The Boundaries of Secularism: Who’s in? Who’s Out? Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

In the early 2010s, when I was working at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College, the Nones—those who identify with no religion in particular—made up 15 percent of the adult population. A question I frequently encountered at the time, given this impressive number, was why Nones weren’t better represented in politics. Since that time, things have only improved for the Nones in terms of raw numbers, and there’s still room for growth.

Today, Nones comprise between one-quarter1to three-in-ten2 of the United States’ adult population, according to recent surveys. In the late aughts and early 2010s, it was common to caveat that “most Nones are not atheists,”3 but this seems to be a bit of an exaggeration. True, the Nones are not all atheists, but it is simultaneously wrong to conclude that most Nones are believers—or, at least, believers in the Abrahamic god most of us are familiar with. Regardless of beliefs, the question is whether these Nones are friendlier to religion than outright secularists.

The 2020 Secular Voices Survey conducted by Socioanalítica Research suggests that most Nones are “practical atheists”: many Nones may not identify explicitly as atheists but have similar attitudes and behaviors.

The Secular Voices Survey was conducted in September 2020 with more than 2,000 respondents, including more than 600 nonreligious adults.4 It includes questions about the 2020 elections, as well as questions about trust in institutions and attitudes toward various groups in the United States. There are also batteries of questions about religious beliefs and behaviors.

Figure 1 shows responses to four questions about religious beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors among Nones. The black bars represent the answers of all Nones, including people who say their religion is either atheist, agnostic, or none at all. The orange bars represent people who say their religion is atheist. The purple are respondents who identify their religion as agnostic, and the green bars are those who identify as just having no religion.

The first question asks respondents how much confidence they have in organized religion. About two-thirds of Nones say they have very little or no confidence. This ranges from 72 percent of self-identified atheists to 62 percent of those who do not have a religion. Thus, distrust of religion is prevalent among most Nones. The difference is more a matter of degree than of kind.

The same applies to behavior. Three-quarters of Nones say that they seldom or never attend religious services. There are no practical differences between atheists (74 percent), agnostics (76 percent), and those who identify with no religion in particular (75 percent).

These last two questions are about belief. One asks what the respondent’s source of morality and guidance is. The chart shows responses to the option “religious teachings and beliefs.” Just 8 percent of all Nones look to religion for moral guidance. This is very low considering that almost two-thirds of this cohort comprises those who say they have no religion and only one-third are atheists or agnostics. The chart confirms that atheists (5 percent), agnostics (8 percent), and people with no particular religion (8 percent) are very similar in this regard. For comparison, nearly seven-in-ten White evangelical Protestants (69 percent) look to religious teachings and beliefs for moral guidance.

The second question asks what they believe about the existence of God. Fewer than one-in-five (17 percent) Nones believe in “a personal God.” Only 3 percent of atheists and seven percent of agnostics contradict their self-identification and answer that they believe in God. Nearly one quarter (24 percent) of people who do not identify with a religion are theists. White evangelical Protestants are most likely to believe in a personal god (84 percent).

Even if they do not identify as atheist or agnostic, Nones have almost no confidence in religion, do not practice religion, and don’t tend to look to religion for guidance. What is different is Nones’ higher levels of belief in God, but even what God means in this case is unclear. It doesn’t seem that many Nones share the same idea of God with, for example, White evangelicals.

These facts matter for building organizations. The “nothing in particulars” are the largest cohort among Nones. Many are nonbelievers; half believe there is no God or have doubts about its existence. But as far as I know, major secular organizations have no “Nones caucus.” When choosing to join one of these organizations, it’s probably best to be fairly sure about your atheism or agnosticism.

Despite this century’s secular boom, Nones have not achieved much political power, such as by making meaningful gains in elective office. Nones are an organic voting bloc: while most vote similarly, they have done so with little organization. Imagine what could be possible if they could harness the energy of this young, growing cohort without getting tangled up in minor theological debates.

Fuzzy Theists and Practical Atheists

Theoretically, the secular movement could transform the political landscape with a well-executed outreach strategy. During the aughts and the early 2010s—the era of New Atheism—it seemed to me that much of the leadership within organized secularism was more interested in gatekeeping and preferred not to engage with the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. Instead of building a movement that capitalized on the growing distrust of religious institutions, outreach campaigns of the era doubled down on godlessness with vague5 and often counterproductive6 billboards.

Many Nones subscribe to what I call “fuzzy theism.” They may believe in some ill-defined “higher power,” and it varies as to whether a given person’s idea of a higher power can influence events on Earth. This higher power is usually considered morally neutral or good in some vague way, or it exists as some sort of force or energy that somehow binds us all together. As I said, these are “practical atheists.” Even when they believe in the supernatural, the entity they believe in is not likely to be the cranky and wrathful Yahweh.

Millions of people have realized they do not identify with or care about religion. Many were raised in interfaith households in which religion was rarely discussed to keep the peace. Others were raised nominally religious, maybe baptized, but rarely, if ever, practiced a religion. And others left religion entirely, either because it was useless (they realized there is no God) or the experience harmed them.

In previous decades, the Christian Right wedged itself into power by taking over the Republican Party. The raw dominionist ideology we now label Christian Nationalism was incubating within it. At the time, the height of the Catholic Church abuse scandals was a recent memory and September 11 was still on the minds of many Americans. In other words, religion, whether it was different strands of Christianity or Islam, was facing a crisis of trust. The people leaving religion were not rushing to join more liberal or inclusive congregations. Many were taught that “God is good,” but God’s representatives? Not so much. People didn’t have an issue with God per se; they had an issue with religion.

