Are We More Secular than the Conservatives Would Have Us Believe?

By David Niose and Herb Silverman

If the religious right is a key element in conservative political strategies, then the antithesis of conservative religion—secularism—is an important tool in resisting the right-wing agenda. To the extent secular Americans are silenced and marginalized, and to the extent the political dialogue necessarily involves large doses of religiosity, progressivism tends to suffer.

That’s one reason many progressives were intrigued in 2005 when the Secular Coalition for America, comprising nine national nontheistic organizations, hired its first lobbyist. Finally, someone in Washington would counter the paradigm, too often accepted by both parties, that morality and religiosity are synonymous.

The Secular Coalition immediately made its voice heard on policy matters, and in 2007 the nation learned about its first openly atheist congressman, Pete Stark of California, who “came out” as a nonbeliever in response to an inquiry by the Secular Coalition.

But despite this progress, the identity of “atheist” still often carries a stigma in America, and not just in politics. Fewer than two percent of the population identify as atheist, according to a 2008 religious identification survey. Other polls have shown that atheists are the most disliked and distrusted minority group in the country. Given that the religious right (and therefore the right in general) benefits by the suppression of secularism, these statistics should be of interest and concern to progressives.

And in fact, despite the bleak prospects for secular Americans suggested by the polls, there is reason to believe that the numbers are misleading. A more thorough analysis demonstrates that Americans are troubled more by the atheist identity than by non-belief itself.

For example, surveys of religious beliefs (as opposed to identity) show that only about 80% of Americans claim to be either “somewhat certain” or “absolutely certain” that a divinity exists. The rest said they are “not sure” (12%) or that they believe a divinity does not exist (9%). In other words, more than one in five Americans is agnostic or an outright nonbeliever, a far cry from the tiny percentage who willingly identify as atheist.

Other statistics are also encouraging for the secular community. One religious identification survey found that over 16% of Americans claim to be “unaffiliated,” and another found similar percentages responding with “no religion.” This equates to about 50 million Americans, a group larger than all American Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians combined.

Surveys of religious practice reveal Americans to have even stronger secular leanings. Fewer than half the American population attends a place of worship on a consistent basis. Commentators often state that America is “a very religious country,” but, if church attendance is any indicator, clearly many Americans don’t take religion all that seriously.

Religious conservatives have argued that many who don’t attend church regularly still believe in God, but that argument does nothing to diminish the obvious apathy towards religion exhibited by the absentees. When asked about religious identity, they may give the religion of their upbringing without believing or even knowing its basic tenets.

Such statistics indicate that religious beliefs, identity, and practices are complex and dynamic, not as easily pegged as many commentators would have us believe. But under any fair analysis, the constituency of the Secular Coalition is clearly much broader than the tiny percentage that openly identifies as atheist. “Secular American” is a label that includes not just outright atheists, but also those with little interest in the God question, as well as many who are vaguely deistic but essentially nonreligious.

Secular Americans, whether identifying as atheist or not, don’t base their actions in this life on how or whether they will be judged in an afterlife. Even progressive religious leaders, such as the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and retired Episcopalian Bishop Shelby Spong, admittedly do not act in this life because of an expectation of post-mortem reward or punishment.

One could argue that secular organizations have remained small and powerless in America because they, like the American media, tend to overemphasize the God question. The word “secular,” however, generally means “not religious” or “without theistic religion.” So when we speak of “secular Americans,” we are referring to those who are personally secular, personally without theistic religion. The Secular Coalition for America even includes two nontheistic religious organizations—the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the American Ethical Union.

Whether secular Americans are more than 50%, 20%, 16% or smaller is open to argument and interpretation, depending on whether the term “not religious” refers to religious practice, belief, or identity. Regardless, it’s worth pointing out that, since the notion of secular government is central to American democracy, all Americans, even the religious, should be secularists in that respect. One can promote a secular government as the best guarantee of freedom for all, but not be personally secular.

The real question is whether secular Americans can be recognized as a meaningful demographic akin to that of conservative Christians. If secular Americans can be drawn together as a unit for social and political purposes, and seen as a legitimate demographic with shared values and expectations, such a block would surely wield significant power.

This will require those within the secular community to tone down relatively petty arguments, almost always having to do with semantics, and unite for the purposes of affirming their legitimacy as a demographic. When those who shun terms like “God” and “spiritual” and “religion” can unite with those who, though essentially secular, don’t think twice about using such terms, the movement may finally find its cohesiveness.

With the formation of the Secular Coalition for America, it’s clear that secular Americans are finding their voice and power as a unit. Often compared to herding cats, uniting secular Americans for common goals will require vigilance, determination, and a significant investment of resources. The end result, however, will be well worth it—an America that respects nontheistic as well as theistic viewpoints, and an America where the influence of conservative religion is mainly limited to within the walls of churches, not the halls of Congress.

David Niose is president of the American Humanist Association, and Herb Silverman is president of the Secular Coalition for America.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2009

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