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Contact: Paul Fidalgo
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E-mail: press@centerforinquiry.net

U.S. College Students Evenly Divided Between Religious, Secular and Spiritual, in New ARIS Study

September 25, 2013

Trinity College/Center for Inquiry Survey Reveals Ideological and Theological Distinctions between Groups 

College-age Americans participating in a new survey of religious identification were evenly divided between three distinct worldviews, Religious, Secular, and Spiritual, according to a groundbreaking report in the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) series from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in conjunction with the Center for Inquiry (CFI). The study finds that these three groups have distinctly different positions on political, scientific, and moral questions.

Among the students surveyed, 31.8% identified their worldview as Religious, 32.4% as Spiritual, and 28.2% as Secular. Within each group there was a remarkable level of cohesion on answers to questions covering a wide array of issues, including political alignment, acceptance of evolution and climate change, belief in supernatural phenomena such as miracles or ghosts, and trust in alternative practices such as homeopathy and astrology.

While the Religious students in this survey were overwhelmingly Christian (70%), a near equal share of the Secular, and one-third of the Spiritual, professed no religion (“Nones”), showing a remarkable degree of indifference to religion.

ARIS surveys in 2001 and 2008 noted the rise of the No Religion population, or “Nones,” a term often used synonymously with “unaffiliated.” However, “two-thirds of the students who self-identified as Nones in this sample preferred the Secular worldview and the remainder chose the Spiritual. Hardly any chose the Religious option,” write study authors Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar of Trinity College. “This finding is a challenge to the notion that the Nones are just ‘religiously unaffiliated’ or religious searchers who have not yet found a religious home. This survey clearly revealed that today’s students with a Secular worldview, who are mainly Nones, are not traditional theists.”

The survey also better defines what distinguishes those who identify as Spiritual. “The Spiritual category does not appear to be simply a middle ground between the Religious and Secular categories,” write the authors. “They are closer to the Religious on many metaphysical issues but closer to the Secular on public policy and social issues. Their political liberalism along with their mysticism is part of the reason they differentiate themselves from the Religious worldview.”

“Today’s college students are those same Americans who will soon take positions of leadership in society and in their communities,” noted Ron Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, a principal funder and intellectual contributor to the survey. “It bodes well for the future of science and reason in America that almost one third of this rising generation identifies as Secular, while another third has rejected traditional dogmatic religion. Clearly, Secular Americans are a constituency on the ascent, one that both political and cultural establishments can no longer afford to ignore.”

Additional results of the survey, concentrating on the beliefs of the Secular group, will be revealed at the CFI Summit, a conference of humanists and skeptics in Tacoma, Washington, to be held October 24-27. More information at http://cfisummit.org.

The study of Worldviews and Opinions of American College Students is based on an online national survey conducted by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) during April-May 2013 from Trinity College, with major contributions from the Center for Inquiry, an international organization advocating for science, reason, and secularism in public life. Drawn from a random sample of publicly available email addresses, over 1800 students took part in the survey in whole or in part, representing 38 four-year colleges and universities.

The full report, Religious, Spiritual and Secular: The emergence of three distinct worldviews among American college students, is available at http://bit.ly/ARIS2013

Additional Highlights:

· Gender gaps are noticeable within the Secular (with more males) and Spiritual (with more females) groups, while the Religious group attracts males and females more evenly.

· Though the Secular group is predominantly male, it was they who were most likely of all three groups (at 67%) to say that it is “very true” that “women must defend their reproductive rights.”

· Patterns of belief in God are remarkably different in the three worldviews: 

  • The Religious group mirrors the general American adult population with 70% firm believers and only 2% saying they don’t believe in God or don’t know where there is a God and don’t believe there is any way to find out.
  • At the other spectrum are Secular students, of whom 77% either don’t believe in God or don’t know if there is a God.
  • Spiritual students exhibit an array of preferences: 27% believe in a higher power (but not in a personal God); 24% are firm believers; 21% believe in God (while having doubts); 12% don’t know if God exists and only 5% don’t believe in God.

· Opinions on scientific and philosophical issues differ widely.

  • When asked separately, “Do you believe in miracles?” and “Do you believe in reason/rationalism?
  • A strong majority of Religious students believes in miracles and a smaller majority believes in reason and rationalism.
  • The Secular are as committed to reason (83%) as the Religious are to belief in miracles (84%). Only 13% of Seculars believe in miracles.
  • The Spiritual are between the two other worldviews.

· Similarly, the results show considerable divisions by worldview with regard to belief in Creationism/Intelligent Design and Evolution/Darwinism:

  • A majority of Religious students believe in Creationism/Intelligent Design. Another majority believes in Evolution/Darwinism. Presumably this reflects the split between conservative and liberal religious believers, with some small group believing in both theories.
  • The Secular group overwhelmingly endorses Evolution (93%) and rejects Creationism (only 5% ‘yes’).
  • The Spiritual group believes strongly in Evolution but a significant minority (26%) believes in Creationism or Intelligent Design. 

· On public policy issues the Spiritual and Secular groups hold similar worldviews, with Secular students consistently more liberal and the Religious more conservative. The pattern is similar for all issues raised: women’s reproductive rights, same sex marriages, gay adoptions, gun control, and belief in assisted suicide.

· Political orientations of the worldviews are quite distinct:

  • Religious students are the most likely to regard themselves “conservative” (34%) compared with 11% of Spiritual and 4% of Secular.
  • Secular students are also the most likely to view themselves as “liberal” (44%) compared with 35% of Spiritual and 17% of Religious.
  • Secular students are also the most likely to describe themselves as “progressive” (20%) compared with 12% of Spiritual and only 5% of Religious.
  • Interestingly, the “libertarian” option attracted almost the same share of students in each group.
  • The Religious are the most likely to consider themselves “moderate.”

About the survey authors:

Dr. Barry A. Kosmin is Research Professor in the Public Policy & Law Program at Trinity College and Founding Director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. A sociologist, Dr. Kosmin has been a principal investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey series since its inception in 1990 as well as national social surveys in Europe, Africa and Asia. His publications on the ARIS include the books One Nation under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, 1993 and Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non-Religious Americans, 2006.

Dr. Ariela Keysar , a demographer, is Associate Professor, Public Policy & Law Program at Trinity College and the Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. She is a principal investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey 2008 and the Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists-India 2007-08. Dr. Keysar was the Study Director of the American Religious Identification Survey 2001. She is the co-author, Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non-Religious Americans, Paramount Market Publications, Ithaca, N.Y., 2006.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. CFI’s web address is www.centerforinquiry.net.