The director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in the US state of Connecticut, Kosmin is among the few researchers focused on the study of non-believers. This umbrella covers various groups including atheists, agnostics and humanists, as well as those who are simply indifferent to religion.
Secularists make up some 15 percent of the global population, or about 1 billion people. As a group, this puts them third in size behind Christians (2.3 billion) and Muslims (1.6 billion). Despite their large numbers, little is known about this group of people. Who are they? And if not religion, what do they believe in?
Now secular researchers like Kosmin want to determine just how the religious and secularist minds differ — and their initial findings are a surprise. While secularism was typically limited to the realm of educated, affluent and male-dominated urban societies, atheism is now spreading across much broader spectrums of society.
So what do these increasing numbers of non-believers believe in, if not God? Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who hopes to start a secular studies major at California’s Pitzer College, says that secularists tend to be more ethical than religious people. On average, they are more commonly opposed to the death penalty, war and discrimination. And they also have fewer objections to foreigners, homosexuals, oral sex and hashish.
The most surprising insight revealed by the new wave of secular research so far is that atheists know more about the God they don’t believe in than the believers themselves. This is the conclusion suggested by a 2010 Pew Research Center survey of US citizens. Even when the higher education levels of the unreligious were factored out, they proved to be better informed in matters of faith, followed by Jewish and Mormon believers.
But their knowledge doesn’t seem to do them much good, since secularists rank among the least-liked groups of people in the US, falling behind even Muslims and homosexuals. In the states of South Carolina and Arkansas, those who deny the existence of a supreme being are not even permitted to hold public office.
The secularists’ problem is that, unlike the religious believers, they do not have a strong organization backing them. There is no such thing as a “typical” non-believer and every society has its own version of secularism.
Only a small portion of secularists are as radical as the “strong atheists” championed by British evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins. The majority are more likely to be indifferent to religion or mildly agnostic, according to Kosmin’s analysis. There are also secular humanists, free thinkers and many other factions. “One problem of atheism research is that we simply can’t agree on a unified terminology,” notes Kosmin. “Every researcher thinks he is Linnaeus and invents his own labels.”