America is a highly religious nation. Yet the last twenty years have seen a dramatic rise in secularism in America, i.e. rapid growth in the proportion of Americans who report no religious affiliation. During this period, secularism has become especially common among young people, suggesting that the United States may become an increasingly secular nation. The research produced by this project will inform the often heated discussion of religion's role in American society and politics. Given the high level of public attention to the mingling of religion with politics, this project is likely to produce research of great interest beyond academia.

The project will answer three questions.

First, what is secularism? The first step is to define, and then measure, secularism. It is not simply the absence of religion (as the political science literature typically has defined it). Rather, it comes in different forms. These include public secularism (a belief that religion should be removed from the proverbial public square), and private secularism (one's own beliefs and behavior). Private secularism, in turn, can either consist of indifference toward religion, or the embrace of secular alternatives to religion. With the use of a major national survey, this project develops ways of measuring these variations of secularism.

Second, what are the political causes of secularism? Having developed measures of the different varieties of secularism, its political causes are examined. Unlike the secularization of European nations, which unfolded gradually, its rise in the United States has occurred rapidly. One possible explanation is that secularism has grown as some Americans have come to associate religion with politics, particularly conservative politics, and thus pull away from religion as a reaction. If correct, this would redefine our understanding of the relationship between religion and politics. Rather than just religion shaping politics, it would mean that the political environment shapes religious orientations. The potential causes of secularism are examined through the analysis of a survey which follows the same people through two election cycles.

Third, what are the political consequences of secularism? The third component of the project will examine the consequence of public secularism: the exclusion of religion from the public square. What happens when individuals hear positions on policy issues that are, or are not, framed in religious terms? Does public secularism mean greater prospects for political compromise? Does it lead religious Americans to be less politically engaged, or secular Americans to be more engaged? These questions are addressed using a set of experimental studies.

The social value of the project comes in the greater understanding it will provide of a significant, yet understudied, social phenomena of our time: the rapid rise of secularism. In doing so it will help us understand, and prepare for, the consequences of an increasingly secular nation.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame
United States
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