America is well known as the least secular of all the advanced industrial democracies on Earth. More Americans believe in God, attend church, and so forth than in any of the other wealthy countries. This has been true for decades, and the best data suggest that it remains the case. Yet there seems to be persistent worry from several quarters that America is, or is becoming, secular. What might these concerns mean? Do they have any validity? Can one be simultaneously secular and faithful?

Relations between the sacred and the secular have been a recurring theme in LDS general conference talks. A search for the word “secular” on the archive of such talks returns 72 results. One rather positive usage of the word is prominent and of little interest here: a distinction between sacred and secular education or knowledge, i.e., between learning the gospel and learning accounting, calculus, physics, French, art history, etc. Talks which use “secular” in this sense generally regard such education or knowledge as important and positive, if less relevant to the church than the sacred.

However, more negative usages have arisen. Consider these examples:

Developed nations of the world are becoming so secular in their beliefs and actions that they reason that a human being has total autonomy. An individual does not have to give an account to anyone or anything except to himself and, to a limited extent, to the society in which he lives. Societies in which this secular lifestyle takes root have a deep spiritual and moral price to pay. The pursuit of so-called individual freedoms, without regard to laws the Lord has established to govern His children on earth, will result in the curse of extreme worldliness and selfishness, the decline of public and private morality, and the defiance of authority. Such secular societies are described in Doctrine and Covenants 1:16: “They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world.” (from What Seek Ye, L. Tom Perry, April 2005)

Here “secular” seems to mean “libertarian,” and Perry seems to be arguing for a more organic or corporate (in the mideval Thomist sense) view of society. Society, he seems to suggest, shouldn’t be built around the secular idea of individual liberties, but rather around reciprocal duties between individuals within an organic society and hierarchical lines of authority between individuals and God as mediated by the church. Perry on my reading sees three major categories of evils that arise from this vision of secularism: economic, sexual, and anti-authoritarian. I find his remarks fascinating. Certainly there are major reasons to be uncomfortable with the individual-libertarian framework for society that has been predominant in America and some other Western societies for the last few centuries. At the same time, it seems hard to imagine the LDS church ever arising in a society that wasn’t at least somewhat secular in this sense. Deference to religious authority would seem to preclude the kind of acts of religious rebellion that Joseph Smith engaged in when founding Mormonism, after all.

Another category of distinctive usages belongs to Neal A. Maxwell, who seems to have used “secular” more times in conference speeches than anyone else. Maxwell’s usages imply that the secular is a realm of tawdry evil associated with institutional prominence outside of the church.

Finally, a collection of different remarks use “secular” in one of the ways it is most often used outside of Mormonism: to refer to that which is not religious. Consider W. Eugene Hansen’s April 1998 remarks:

In desperation, society turns to the secular. Social programs are spawned. Government agencies are enlisted to provide public funding and programs in an attempt to change the destructive trends. While some spotty successes are observed, general trends remain alarming. I submit that if real and lasting change is to occur, it will come only as we return to our spiritual moorings. We need to be listening to the counsel of the prophets. (from Children and the Family).

Often, speakers push the term somewhat further to mean that which is opposed to religion. Thus, in April 1994, Boyd K. Packer remarked:

Moral values are being neglected and prayer expelled from public schools on the pretext that moral teaching belongs to religion. At the same time, atheism, the secular religion, is admitted to class, and our youngsters are proselyted to a conduct without morality. (from The Father and the Family)

Here, the secular is said to be equivalent to atheism, i.e., active belief that God does not exist, rather than mere inattention to or disinterest in the religious. It may be worth noting in passing that, to the best of my knowledge, the factual assertion in this quote is incorrect for the U.S.; preaching atheism is no more often accepted than preaching any other faith claim.

As a final example, let us consider one further usage from Packer:

Beliefs are born of philosophies, of doctrines. Doctrines can be spiritual or secular, wholesome or destructive, true or false. (from Little Children, October 1986)

Here, by literary construction, the secular is connected with doctrines that are destructive and false. I would assume that such doctrines, like atheism, must be actively hostile to, and not merely unconnected with, the sacred.

