Nonbelievers have always been part of the American landscape, but...

Nonbelievers 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 against the fundamentalist element in politics, writes David Niose. Credit: Janet Hamlin

For the first time ever, a majority of Americans would now vote for a qualified presidential candidate who is an atheist. Fifty-four percent said so in a Gallup poll published last month. The poll seems to indicate that today's secular movement, though still flying under the radar of many Americans, is producing results. The United States is witnessing a growing, empowered nonreligious demographic.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, about 15 percent of Americans identify as "none" when asked for religious identity, almost double the number who did so in 1990. Thus, the improved prospects of a theoretical atheist presidential candidate -- up from only 18 percent when the question was first asked in 1958 -- reflect progress for America's seculars.

This newfound tolerance for secularity is reaching the highest levels. President Barack Obama has included nonbelievers several times in his description of American pluralism, including a direct reference in his inaugural address. Secular groups also scored a victory in 2010 when they met with White House officials to discuss policy issues of concern to them -- the first such official recognition of American nonbelievers ever.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the momentum of secularism more than the Secular Student Alliance, the national umbrella organization for college atheists, which has expanded from just a few dozen campus groups in 2007 to more than 350 today. Last year the alliance began venturing into high schools, a move that is sure to further normalize atheism at the grassroots level.

Secular activists like to describe their movement in terms of what it stands for -- reason, critical thinking, science and ethics -- but the movement can perhaps best be understood by what it stands against: the overbearing influence of religious conservatism in America. In fact, the fast growth of the modern secular movement in many ways reflects a new form of opposition to the religious right.

Although the religious right has always had opponents, most of its adversaries haven't been very effective. Since Jerry Falwell's newly formed Moral Majority helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, politically engaged religious fundamentalists have exerted more influence with virtually every election cycle, while few efforts to slow down the juggernaut of the Christian right have been successful.

As a result, open religiosity is now more widespread in politics and government than ever, with candidates for high office often enthusiastically denying evolution, promoting their faith, holding prayer rallies and even claiming that church-state separation is a myth. The Congressional Prayer Caucus, which ambitiously promotes governmental recognition of religiosity, lists 105 members of the House of Representatives, nearly one-fourth of the House's 435 seats, as members. Such open and persistent exaltation of religion in government would have been unthinkable a generation ago.


If we were wondering why opponents of the religious right have been unsuccessful, we should consider their usual approach. In a speech discussing the rise of politically active religious conservatism in 1983, for example, the late Sen. 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." In other words, Kennedy was saying, liberals can be religious too.

This mantra -- that the religious right has no monopoly on religion -- was a consistent theme emphasized by politicians fighting against the Moral Majority and its successors, and can still be heard today.

Advocacy groups opposing the religious right often made similar arguments. Television producer Norman Lear formed People for the American Way in 1981 as a direct response to politically engaged religious fundamentalists. Other groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, were also in the early forefront in combating Falwell and the Christian right. Like Kennedy, these advocacy groups emphasized their religious associations, often by appointing religious leaders as board members and officers. For example, the Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been led by the Rev. Barry Lynn, a minister of the United Church of Christ.

All of these opponents fought valiantly against the fundamentalist agenda, but their approach was missing one critical element, an affirmative effort to validate personal secularity. As the opposition to the religious right consistently stressed its own religiosity, America's secular demographic -- a sizable and valuable population -- was marginalized.

In hindsight, this only served to further strengthen the Christian right. If the assumption in politics was that religion must be exalted, religious conservatives were assured a place of importance in any policy debate, just as nonbelievers were sure to be ignored.


While there is 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. That is changing and the movement is becoming more proactive. For instance, the Secular Coalition for America, an organization that began lobbying in Washington on behalf of atheists about eight years ago, has now launched lobbying efforts at state levels as well.

More than anything else, this awareness of the value of secular identity explains the rapid growth of the modern secular movement.

This new form of activism challenges the religious right from an entirely new direction. Rather than insist that they are religious, too, today's opponents of the Christian right assert that they aren't impressed by any claims of religiosity. They are not religious, but they are indeed Americans.

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, the hope is that reason will return to the public arena.


David Niose, author of “Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans,” is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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