Whenever we see a new survey involved religion, it’s always interesting and frustrating to see how groups are lumped together.
Christianity is so broad that it has to be broken down by denomination. Evangelicals are still so complex that they need further breakdown. For example, white evangelicals and black Protestants have very little political overlap.
The same thing applies to the “Nones” or the religiously “unaffiliated.” Atheists are usually lumped in together with agnostics and other people who just don’t belong to any organized religion. Since the majority of that group believes in some supernatural nonsense, we see strange survey results like how 25% of religiously unaffiliated Americans believe in astrology. While there isn’t always enough data to separate atheists out from everyone else, we’re put in an umbrella group that isn’t very helpful at all.
That’s why the Pew Research Center has just released a different kind of analysis. Instead of analyzing groups based on their religious affiliations, they created seven of their own categories — religious “typologies — and put people in them. It’s not about race. It’s about the beliefs people hold, how actively they believe them, and how that plays out.
So among the highly religious, we have “Sunday Stalwarts” who go to church every week and whose faith dominates their lives, “God-and-Country Believers” who represent the Religious Right types whose faith is really more defined by politics and conservative views, and “Diversely Devout” who are very religious or spiritual but aren’t necessarily tied to a particular church or pattern of worship.
Then you get to our end of the spectrum.
We’re split into two groups: The “Solidly Secular” who reject both religious beliefs and the supernatural, and the “Religion Resisters” who might believe in supernatural bullshit but think organized religion is a bad idea.
Since most readers here fall squarely into the Solidly Secular group, let’s talk about them.
By a substantial margin, Solidly Seculars are the least religious and spiritual of the seven groups. About three-quarters say they are neither religious nor spiritual, more than double the next-largest proportion in any other group. They are the least likely of any of the groups to say that spiritual practices such as meditation give meaning and fulfillment to their lives. And this broad rejection of the religious and spiritual extends to the supernatural: They are the least likely of any of the groups to say they hold New Age beliefs.
So what do Solidly Seculars believe? When it comes to God, the answer for about half is “nothing.” Not only do roughly half identify as atheist (31%) or agnostic (22%), but a similar share (52%) say they do not believe in God or a higher power or spiritual force of any kind. To underscore how different Solidly Seculars are from the rest of the public in this regard, the next-largest share of any other group that rejects belief in God or a higher power is 7%, among Religion Resisters.
In case you’re thinking these are just different labels for the same kinds of groups as before, that’s not necessarily the case. While atheists almost all (86%) fall in the Solidly Secular group, that’s really the only group where the Venn diagram overlaps. Just look at how spread out evangelicals and Catholics are!
So how do the Solidly Secular relate to the other groups? This is where it gets really interesting.
It turns out we have much more formal education than everyone else. 45% of the Solidly Secular have a college degree. 40% of the Religion Resisters do too. Only 30% of Sunday Stalwarts can say the same.
We also make more money. 46% of the Solidly Secular make more than $75,000 a year (family income) compared to 27% of the Sunday Stalwarts and 22% of the God-and-Country Believers.
We’re younger, too. While the most religious categories are dominated by people older than 50, both of the non-religious categories are mostly made up of those younger than 50. The future looks bright.
We are also overwhelmingly male (65%) — the only group in which men outnumber women to that degree — and overwhelmingly white (79%).
Richard Dawkins isn’t just one of us. He’s practically our mascot.
While both of the non-religious groups mostly identify as Democrats, it’s the Religion Resisters (78%) who beat the Solidly Secular (71%) in terms of who’s Democratic or leaning Democrat. That also means 26% of the Solidly Secular are Republicans. (14% identify as conservatives.)
That one’s surprising to me. How any atheist who cares about science, church/state separation, reason-based analysis, civil rights, etc. could vote for the modern Republican Party still makes no sense to me. Imagine how much you’d have to despise immigrants and really want rich people to get more tax cuts to put all those other values aside and vote for people like Paul Ryan and Donald Trump.
While this “religious typology” analysis was just a one-time thing, Pew and other research groups would be wise to use distinctions like these moving forward. Atheists have very little in common with people who are “spiritual but not religious,” but until this report, we were always grouped together. The same goes for while evangelicals, who are split between those who just really want to spread the gospel and devote their lives to church and the sort of people who wear MAGA hats and use religion as a tool to oppress others and advance their beliefs through politics.
Basic religious labels no longer have the same meaning they used to. We should pay far more attention to what people do with those labels than what they’re calling themselves. That applies to atheists as well as Christians.
By the way, Pew has a brief 16-question quiz you can take to figure out which category you would be in. Get ready to click on “No” a bunch.