So, in this brief review, we have seen a variety of possible meanings for the term secular: education or knowledge related to matters other than religion; libertarianism; that which is not connected with religion; and that which is opposed to religion. Is there any evidence that the latter three definitions (the ones with negative connotations) reflect phenomena which are on the rise in America? Some form or other of the libertarianism that troubles Elder Perry has been quite dominant in America for centuries, so there would seem to be little room for an increase in that regard. What about the proportion of people who are disinterested in or hostile toward religion? On this front, there may be evidence of a rising secular tide in America — but the picture is complex and the evident causes of change are different than one might think.

A 2002 American Sociological Review article by Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer (Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations, ASA 67(2): 165-190) shows that, since about 1990, the proportion of Americans who state in surveys that they have no religious preference has basically doubled. The relevant data (taken, as with all charts in this post, from the U.S. General Social Survey), extended to 2004, are shown in the following graph.

Time Series of U.S. People Reporting No Religious Preference

Hout and Fischer show that about half of the change may be due to demographic changes such as later marriage and a gradual increase in the number of individuals raised without religion. However, none of the change is due to falling religious belief. Hout and Fischer show that belief in God, the afterlife, etc., have not fallen during the period in question. Furthermore, among those professing no religious affiliation, such beliefs have actually increased; only about a third of those reporting no religious preference are in fact nonbelievers. As an example, let’s briefly consider two charts related to belief in an afterlife. The first shows the overall proportion of Americans who believe in an afterlife:

Overall Belief in an Afterlife

Clearly, such belief has been relatively stable since the 1970s, but during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the overall level of belief was on average statistically significantly higher than it had been earlier. So America has not become any more secular in the harsh Boyd K. Packer sense of being hostile to religious belief. In fact, those who report no religious preference have become substantially more likely to report belief in an afterlife:

No Preferences Belief in an Afterlife

So America may be becoming more secular in the sense of less comfortable with reporting a religious preference. Furthermore, Hout and Fischer show that these same individuals have developed markedly negative attitudes toward organized religion and churches — and they typically never attend any church although they mostly do report praying on a fairly regular basis. Yet there is no evidence that Americans are losing religious belief. Why, then, the change? Hout and Fischer present evidence that more Americans are unwilling to report a religious preference because they disapprove of the strong link that has developed during the 1990s between conservative politics and organized religion. In effect, because society as a whole has become somewhat less secular, in the sense of maintaining a distinction between the realm of religion and the realm of politics, many politically moderate and liberal individuals are becoming more secular, in the sense of rejecting churches and describing themselves as having no religion. This shows the religious price of political activism by churches.

It is, perhaps, worth summarizing what we’ve seen so far. America may be more secular than it was 20 years ago in terms of church attendance and willingness to identify oneself as religious. Yet it is certainly not more atheistic or anti-religious. Instead, there is an increasing rejection of churches because many of the most powerful and visible churches in our country have tied themselves to a specific political agenda.

Let us turn, then, to the final question I asked in the introduction to this post. Can one be simultaneously secular and faithful? Obviously not if “secular” is interpreted in terms of atheism or even indifference to religion. Yet I think one can believe in the need for a secular society and still be a very faithful Christian, or even Mormon. A secular society, as I’m using the term, is one in which religion is an accepted private motive but is not an actor on the public stage. In such a society, any given person may have deeply religious motives for public action — but that action will be undertaken in a secular way. Such a society would erase the political motives that seem to be driving much of the rise in religious disaffiliation in the U.S. It would also facilitate coexistence across religious lines.

Mormons have tried building a society that is not secular in this sense. That was the failed theocratic experiment of the 19th century, failed because of the intense alienation it (perhaps inevitably) produced in non-Mormon Americans. While we continue to live in a world of multiple faiths, such theologically-based societies seem untenable and even dangerous to me. So, I personally do believe that it is possible to advocate a secular society while being personally faithful; I do so myself.


  1. California Condor says:

    Interesting thoughts and research. I read a biography on Hillary Clinton called “A Woman in Charge”, and I found it quite enlightening to see how much of a Christian she has been over the years, and how much her Methodism has informed her philosophies. I think it’s fair to say that the Republican Party does not have a stranglehold on belief in God. There are plenty of liberal Christians. Nevertheless, the Democratic party is no doubt a haven for people who do not want to follow strict tradtional Christian rules such as abstinence outside of marriage.

