02/26/2013 03:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Does Atheist = Secularist = None?

This unbelievably interesting interview with the unbelievably interesting Professor Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College is meant for all those of you who have pondered the distinction between the three terms that adorn the title of this blog post.

Let there be no doubt: There is a lot of disagreement among scholars as to how the terms utilized above are best defined. And two of those scholars who really disagree are myself and Professor Zuckerman. Be that as it may, my colleague gave us a very eloquent defense of his preference to understand the term "secular" as in some way connoting non-belief. (Our conversation on this subject gets into gear somewhere around the 17-minute mark.)

To his great credit, Professor Zuckerman would never impose that definition upon his students -- an important observation since he's the innovator who created and brought into being the first college program in secular studies in the country.

As readers may know, I sharply distinguish atheism (which I see as a good thing) from secularism (which I also see as a good thing, but not an atheist thing). Professor Zuckerman definitely has recent colloquial usage in his favor when he counters that the terms, for all intents and purposes, are synonyms.

After our gentlemanly scrum, Professor Zuckerman and I proceed to discuss his important research on the "nones." We often make mention of the groundbreaking research of Professors Ariela Keysar and Barry Kosmin, who cracked open the field of inquiry that has led to so much recent discussion about the "religiously unaffiliated" (Professors Keysar and Kosmin delivered papers at our conference, "Secularism on the Edge").

And who are these "nones" of which every journalist in America is now speaking? Fortuitously, Professor Zuckerman has done extensive ethnographic research on this cohort both here and abroad (for his excellent and highly readable account of his work in Scandinavia, see Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment). In Zuckerman's analysis, they emerge as a complex and highly diverse group who--note this--cannot easily be assumed to be comprised of solely self-identifying atheists and agnostics.

In his forthcoming book, a yet untitled examination of the lifestyle of the "nones," Zuckerman helps us understand some of the unique challenges they face living in an America "under God." Listen, for example, to his reflections on how the religiously unaffiliated hate imposing any type of religious dogma on their children, even their own preferred dogma of religious unaffiliation!

This is a long interview, but I assure you the good professor was on his A game, and it merits your scrutiny. For now, the question of the "true" definition of secularism remains contested. In the meantime, we'll have to make do with hopefully elucidating conversations like this one.