In 2019, three sociologists met for dinner while at a conference in St. Louis. The friends and colleagues discussed their shared fascination with secular life: living outside of religious affiliation, belief, or activities.
By the end of the meal, Isabella Kasselstrand, associate professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen; Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology at Pitzer College and founding chair of the nation’s first secular studies academic department; and Ryan T. Cragun, professor of sociology at the University of Tampa, had agreed on two things: that there had been no recent data-driven, theoretically sound book on whether human society is, in fact, increasingly secularized, and that together they would write such a book.
Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society, coming from NYU Press in May 2023, is the result of that collaboration, drawing on 40 years of empirical data to show that many societies, including that of the U.S., have dramatically and demonstrably decreased in religiousness. The authors measured religiosity and secularity in more than 100 societies by using religious affiliation data, religious service attendance, and professed belief in a god, from sources including the World Values Study, which publishes its extensive findings every five years. “These capture the various ways people can be religious,” Zuckerman says.
The title of the book indicates both that “the reality of secularization occurring in many societies all over the world is supported by the best data out there,” he notes, and it also refers to “the reality that citizens in many societies have moved beyond merely doubting their faith to either atheism, agnosticism, or simply living their lives completely indifferent to religion.”
Secularization exists on a spectrum, Zuckerman explains. “Secularization is not an either-or phenomenon. There is no society that is totally religious in all aspects, and no society that is totally secular in all aspects. Rather, you have different dimensions of belief, behavior, and belonging”—attributes the authors call the three Bs.
The book’s findings prove that religiosity is declining in many countries, including in the U.S.. “For several decades, the U.S. has been held up as the great exception to secularization theory,” Zuckerman says. “Yet what we have seen in the past 50 years is a definite and dramatic decline of religiosity on all measures.” In 1981, for example, 60% of Americans attended religious services monthly; by 2017 that number had dropped to 39%.
Jennifer Hammer, a senior editor at NYU Press, expects the book to have a broad impact. Beyond Doubt “adds clarity to debates about trends towards or away from religiosity in the U.S. and around the world,” she says. “This has been an area in which there has been real back-and-forth in ideas about what is happening, especially given the prominence of religious voices weighing in on and influencing a number of key areas of public debates.”
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer and coauthor of The Yoga Effect: A Proven Program for Depression and Anxiety.