FLORIDA, August 3, 2012 — Like it or not, things are changing across the country, and doing so at warp speed.
Perhaps the starkest of all testaments to this is America’s diminishing religious identity and participation level. Over the last several years, a great many churches have been bleeding membership. In more extreme — though increasingly frequent — cases, entire congregations find themselves left with little choice other than to close.
All the while, a growing number describe themselves as being, more or less, nonbelievers. This is not necessarily an outright endorsement of atheism, mind you. Agnostics, freethinkers, non-theists, and many more are finding a welcome home in our country’s secular movement.
David Niose recently wrote a book about the subject, titled Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans. It has already become a bestseller in three Amazon.com categories, and seems likely to gain attention during the times ahead. In a detailed discussion with me, the American Humanist Association president painted a vivid picture of what life is like for our nation’s growing ranks of nonbelievers.
Joseph F. Cotto: Many people, especially in politics, claim that America is a “Christian nation”. Very often, this idea is supported by the claim that our Founding Fathers drafted and ratified the Constitution on theological grounds. What is your opinion on this subject?
David Niose: This claim is refuted by the Constitution itself, the text of which is wholly secular. There is nothing theological about it. The original Constitution made only one reference to religion, and it was a negative, stating that no religious test shall be required to hold public office. The Bill of Rights, which of course added the First Amendment and its religion language to the Constitution, similarly makes no theological assertions. The
Constitution vests ultimate authority in “We the People,” not in any divinity or church.
Cotto: While the majority of Americans identify with Christianity in one form or another, church attendance has decreased rapidly over the last several years. Meanwhile, the number of those describing themselves as secular has skyrocketed. Why do you think that such a sea change is taking place?
Niose: A number of factors, too many to explain fully here. I would say one key factor in causing people to move away from religion, however, is the pervasive influence of religious fundamentalism in public life. The religious right seems to get more visible and more bold in its agenda with virtually every election cycle, and it has now reached the point that many
people simply feel that they want nothing whatsoever to do with organized religion. The Catholic sex scandal is surely another factor in decreased church attendance.
Beyond all those things, however, I think many people simply see ancient theology as having little relevance in the modern world.
Cotto: Despite the fact that American secularism is on an upswing, it must be noted that fundamentalist Christianity has seen a remarkable rise in popularity. All the while, mainline Protestant churches are in serious decline. What do you suppose might account for this trend?
Niose: The attraction of fundamentalism is that it provides firm answers that validate the fear of modernity that many people feel. The attraction of secularity is that it offers fulfillment while being grounded in reality, but it does so by making a complete break with most aspects of traditional theology.
Keeping this in mind, we can see that mainline churches are often seen as theological and philosophical vanilla, completely lacking in boldness. They don’t reject modernity the way fundamentalist churches do, but they don’t reject ancient theology the way a secular worldview does. They try to have it both ways, and I think many people see that as unfulfilling and lacking credibility.
Cotto: You have written in the past that America’s secular coalition consists of far more than atheists and agnostics. What other groups actively participate?
Niose: The key is understanding the difference between religious identity and religious belief. Only about two percent of Americans actually identify as atheist or agnostic, but a much greater percentage than that - arguably about one in five - do not actually affirm a god-belief. Many of these nonbelievers surely avoid the atheist label because there is a stigma attached to it, though thankfully that stigma seems to be slowly diminishing.
Religious categorization is a difficult and imperfect exercise, for numerous reasons. Many people are apathetic and ambivalent about religion, while many others will identify with the religion of their upbringing even though they reject its core beliefs. So besides self-identified atheists and agnostics, there are many people connected to the movement who identify in other ways - humanist, nonreligious, secular, freethinker, etc. - and they are part of the broad coalition.
Cotto: One of your highest priorities as president of the American Humanist Association has been to stand up for the rights of secular individuals. Currently, how do you believe that the rights of secular Americans are infringed upon?
Niose: In many ways. Every church-state dispute, for example, is a matter that directly or indirectly involves the rights of seculars. Seculars are an invisible minority in America, so much so that the government and media rarely think about them or consider their interests when discussing policy.
