Secular Identity, Belief in God, and 2020 Preferences
Secular Americans and the 2020 Elections
This post is part of a series of short reports about secular Americans and the 2020 Elections based on the Secular Voices Survey. Socioanalitica Research conducted the survey on July 11, 2019, among a representative sample of 520 nonreligious Americans. For the survey topline and methodology visit this link.
According to PRRI’s 2018 American Values Atlas secular Americans, those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or who have no religious preference in particular now account for one-quarter of the adult population.
To qualify as a survey respondent, potential participants had to answer a screening question. Asking them about their religious identity: “what is your religion, if any?” Those who selected the options “I am a Christian (such as Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Orthodox, Mormon, etc.)” or “I am religious but not a Christian (such as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.)” were screened out.
People who selected one of the three remaining options were allowed to continue the survey.
The pie chart below shows that people who selected “I do not identify with a religion” account for the majority of secular Americans (62 percent). About one-quarter of respondents (23 percent) chose “I am an atheist.” The remaining 16 percent selected “I am an agnostic.”
In addition to this initial screener, we asked secular Americans about various labels used to identify nonreligious people. The bar chart below shows the distribution of those ten labels.
Nearly half (46 percent) of secular Americans prefer the “freethinker” label, by far the most selected among the ten options. The next tier consists of three labels selected by roughly one-third of Secular people. “Spiritual but not religious” was chosen by 35 percent of respondents, 34 percent selected “bright,” while one-third picked “atheist.” One-quarter of respondents selected four labels: “skeptic,” “rationalist,” “humanist,” and “agnostic.”
Belief in God
Secular Americans have a diverse set of views about God. We decided to repeat a question asked a decade earlier in the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey. The question asked “Regarding the existence of God, do you think…?” and respondents selected from five options, we have included the 2008 classification of those responses in parentheses: (Atheist) “there is no such thing,” (Hard Agnostic) “there is no way to know.”, (Soft Agnostic) “I’m not sure,” (Deist) “there is a higher power but no personal God,” and (Theist) “there is definitively a personal God.”
In 2008, a majority (51 percent) of secular Americans were believers in a higher being. About one-quarter were deists (24 percent) or theists (27 percent). Nonbelievers accounted for 44 percent of secular Americans. Roughly one-third (35 percent) were agnostic (19 percent hard agnostics, 16 percent soft agnostics) while about one in 10 (9%) identified as atheists.
In a decade, the ratio of theists and atheists moved from three theists for every atheist to even between atheists and theists.
As the pie chart above shows, the proportions have dramatically shifted. A majority (56 percent) of secular Americans are now nonbelievers: 15 percent are atheists, and 41 percent are agnostics. Roughly one in five secular Americans are hard agnostics (22 percent) or soft agnostics (19 percent).
Even among believers, a shift has occurred. The plurality of secular Americans used to be theists, but now nearly three in 10 (27 percent) are deists. The percentage of theists dropped dramatically to 16 percent of all secular Americans. In a decade, the ratio of atheists moved from three theists for every atheist to even between atheists and theists.
Secular Americans and 2020
As of July, secular Americans are roughly equally divided in their preferences for President in 2020. Approximately three in ten say they are unsure (30 percent), prefer the Democratic Party candidate (28 percent), or prefer another candidate that is not a Democrat or President Trump (27 percent). Only 13 percent say they will vote for Donald Trump.
Even this early in the 2020 cycle, the preferences of secular Americans are in line with the recent electoral history of the cohort as the preference for a Democrat is more than twice that for President Trump. Moreover, the share of secular Americans who say they prefer another candidate is quite high. While we expect this number to drop as Election Day 2020 nears, the nones have shown a tendency for supporting third-party and independent candidates in the past.
Nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of those who want a Democrat to win the Presidency in 2020 are unsure which candidate they prefer at this moment.
Among those who prefer a Democratic Party candidate, nearly three in ten (28 percent) want Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. He is followed by former Vice President Joe Biden (17 percent) and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (14 percent). California Senator Kamala Harris (eight percent) and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (seven percent) trail behind. Three percent prefer another Democrat Nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of those who want a Democrat to win the Presidency in 2020 are unsure which candidate they prefer at this moment.
About four in ten [of those who prefer someone who is not Trump or a Democrat] are almost equally divided between a Green Party candidate (21 percent) and a Libertarian Party candidate (18 percent).