    President George W. Bush is a poor public speaker and as such he is an easy target for criticism. Furthermore, he has engaged in a pre-emptive war that very well may have been a mistake. These two factors combined have perhaps made him a scapegoat for those who choose to reject old-line Christian moors. So I can’t help but wonder if those who disdain the current administration are really just rebelling against a party that has the audacity in 2007 to suggest that traditional Christian values should be respected.

    I have a lot of affection for “secular” things in this world. Yet showing up to Church on Sunday brings me tremendous satisfaction. I can’t help but wonder if America’s unparalleled and historic success is somehow correlated to the optimism that comes from religious faith. Ultimately, I hope that we do not have to separate the wonders of the world from the quiet peace that comes from being a faithful Mormon. There are some old-timers who tend to be leery of all things Babylon, yet if you watch them closely enough, you will notice them embrace worldly things with just as much fervor as any atheist. I think this is a good thing.

  2. What a wonderful post. This topic is near and dear to my heart. I play conference bingo from time to time and when I have a card that has a lot of “secular” squares I know I’ve won the round.

    You’ve done fantastic job at showing that the word “secular” is used in many different contexts. I know this is exheedingly cynical but I just view the whole “the world is becoming more secular” arguments as a form of nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist.

    Studies state that as you’ve shown more people believe in an after life. And that those that do claim a religion are far more active in their religions than any time prior. I remember reading that until the last 50 years most of america only went to church once a month or so whereas now those that are religious pray more often and go to services more often.

    Further a quick view of history disproves the whole “our society is now based on sex!” arguments. In certain states during the hallowed time of post revolutionary war well more than half the women married were pregnant at the time of marriage. The bawdy songs of the renaisance would put some rappers to shame. Good Christian Kings had prostitues working their castles to keep guests entertained. People have always been sexually indiscrete. There is nothing new about this.

    To me this “secular” business is just a longing for things to stay the same as they were. Or better said as they are in memory. I am reminded of when Voltaire bemoaned his day saying, “No one reads anymore and children don’t respect their elders!” This was in the 1700s. Perhaps its possible no one read much and children never respected their elders.

    I, like you, agree that in a multi-faith society it is possible to be secular and faithful at the same time (that is IF you can adequately define secularism). Indeed I think it’s necessary.

  3. JN-S,

    In your penultimate paragraph, you put forward a good reason for us to talk and behave like secularists in the public sphere. It is the common language, and we need to be able to speak that language if we want to be taken seriously.

    I was once at an academic conference where a professor from BYU made a presentation. He began by asking us all to “put on our spiritual glasses”. He simply couldn’t get away from firesidespeak, and even though I knew what he meant, I wondered if those in attendance who were not LDS were left scratching their heads, or if they were offended by the presumption.

    Latter-day saints will always be a small percentage of the population. I absolutely believe our religion should be the motivation for our actions, but if we want to have any influence, we need to learn to speak the language of those around us who do not share our beliefs.

  4. This is a great post.
    I think the many uses of “secular” in religious contexts (so many meanings so what on earth does it mean?) sometimes allows religious folks to be manipulated by people who use “religious” speak instead of “secular” speak.
    It’s also why I think that moral “religious” issues dominate politics in some places. I think those moral political issues have their place but it seems dangerous to vote for a person solely based on their stance on these singular issues.

  5. To echo Mark (#IV) form a purely “Church/Gospel” centered perspective:

    We are told that everyone needs to hear the Gospel “in their own tongue”. I know for a fact, based on my own experiences, that this is not limited to actual language – that there are many people who need to hear the basics in their own dialect or accent or cultural linguistic phraseology. My Black foster son just couldn’t “get it” at church, since the entire environment (sedate reverence) and terminology simply didn’t “ring true” to him. It simply was too foreign for him to consider seriously. I was able to help him understand a lot of things better as we talked one-on-one, but formal Church lessons? Not a chance.

    Likewise, I was able to gain at least a basic understanding with my fellow students in my religion classes by using their own terminology when I discussed the Bible or any Gospel principle – or even the church structure. This applied right down to the simplest things: congregation not ward, minister not bishop, study group not seminary (that word can cause MAJOR misunderstanding), proxy baptism not baptism for the dead, etc. Just as I would never expect my Japanese investigators to learn English in order to hear about the Gospel, I also would not expect those who are steeped in secular vernacular to understand Mormon-speak any better.