About one-quarter of the House of Representatives belongs to the Congressional Prayer Caucus, an entity that is ardently discriminatory toward secular individuals, constantly proposing ways to exalt religion - usually a thinly guised Christianity - in public life. CPC members have proposed declaring a “Year of the Bible,” for example, and they have proposed - in the midst of tight budgets - erecting “In God We Trust” signs in all public buildings, including classrooms.
Little thought is given to what the taxpaying atheist or agnostic family might think of sending their child to school each day to face such overt religiosity. It is no secret that many fundamentalists feel that church-state separation is a myth, and if this view ever prevails it will be America’s seculars who will be most under threat. And even beyond church-state separation, we see governmental privileging of religion in many areas, from “conscience clause” exemptions for health care providers to the rewriting of history and science text books.
Many fundamentalists see public education as an evil that must be dismantled, so it’s clear that the rights of seculars, as well as other rational Americans, are under attack. We could go further and look at religious favoritism in the military, exclusion of atheists from the Boy Scouts, and the general tendency to see believers as more patriotic. Unfair prejudice against nonbelievers is far too common.
Cotto: Whether they should be rooted in theism or politics, various ideologies often attract droves of willing participants searching for a universal truth of some kind. In the long run, what do you think that this does to any given society?
Niose: Claims of universal truth or “Absolute Truth” tend to be dangerous. The pragmatic, naturalistic approach of humanism helps avoid such traps.
Cotto: Across the world, untold billions rely on faith just to get them through the day. Said faith might be in the divine, another person, or a social construct. What are your opinions about the concept of faith in general?
Niose: It depends how one defines it. If faith is defined in a serious philosophical or theological context as belief in something without evidence, then I find it to be an unsatisfactory foundation for a worldview. However, if it is defined as mere optimism, or perhaps a deep loyalty to another person, then I don’t find it so problematic.
The word tends to be seen positively by the average person, so I think it can be a mistake to reject it outright on purely technical, philosophical grounds. Some quasi-religious words have a common usage that is not so objectionable. When I hear Billy Joel sing, “Keeping the Faith,” I don’t change the station.
Cotto: Fifty years from now, what do you believe that the American religious landscape will look like?
Niose: I think it’s senseless to make predictions. I can only hope that open secularity becomes more prevalent and more accepted.
Cotto: We are gearing up for yet another presidential election. During this year’s Republican primaries, many marginal candidates found popular favor because of their dogmatic adherence to theo-conservative values. When it comes to politics, do you find that the traditional left-right spectrum is a valid way of approaching secular issues?
Niose: Not really. Seculars can be found across the political spectrum, though the center of gravity is probably on the progressive side. It’s no secret that the GOP in many ways has been overtaken by the religious right in recent decades, but the exaltation of religion and marginalization of seculars occurs on the Democratic side as well, so it would be a mistake to suggest that the secular movement as a whole has a “side” that it favors.
Despite the fundamentalist Christian wing of the GOP, believe it or not there are still atheist Republicans out there. We still have only one open atheist in Congress, and we would like to see more come out, whether from the left or right.
Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering exactly how it was that you came to be such an outspoken advocate for secular Americans. Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Niose: I am old enough to remember when the Moral Majority first came on the scene, when it helped elect Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. At the time I thought the concept of politically mobilized fundamentalist Christianity would be a passing phase, surely not something that would last very long.
Well, obviously I was wrong. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s I watched as the religious right became stronger and stronger. Finally, when George W. Bush got the presidency in 2000, it occurred to me that the battle against the religious right was being lost. It seemed that a new strategy was needed. One thing I noticed was that the religious right was not succeeding by winning debates with the secular community, but by creating an atmosphere where the secular community was completely marginalized and outside the scope of mainstream discussion.
In 2004 I decided to get involved in secular activism, my main goal being to help put the secular movement on a track that would emphasize the legitimacy of seculars as a
demographic that should be given a place at the table in the American public dialogue, a segment of society that should not be overlooked and dismissed as irrelevant.
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