaffiliated consist of three distinct groups: atheists and agnostics, seculars, and unattached believers. Those who identify as atheists or agnostics account for more than one-third (36%) of all religiously unaffiliated Americans and are highly educated and more likely to be white males. Nearly 4-in-10 (39%) of the unaffiliated are “seculars,” who do not consider themselves to be religious, but also do not identify as atheist or agnostic. Seculars are also more likely to be white males but their education levels are lower; only 27% have a 4-year college degree, compared to 45% of atheists and agnostics. Finally, nearly one-quarter (23%) are unattached believers and identify as religious even though they do not identify with any particular religion and are more likely to be women and members of ethnic and racial minorities compared to atheists and agnostics, and seculars.
These three groups also differ on their belief in God. The majority of atheists and agnostics do not believe in God while a plurality of seculars have a more deistic point of view, believing that God is an impersonal force. In contrast, nearly 7-in-10 (69%) unattached believers believe that God is a person.
That said, political unity would appear to be a much more attainable goal. PRRI’s analysis of the “none vote” between 1980 and 2008 found a trend of religiously unaffiliated voters preferring Democratic candidates and drifting away from Republican candidates. This trend continued in 2012 when 7-in-10 religiously unaffiliated voters preferred Barack Obama compared to about one-quarter (26%) who voted for Mitt Romney.
The religiously unaffiliated also remain relatively cohesive in their attitudes about important cultural and social issues. For example, on culture wars issues such as same-sex marriage, majorities of atheists and agnostics (89%), seculars (70%), and unattached believers (57%) favor the right of gays and lesbians to legally marry. The same pattern is evident on marijuana legalization. Compared to religious Americans, the religiously unaffiliated are more supportive of legalization: 71% of atheists and agnostics, 67% of seculars, and 55% of unattached believers favor making marijuana legal.
One of the goals of the meeting, according to Roy Speckhardt of the American Humanist Association, was “to find a way to bring those numbers to bear in an organized fashion so that people will take us seriously.” If the ultimate goal is political engagement, then the religious differences evident among the ranks of the unaffiliated may be less important than the distinctiveness of their politics.