Researching Atheism and Secularity

Guest post by Joseph Hammer

According to the recently released 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Americans are increasingly self-identifying as affirmatively secular (e.g., atheist, secular humanist, bright, etc) and embracing a naturalistic worldview (a philosophy of life that does not involve a belief in God, higher powers, or anything supernatural).  What is the nature and what are the consequences of holding and professing a naturalistic worldview in a country where 70% of the population believes in a personal God (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009)?

We don’t really know. While the social sciences have produced a copious amount of scholarship on religiosity and spirituality in recent decades, they have largely neglected the study of atheism and secularity (Miller & Kelly, 2005; Pasquale, 2007).  Indeed, while secularity has been thoroughly dissected in philosophy, theology, anthropology, history, and anecdotal discussion, peer-reviewed empirical studies on the topic are few and far between.  Among the peer-reviewed studies that tangentially address the nature and consequences of secularity (e.g., by looking at the relationship between religiosity and health), conceptual and methodological limitations often restrict the reliability and validity of the findings (Sloan, 2006; Sloan & Bagiella, 2002; Wulff, 2003; Kirkpatrick & Hood, 1990).

The Center for Atheist Research was founded to help address this situation. A collaborative effort among social scientists, the Center serves as a nonpartisan Internet hub for psychological and sociological research on atheism and secularity. While Center staff collect research data via traditional sampling methods, they are also committed to providing individuals from around the world with the chance to actively participate in cutting-edge academic research on secularity via Internet-accessible studies.

The Center is pursuing several lines of research within the social science of secularity. Here are a few questions that currently require exploration:

  • How are secular individuals (i.e., secularists) different from religious or spiritual individuals, if at all? Some recent social science research has suggested that secular individuals have poorer health outcomes than spiritual and religious individuals; is this indeed the case?

  • Research suggests that atheists are one of the most disliked minority groups in America (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006). Does this dislike translate into actual discrimination against secular individuals? If so, how is this discrimination experienced and coped with?

  • How do secular individuals create and pursue meaning and purpose in their lives, since they do not subscribe to a worldview that readily provides answers to the big existential questions in life?

  • Is the research that has been done so far on religion, spirituality, and secularity accurate and reliable, or has it been held back by conceptual and methodological limitations? What needs to be done to insure the quality of future research?

All of these questions lend themselves to empirical investigation within the fields of psychology, sociology, and the related social sciences. Indeed, several are already under investigation, and a few are currently open to volunteer participation via the Center website.

I’m one of the Center research associates, and I’ll be starting my Ph.D in Counseling Psychology at ISU this fall. I was excited to learn about the existence of an active secular group on the ISU campus, and I’m looking forward to meeting the members of The Atheist and Agnostic Society. Until then, please feel free to contact me at hammer[at]atheistresearch[dot]org.


Edgell, P., Gerteis, J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). Atheists as “other:” Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society. American Sociological Review, 71, 211–234.

Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Hood, R. W., Jr. (1990). Intrinsic-extrinsic religious orientation: The boon or bane of contemporary psychology of religion? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29, 442-462.

Kosmin, B., & Keysar, G. (2009). American Religious Identification Survey 2008: Summary report. Hartford, CT: Trinity College.

Miller, L., & Kelley, B. (2005). Relationships of religiosity and spirituality with mental health and psychopathology. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. (pp. 459-478), New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Pasquale, F. (2007). Unbelief and irreligion, empirical study and neglect of. In The new encyclopedia of unbelief (pp. 760-766). Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Sloan, R., (2006). Blind faith. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Sloan, R. P., & Bagiella, E. (2002). Claims about religious involvement and health outcomes. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24, 14-21. PMID: 12008790

Wulff, D. M. (2003). A field in crisis: Is it time for the psychology of religion to Start Over? In P. H. M. P. Roelofsma, J. M. T. Corveleyn, and J. W. Van Saane (Eds.), A Hundred Years of Psychology of Religion: Issues and Trends in a Century Long Quest (pp. 1-17). Amsterdam: VU University Press.