Workgroup for Empiric Research of Religion (AGER)

Seculars, Atheists and Agnostics

‘Secular individuals’ are, both internationally and in Switzerland, one of the most remarkable phenomenon of the last decade. Indicators for this are bestsellers that criticize religion (Dawkins 2006; Hitchens 2007), public manifestations of organized anti-religionists, the very fast growth of individuals who consider themselves to be without religion, as well as the emergence of Nonreligious Studies. The present study is the first research project that analyzes ‘secular individuals’ in Switzerland in a representative way both quantitatively and qualitatively (mixed methods). Thereby, we put a special focus on the distinction between organized and not organized ‘secular individuals’.

The project asks the following central questions: How do ‘secular individuals’ construct their ‘secular identities’, how are these identities influenced through socialization, social attributes, social relationships and or- ganizations, and under what conditions do ‘secular individuals’ become societally or politically active? We define ‘secular individuals’ operationally as individuals who describe themselves as either ‘not religious’ or ‘atheist’, independently of whether they take action for secular interests or not.

Theoretically, our study does not rely on one single theoretical framework, but rather uses different theories, depending on the special theme treated. Thus, elements of theories of secularization, individualization, identity, socialization and mobilization become important at different points of our study.

Our project uses mixed methods methodology and combines 4 different data sets. A first data set (‘secular individuals in general, quantitative’) consists of the data of the Religionsmonitor 2013 (N=1003) which is rep- resentative for Switzerland. Among respondents, 341 individuals are ‘secular individuals’ according to our criteria. A second data set (‘secular individuals in general, qualitative’) consists of a subsample of the ‘secular individuals’ of the Religionsmonitor-Sample. We use a semi-standardized face-to-face interviews (N=60). A third data set (‘members of secularist organizations, quantitative’) consists of a standardized internet survey among members of all ‘secularist organizations’ in Switzerland (N=ca. 1500). A fourth data set (‘members of secularist organizations, qualitative’) consists of a subset of the third data set. These individuals will be interviewed face-to-face in a semi-standardized way (N=40).

The quantitative data are analyzed with well-known procedures of descriptive and inferential statistics. The qualitative interviews are transcribed and analyzed with qualitative content analysis (Mayring 2010). The qualitative and quantitative data are triangulated with methods described in Kelle (2007) and Stolz (2013).

Expected results are — descriptively — a typology of ‘secular individuals’, that includes both quantitative representative frequencies as well as qualitative description of the life worlds, subjective viewpoints and dis- courses. On the other hand, we will be able to test — in an explanatory way — various hypotheses concerning the conditions under which secular individuals become publicly active.

The research project makes two important contributions. First, for the Sociology of Religion, Religious and Nonreligious Studies. Nobody has, as far as we know, conducted a representative mixed methods study on ‘secular individuals’ in a whole country. Second, for Swiss society, since it may well be — as Habermas (2002) describes — that there will be a growth of tensions between ‘highly religious individuals’ and ‘secular individuals’ in the near future.



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Prof. Dr. Stefan Huber
Faculty of Theology
Länggassstrasse 51
3012 Bern