There exist today many philosophical variants of nonreligious belief systems.
Naturalism, rationalism, secular humanism, atheism, brights, and
methodological skepticism, along with agnosticism, are the most common
perspectives. Outlooks that fall under the umbrella description “nonreligious”
presented here have in common that they do not contain any supernatural
As historical complements of religion (departures from the religious
philosophies), these nonreligious worldviews are commonly termed
“freethought.” In the United States, where monotheism holds sway, a
common phrase for a freethinker is “nonbeliever.” Across the ages
freethought has taken as many varied forms as religion. Whether seen in
history or in modern times, freethinkers are nonconformist in the domain of
Close to a million Americans say they do not believe in God, nearly five
times what it was 30 years ago. (Sacramento Bee, 6/28/98). This minuscule
percentage undoubtedly underestimates the occurrence of the full-fledged
atheists in the United States. As is the situation in many countries, it is not
everywhere socially acceptable to profess to being agnostic or atheist, to
express unbelief. In a handful of other countries, such as Iran, it is
dangerous. Even in the U.S., where considerable lip service is given to
“freedom of conscience,” it is difficult to ascertain how many Americans
operate according to a worldview that is fundamentally void of supernatural
In the U.S. populace at large, New Age ideas flow freely at a time when
intellectualism and skeptical thinking is in a low ebb and public
understanding of science quite weak. Here also, more so than in any other
Western nation, a mainstream culture dominated by Christianity (88%)
presses for conformity to theistic religious belief, or at minimum to some sort
of religion. Certain conservative constituencies push hard for such
conventionality in the public sphere. Piety in politics is anticipated, and in
many circles, expression of doubts about religion, skepticism and nonbelief
strongly frowned upon. In some regions of the nation, it is taboo. It is no
wonder that agnostics and atheistic Americans, in particular, do not readily
admit to their stance. And yet, encyclopedias who tally such report the
nation’s declared “not religious” (which includes the assorted freethinking
worldviews above) to outnumber U.S. followers of all the familiar religions
(e.g., Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism) except, of course, Christianity.
Most often, people think of a nonreligious worldview as a counterpoint to
religion. But, in one real sense, counterpart is more apropos. Nonreligious
and religious worldviews conceptually correspond, in that both address the
same ultimate concerns that exist within (and disquiet the mind of) every
thinking person. Any worldview, religious or nonreligious, underlies
universals of human life and living.
Sources: Joanne O’Brien and Martin Palmer (State of Religion Atlas), 1993; Gerald A.
Larue (Freethought Across the Centuries, 1996); Wendy Kaminer (“The Last Taboo” in The
New Republic, 10-14-96); Michael Shermer (Why People Believe Weird Things, 1997).
Worldwide: In mid-1995, there were 841 million (14.7% of world population)
generally nonreligious, along with an additional separate category of 220
million (3.8%) atheists.
Source: "Worldwide Adherents of All Religions by Six Continental Areas" Britannica
United States: Americans who declared "no religion" in a post-2000 census
survey numbered 27,586,000 (14.1% of the U.S. population), with those
clearly specifying a nonreligious worldview as agnostic numbering 991,000
(0.5%) and atheist 902,000 (0.4%).
Source: The ARIS 2001 study
Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism