Launch Series: Atheists and Secular Spirituality

In the latest post to the Nonreligion and Secularity’s special launch series’ Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith consider whether the idea of  ‘secular spirituality’ is really a plausible one.

Is there such a thing as a secular spirituality? A recent study found an interest in spirituality amidst a continuing secular drift in the UK. The survey (2013), sponsored by the Christian think tank Theos,  found that 77 percent of the British believe in some things that could not be explained by science and other means, and that only a quarter of those surveyed thought spiritual forces had no influence on the Earth. In other words, the study suggests that even many non-religious people don’t want to be categorized as strict materialists.

But what about atheists? A secular spirituality for atheists would obviously not be related to the supernatural, yet the emotional components of wonder, awe, and joy might still be present in experiences deemed secular. According to our research on American atheists (or secularists, as we call them), we found a segment of them claiming a secular spirituality. This came through in a small Internet survey of 167 participants of atheist and humanist groups we conducted in 2010.  Although not representative of all organized secularists, the survey did illuminate the views of a significant segment of this diffuse movement, which was also evident in our content analysis of secular humanist publications. When asked if they ever felt awe, wonder, even transcendence in everyday activities, a significant percentage had such experiences while being in nature (59.2), working in or reading about science (47.9), performing or listening to music (47.3), admiring or doing art (41.9), and meditation/contemplation (35.3).

Yet we found an interesting subgroup of 23 percent who refused to answer this question on secular spirituality, with some commenting that no such thing exists for an atheist. There may well be a wide divide between those refusing to answer this question and those viewing mediation and art as providing a secular spirituality. There could also be a gap between those who see science as a source of such emotions (some research suggests that such secularists were most likely to identify with the new atheism) and those viewing the arts as such as the locus of a secular spirituality.  More research is necessary to understand this dynamic, but there was a sign that the younger respondents—a population that has traditionally had a low representation in organized secularism but represent the growing edge of the movement—were more likely to select art and meditation as sources of such a spirituality.  It may be the case that these newer groups are coming into the ranks of organized secularism and arriving at an atheist position in general through aesthetics and the humanities rather than through the traditional paths of science and philosophical rationalism. While secular humanists and atheists have sharply criticized postmodernism for downplaying the role of reason in society, it could be that potential atheists influenced by postmodernism in the humanities may have found an alternative route to secularism and atheism. The greater availability and abundance of media may have opened up a wider path (beyond sociobiology, science, rationality, etc.) for secularist socialization, exploration, and participation as well. The recent growth of the Sunday Assembly and its secular-spiritual approach and its appeal for many young adults may also be a sign of a generational shift among secularists over these concerns.

Our findings on secular spirituality are reflected in other research. In Frank Pasquale’s 2008 study, he found that 38 percent of secular affiliates he surveyed use the concept of spirituality in a psychological and experiential sense. Interestingly, Pasquale found a surprisingly high percentage of secularist group participants (30 percent) who were willing to believe or consider the notion of an impersonal force ‘coursing through and connecting all living things’. He also found that those most likely to describe themselves as ‘atheistic’ or ‘anti-religious’ were most averse to ‘spirituality’.

The Theos study makes the claim that the persistence of spirituality alone calls into question European secularization generally and secularism and atheism specifically. If you conflate atheism with a reductive materialism and conflate spirituality with organized religion perhaps the claim has some merit. However, there’s no reason to assume that spirituality alone makes anyone less secular. The reverse could be just as true depending on how the spiritually in question is defined and understood. Moreover, as our study shows, the very demographic group that is less inclined to be narrowly scientific and more often aesthetically oriented in posture and life philosophy—namely secularist youth—is for that reason alone no less atheistic, nor appreciative of those new atheist authors the Theos study seems to be implicitly taking aim at.

The move from being firmly religious to ‘spiritual but not religious’ and whether or not this calls into question European secularization has been a matter of ongoing debate between UK sociologists Steve Bruce and Paul Heelas and the verdict is still very much out. In any event, the Theos study may have provided a rare snapshot of a new breed of ‘spiritual but not-believing’ secularists.


Pasquale, Frank. 2010.  “A Portrait of Secular Group Affiliates,” in Atheism and Secularity, Vol. 1, ed. Phil Zuckerman (Santa Barbara, Prager), pp. 43-47
Theos. 2013. The Spirit of Things Unseen; belief in post-religious Britain., October 17.

Richard Cimino is founding editor of Religion Watch, a newsletter reporting on trends in contemporary religion. He teaches sociology at Hofstra University in New York. He is co-author of the forthcoming book, Atheist Awakening: Secularist Activism and Community in the U.S. (Oxford University Press).

Christopher Smith an independent researcher. He is co-author of Atheist Awakening: Secularist Activism and Community in the U.S., with Richard Cimino. His research areas include secularism, secularity, and social and media theory. He spends his spare time reading contemporary continental philosophy.

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3 Responses to Launch Series: Atheists and Secular Spirituality

  1. Chris says:

    Interesting post. Thanks. Just a minor point – you state ‘A secular spirituality for atheists would obviously not be related to the supernatural’, but why would this be the case? ‘Atheism’ is a position relating to a theistic deity… it does not, in my view, preclude belief in other forms of supernatural agents, spirits, ghosts, reincarnation etc. Typically, perhaps, these are also ruled out by ‘atheists’, but there is no necessary connection between this and their ‘atheism’.

  2. keithnoback says:

    Any idea how the questions on these instruments were validated? Curious. Seems it might be tough.

  3. Thanks to the authors for the piece, really interesting. It would be good to see future work historicising these findings, via cross-national / cross-cultural research. The Theos claim appears to generalise from US-based data to European secularisation (!) but concepts like ‘spirituality’ have different connotations between and within those areas. That said, national differences are maybe less visible between organised nonreligious secularist groups, given that these cultures are somewhat digitised and transnational; my impression is that there is quite a lot of cultural exchange on this topic between north America, north Europe (the UK included), Germany and probably some other places. But then that’s interesting in itself… And there may be more variety found within different national nonreligious populations beyond the small number of those participating in organised groups.

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