Joseph O. Baker on American Secularism
Date: July 31st, 2016

The biggest trend in American religiosity in the past two decades has been the increase in “religious nones,” individuals who do not proclaim an affiliation with any particular denomination or faith tradition.  We invite Prof. Joseph O. Baker, assistant professor of sociology at Eastern Tennessee State University, to talk about this phenomenon in light of his recent book (with Buster Smith) entitled American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems.  After a brief chat about his work on the paranormal and other fringe religious movements, we dive into the topic of secularism and Prof. Baker provides a nuanced definition of that term.  He actually notes that there are secularisms (plural) and explains what that means.  Four categories of individuals with a non-religious cosmic belief system are identified including atheists, agnostics, non-affiliated believers, and cultural religionists.  Joseph reveals that you could break these down into more nuanced categories, but sticks with these four basic types for the purposes of our conversation.  We then break down the demographics of American secularism.  Joseph points out that non-theists tend to be found in the upper social classes and have higher levels of education.  Younger individuals tend to fall into the four basic groups of secularists, more so than older generations.  Racially, whites and Asians tend to be the most secular, with second generation Asians being the least religious, but 3rd generation Asians looking more religiously similar to whites.  African-Americans are the least secular of the major racial categories.  Prof. Baker also notes that individuals often shift between categories in a more fluid manner than one might predict, often moving between different identities even within one year’s time.  We then review the history of American secularism dating back to Thomas Paine, through the Freethought period of the early 19th century, evolutionary agnosticism coming in the late 1800s, and then seeing a subsiding of secularism during the middle part of the 20th century, with the 1950s being the high-water mark of American religiousness.  We then explore the origins of what Joseph calls the Great Abdicating (a term he and Buster Smith hopes sticks).  We see a gradual decline in religiousness in the 1960s and ’70s and then becoming more pronounced in the ’90s and early part of the 21st century.  Several explanations for this trend are advanced, including political polarization, changes in family structure (e.g., later marriages), and a change in the concept of what “religion” is.  This is followed by some of the social and political implications that might arise from increasing secularism.  We conclude with some of Prof. Baker’s surprises in this study, including how diverse the category of “secular Americans” really is.  Recorded: June 24, 2016.



Joseph O. Baker’s bio at Eastern Tennessee State University.

American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems, by Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith.

Paranormal America, by Christopher Bader, Joseph O. Baker, and Carson Mencken.

The American Religious Data Archives.


Chris Bader on Ghosts, UFOs, and the Paranormal.

Hunter Baker on Secularism.

Hunter Baker on the Past and Future of the Religious Right.

Paul Froese on America’s Four Gods.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Faith.

Daniel Libenson on Present and Future Judaism.

Frank Newport on Survey Research and America’s Religiosity.

Barry Hankins on Jesus, Gin, and the Culture Wars.

Tony Carnes on a Journey Through NYC Religions.

David Buckley on the Demand for Clergy in Politics.

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