Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans documents the extraordinary rise of secularism in the United States and how it offers hope for more rational, inquiry-based public policy and discussion. In this essay, author David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association, talks about how secularism has always been part of America, but it's only now becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Secular Americans are on the rise, and all Americans – religious and nonreligious – should take note. The secular community, fueled by increasing numbers of Americans who are stepping away from religion and aided by online tools that weren’t available to prior generations, has quickly become a social and political movement, as open secularity is increasingly seen – especially among young people – as a way of making a personal statement in a contentious culture.
According to a recent Gallup report, for the first time ever a majority of Americans – 54 percent – would now vote for a qualified atheist for president. Nobody is predicting that the country will soon be electing a chief executive who refrains from saying “God bless America,” but the unmistakable trend is in the direction of tolerance, and even admiration, of personal secularity. In fact, the same survey shows that acceptability of an atheist candidate rises to 70 percent among Americans under 30.
This helps explain the booming growth of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), the national umbrella organization for college atheists, which has expanded from just a few dozen campus affiliates in 2007 to over 350 today. The SSA is now moving into high schools, where secular student groups will surely do much to normalize atheists in grassroots America.
Unlike previous generations, young people today are more likely to consider religious skepticism an important part of their personal identity, viewing open secularity as a way of expressly rejecting the agenda of the Christian right. There may be many ways of telling the world that you are appalled by right-wing attacks on birth control, environmental regulation, and education, but few do it more efficiently than the simple statement, “I’m an atheist.”
As such, the booming secular movement can best be understood as a response to the pervasive influence of religious conservatism in American public life. Indeed, although secular activists like to describe their movement in terms of what it stands for — reason, critical thinking, science and ethics — it can also be seen as a new strategy for fighting back against politicized religion.
Opponents of the fundamentalist agenda have had few successes since Jerry Falwell's newly formed Moral Majority helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, so surely a new opposition strategy was needed. Because of the Christian right’s success – and its opponents’ failure – religiosity is more widespread in politics and government than ever, as candidates for high office frequently deny evolution, discuss their faith in detail, hold prayer rallies, and even claim that church-state separation is a myth. Most of this would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
To understand why old strategies of opposing the religious right failed, we need only compare them to those of today’s secular movement. In a speech discussing the rise of politically active religious conservatism in 1983, Senator Edward Kennedy was quick to discuss his own religion. "I am an American and a Catholic," he said. "I love my country and treasure my faith." This mantra — that the religious right has no monopoly on religion, and that liberals can be religious too — was a constant theme emphasized by politicians fighting against the Moral Majority and its successors.
Major advocacy groups opposing the religious right in the 1980s and 1990s were also quick to emphasize religious connections. Television producer Norman Lear formed People for the American Way in 1981 as a direct response to politically engaged religious fundamentalists. The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State were also in the early forefront in combating Falwell and the Christian right. These groups appointed religious leaders as board members and officers, enabling them to credibly insist that the religious right had no monopoly on religion.
All of these opponents fought valiantly against the fundamentalist agenda, but their approach was missing one critical element. That is, with all of the major opposition to the religious right stressing its own religiosity, religion was of course being given undue exaltation. This meant that America's secular demographic — a sizable and valuable population — was being completely marginalized.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that this played directly into the hand of the Christian right. If the assumption in politics was that religion must be elevated in importance, religious conservatives were guaranteed stature in almost any policy debate, just as nonbelievers were sure to be ignored.
While there is of course nothing wrong with occasional reminders that liberals can be religious, the troubling success of the religious right has caused many to rethink the strategy of overlooking the secular demographic. Indeed, many who seek rational public policy now see their own personal secularity as a quality to be emphasized, not downplayed.
This explains the rapid growth of the modern secular movement, and its potential for success in fighting back against the religious right. The contemporary secular movement is a new form of social-political activism that challenges politically engaged fundamentalists from an entirely new direction. Rather than rushing to show that they can be religious too, today's secular activists assert that they aren't impressed by claims of religiosity. They are good Americans, and they are demanding that public policy be discussed on a level that is rational.
Secular Americans will also point out that there is no justification for prejudice against nonbelievers. Numerous studies show that social ills — violent crime, teen pregnancy and many others — correlate more strongly to religious populations than to secular. This holds true within the United States (comparing religious regions to more secular) and internationally (comparing relatively religious America to more secular societies).
Nonbelievers, of course, have always been part of the American landscape, but only recently have they begun to realize that open identification is a way of making a statement, of standing up against the fundamentalist element in politics. As they become more visible, their hope is that reason will return to the public arena.