Half of secular Americans who prefer another candidate say they are unsure regarding which candidate that is not Trump or a Democrat they will support. About four in ten are almost equally divided between a Green Party candidate (21 percent) and a Libertarian Party candidate (18 percent). Nearly one in ten (eight percent) want a Republican candidate that is not Donald Trump. The remaining three percent say they prefer another party or independent candidate.
Identity and Belief among Secular Americans in the 2020 Elections
A deeper look at the 2020 preferences among secular Americans by how they identify themselves and by their belief in God show interesting patterns and inconsistencies. The figure below shows 2020 overall candidate preferences by various categories.
As noted previously, only 13 percent of secular Americans favor the reelection of President Trump. The rest are nearly equally divided among those who prefer a Democrat (28 percent), another candidate (27 percent), or are not sure who they prefer (30 percent). Between the first red dotted line and the second dotted line are the categories that secular Americans identified with when screened to take the survey. In this case, the preferences of the “not religious” are similar to the overall choices of secular Americans.
Those who identify as atheist are the most likely to prefer a Trump reelection, as roughly one in five (21 percent) say they will vote for the incumbent. Atheists are the only group where Trump is competitive, as he is virtually tied with a Democratic candidate (25 percent).
Finally, those who identify as agnostic are three times less likely to prefer Trump (six percent) and the least likely to say they are unsure about their preference (22 percent). Instead, 35 percent prefer the Democratic candidate, and 34 percent prefer another candidate.
The categories between the second and third red dotted lines correspond to their responses to the question about belief in God. In this case, the “theists” who believe in “a personal God” stand out because a plurality (35 percent)prefer another candidate that is not Trump or a Democratic opponent. Among “deists” who believe “in a higher power,” a plurality says they are unsure (35 percent).
Those who identify as agnostic using the screener definition are the most pro-Democrat and less pro-Trump in their group. However, “soft agnostics” who are not sure if God exists are among the strongest supporters of Trump (19 percent) while also being one of the groups with the highest support for a Democratic candidate (36 percent).
While soft agnostics are the most partisan in their preferences, “hard agnostics” (who say “there’s no way to know” about God) are the least partisan. A Democrat (20 percent) still leads by a two to one margin over Trump (10 percent), but most members of this cohort are unsure (35 percent) or prefer another candidate (34 percent).
Atheists by belief, those who say that “there is no such thing” as God, have the most skewed Democrat (36 percent) vs. Trump (nine percent) ratio (four to one). A majority remain unsure (32 percent) or prefer another candidate (24 percent).
Atheists by belief, those who say that “there is no such thing” as God, have the most skewed Democrat (36 percent) vs. Trump (nine percent) ratio (four to one).
The labels below the last dotted line correspond to identities often ascribed to secular people. The first one, “spiritual but not religious,” is commonly used to refer to people who are not atheists or agnostics, but have some supernatural belief. This cohort accounts for one-third of secular Americans. Their 2020 preferences are similar to nones overall: 13 percent for Trump, 23 percent want a Democrat, 34 percent prefer someone else, and 30 percent are unsure.
Self-described atheists, also one-third of the secular population, are the most likely to support Trump (16 percent) but are almost equally divided between another (non-major party) candidate (30 percent), unsure (28 percent), and a Democrat (26 percent).
A plurality of the one-quarter of secular people who describe themselves as agnostic has a preference for the Democratic Party candidate in 2020 (34 percent). The majority are split between another candidate (26 percent) and those who are unsure (28 percent). One in ten support Trump’s reelection.
Secular Americans, also known as “nones,” tend to be lumped together when thinking about their politics. There are many nuances in their political views that are influenced by their secular identities and belief about the supernatural. This report focused on the candidates preferred by secular Americans in 2020.
The report started showing how secular Americans identify themselves, what they believe about God, and how they prefer to call themselves within the secular community. We continued exploring how their preferences for the 2020 Presidential Election vary depending on how secular Americans identify.
Secular Americans who know which major party candidate they are supporting prefer the Democratic challenger over the incumbent Republican, President Donald Trump. A large segment also prefers a candidate outside of these two options, such as the Libertarian Party or Green Party nominees while many are still undecided.
People who responded to the religious identification question as “atheist” are the most Republican-leaning but people who believe God does not exist are the most Democratic-leaning.
These preferences vary, sometimes substantially, when taking into account differences in identity and belief. People who responded to the religious identification question as “atheist” are the most Republican-leaning, but people who believe God does not exist are the most Democratic-leaning. This extreme example shows how these categories are fluid and not mutually exclusive.
The next report in this series will focus on policy and issue preferences.