Unfortunately, the strategy of the era’s secular activists was to focus on, ironically, “religious atheists”: the group that answers that their religion is “atheist” in surveys. Even when the era’s main source of religious data (Pew’s 2014 Landscape Survey) showed that the “nothing in particulars” included many nonbelievers and even more who were skeptical of religious practice, the “religious atheist” contingent was, and still is, mostly made up of White men.7 Thus, doubling down on pure atheism hindered the diversity of the communities. Even when the language of diversity was spoken, programming that focused on discussions about the existence of God and making fun of religion wasn’t going to attract faces that were much different from the ones already in attendance.

Testing Our Belief Tolerance

In March 2023, team Puerto Rico lost to team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic.8 Then Japan dramatically defeated Mexico in their last at-bat in the bottom of the ninth inning.9 Japan ultimately won the tournament, its third title in six tournaments, in a thrilling victory over team USA.10

Like any good baseball fan, I practiced various rituals to help Puerto Rico defeat Mexico, but their efficacy clearly declined. I tried other rituals to help Mexico keep its margin over Japan to no avail. Here, I want to apologize for my role in those defeats.

If you’re a fellow atheist, you may think it is silly to apologize for two events I did not influence. You may think that I was performing useless acts of superstition. And, my friend, you would be right. Despite knowing this, I cannot help it. I’m very superstitious when it comes to baseball. My spouse thinks it’s funny how I throw my rationality out the window when I watch baseball (at least baseball games in which I care about the outcome).

I’m unsure if, after this confession, I must return my atheist card (I lost it the last time I moved anyway). But I often think about my baseball superstitions when thinking about secular communities.

How often do we make people feel unwelcome in our meetings or events because we spend a significant chunk of time making fun of the religious or any kind of belief? How much “belief” are we willing to tolerate? What is belief anyway?

A few years ago, I went down memory lane after watching the documentary Mucho, Mucho Amor about the late Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado. I never missed Mercado’s segments on the various shows where he would present his weekly or monthly horoscopes. I remember watching it with my grandma. None of us, not me or my born-again Christian grandmother, thought that horoscopes were a legitimate thing, but Mercado was an amazing showman; the appeal was his delivery, not the message. I never watched any of his so-called competitors. And today I’m a devotee of Check-in Mela, a fellow Puerto Rican following in the steps of Mercado who writes very amusing astrological predictions.

We atheists can get extremely sure of ourselves with our allegedly “superior intellects” and our cult of rationality, forgetting that so much of life doesn’t make sense or that it’s okay to just be silly. But politically, this is one of our major liabilities: our unwillingness to build coalitions with other religious communities because we object to their beliefs. Even worse is when we mock the intelligence of religious people, especially militant fundamentalists. Turns out that those militant types are very good at organizing and running for office.

A lot of those militantly religious folks actually despise each other. Many evangelicals think Catholics and Mormons are destined for Hell (and vice-versa). But they have put those differences aside to build strong alliances, working together to establish a theocracy in the United States. If they complete their vision, they’ll likely start fighting each other. But in the meantime, they’re cool with joining forces to oppress everyone else.

Most Nones are not staunch unbelievers, unlike those who dominate activist atheist communities. But that doesn’t mean they have nothing in common; most are functional atheists. Is it really that bad if some of them read horoscopes or indulge in reiki? Is it so bad to work with religious believers who are fighting the same fundamentalists and theocrats we are?

The movement is changing, but a decade was wasted by pandering to an already established audience without seriously understanding the sectors with the most potential for growth. And with that growth could come real political power.

I want the secular movement to think more deeply about who we choose as allies and who could be members of our community. Moreover, we need to rethink what being an unbeliever means and what types of “belief” we are willing to accept in our midst to form our own strategic alliances and effect meaningful change.

With that said, I wish you mucha paz, pero sobre todo, y mucho, mucho amor.



1. Public Religion Research Institute, “Religious Affiliation.” The American Values Atlas. Available online at

2. Gregory A. Smith, “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated.” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2021. Available online at

3. Ryan Burge, “Most ‘Nones’ Still Keep the Faith.” Christianity Today, February 24, 2021. Available online at

4. Socioanalítica, “Secular Voices Survey,” September 8–10, 2020. Available online at

5. Abe Levy, “Billboard Sends Out Call for Atheists to Shed Fear.” MySA, May 9, 2012. Available online at

6. Diana Fishlock, “Atheist Group’s Slavery Billboard in Harrisburg Offends African-Americans.” The Patriot-News, March 6, 2012. Available online at

7. Pew Research Center, “Nothing in Particulars,” Religious Landscape Study. Available online at

8. Jessica Camerato, “Mexico’s Comeback Thriller over P.R. Sets Up Date with Japan in Semifinals.”, March 18, 2023. Available online at

9. Jessica Camerato, “Japan Walks Off into Classic Final, and ‘the World of Baseball Won.’”, March 21, 2023. Available online at

10. Jessica Camerato, “Japan Tops Team USA in Dramatic Finish to Claim 3rd Classic Title”, March 22, 2023. Available online at

In the early 2010s, when I was working at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College, the Nones—those who identify with no religion in particular—made up 15 percent of the adult population. A question I frequently encountered at the time, given this impressive number, was why Nones …