  6. JNS,

    One GA’s secular menace is another GA’s spiritual blessing, it would appear.

    Regarding your statement:

    America may be more secular than it was 20 years ago in terms of church attendance and willingness to identify oneself as religious. Yet it is certainly not more atheistic or anti-religious.

    I wonder about whether this is true. I only have anecdotal evidence, but I look at the success and publicity that Dawkins, et al, have gotten for their agnostic/atheistic viewpoints, and suspect that perhaps a reevaluation is taking place.

    Perhaps the close connection of the evangelicals to the social conservative wing of the Republican party and this administration have pushed moderates and liberals to be more secular, or perhaps even agnostic. The apparent discrepancy between religious belief and church attendance could be a reflection of the thinking that says “I can’t go to that church, or any church, but I want to hedge my bets, so I’ll claim a belief in the afterlife”.

    As to being both secular and faithful, I think as LDS church members, we really do need to live strongly in both worlds. We seem to forget that we were the victims of persecution by the majority religions of the day, and as a culture often fail to extend the sort of tolerance we were denied in those areas where the LDS church is dominant. If nothing else, Romney’s candidacy has shown that religious bigotry is alive and well in this country. Our best contribution might be to help people be more understannding of us, by being more understanding of them.

    Using “Secular” as a catch-all label, as we see from the different uses applied in general conference talks, can be misleading. I would think that secular generally is viewed as a negative in the minds of most active church members, yet they spend most of their waking hours living in that world.

  7. An interesting book related to this topic is “A War for God, a History of Fundamentalism” by Karen Armstrong. She discusses how people have been reconciling their faith in the three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as modernization and secularization has taken place. A fascinating book if anyone wants to read it.

  8. I also enjoyed this post.

    From what I read and hear from atheists, they do not think that they are making significant gains in America.

  9. Thanks, everyone, for the comments.

    California Condor, it’s worth remembering that the possibly politically-motivated trend away from religious self-definition started before George W. Bush was really on the scene. I think this is probably due more to the Pat Buchanans, Jerry Falwells, and — well, Knight Initiatives of the world than it is a reaction to Bush personally. But most of what you have to say I agree with.

    ronito, I think you’re just exactly right. The heyday of the traditional family is… Drum roll… Pretty much a time that never was. Or the present. Or when I was a kid. Depending how I define it. If you define it, ditto — except that it’s when you were a kid, not when I was one.

    Mark, maybe I should try telling my grad students to put on their spiritual glasses when I teach them stats this fall. I bet it couldn’t hurt!

    amri, good points — “secular” does indeed seem to act as a generic scare word more often than not.

    Ray, oh, so true. Translating from Mormon to traditional Christian can indeed save a lot of trouble. Although it’s always fun to tell a Methodist or Catholic that I graduated from Seminary when I was 17. Doogie Howser, M.Div.

    Kevinf, I’m not sure how you’d define atheism, but I see it as the belief that God doesn’t exist. Agnosticism I define as the belief that it’s impossible to tell whether God exists or not. If you share those definitions, I have a chart for you. It’s from the GSS, like the others, and you can access it here. As you can see, there’s no time trend regarding atheism or agnosticism in the U.S. It’s possible that the 6 or 7 percent of Americans who don’t believe in God are simply more public and activist now than they were in the 1980s; alternatively, the noise made by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and the like may involve successful self-promotion more than a change in support base. Either way, there’s amazingly little evidence supporting the idea that America is becoming more atheistic or agnostic over time.

    Jared*, I’m glad to hear that the atheists are evidence-based enough to realize that they’re probably a smaller minority than the Mormons, even.

  10. JNS, I would define atheism and agnosticism as you described. I lumped them together for brevity without any intention of conflating the definitions. I suspect that my perceptions are impacted by living in one of those corners of the country (Greater Seattle) that are decidedly more secular.

    I have many friends and coworkers that fall somewhere in the range of mildly agnostic to militantly atheistic. The A/A coworkers, at least, outnumber the faithful. However, my early morning basketball group is definitely less secular, and I often end up answering questions about the church there. I’ve always known hoops to be a spiritual experience, as our chapels are always built around basketball courts.