Religion in America — May 17, 2010 11:58 pm

Rise of the Nonbelievers

By and

Future looks bright for those “Good Without God.”

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, the percentage of Americans affiliating with no religion has climbed from 8% in 1990, to 15% to 2008. In part, this growth is no doubt due to increased organizational efforts among the religiously unaffiliated. Although factions like atheists, agnostics, and secularists can sometimes differ in their emphases, they have adopted similar strategies in harnessing the media and introducing their aims to the public. Still, nonbelievers face a major challenge: they are one of the most widely distrusted and politically powerless groups in American society. American nonbelievers have made significant strides over the past decade, but their political coming-of-age still lies in the future.

Irreligion in the United States--Click to Enlarge

Religious skepticism has always been relatively prominent in America, according to Harvard Divinity School professor Diane Moore, because of our constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and religion. Moore explained that in democracies, citizens “have the right to believe what they will, to bring those beliefs into the public sphere.” New platforms of communication have built upon this permissive constitutional culture. Daniel Dennett, a Tufts philosophy professor and a leading so-called “New Atheist,” told the HPR, “It’s no coincidence that this [period of growth for nonbelievers] is also the time period that we have the rise of the Internet and the opening-up of information avenues, this democratization of information.” As Dennett explained, religion has a strong communal component, and nonbelievers, often too scattered to create their own physical community, have used the Internet to build a virtual one.

More recently, a series of accessible, aggressive books denouncing religion as a “delusion” that “poisons everything” has propelled non-belief into the public consciousness like never before. The books of the “New Atheists”—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Dennett—became international bestsellers and prompted a lot of heated rhetoric and a slew of rebuttals from religious apologists.

According to Dennett, the most important effect of this media firestorm is that it “helped to open up the discussion” on the validity of religious belief and its effect on society. Despite criticism of the often-strident rhetoric of these writers, media coverage has probably aided their cause. “It has both created new believers and also encouraged many people who were silent,” Dennett explained. “It has become … common to just candidly say, ‘No, I’m not a believer at all.’” The hope of many nonbelievers is that greater openness and communication will accelerate the growth of the last two decades. “You just can’t isolate [people’s] informational intake anymore,” Dennett said.

In God We Trusted?

Non-belief’s recent growth is all the more remarkable considering the persisting stigmatization of atheism in American society. A 2006 University of Minnesota poll revealed that atheists are the most distrusted minority in the country. About 40 percent of respondents said that atheists “do not agree at all with my vision of American society,” and nearly half would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist. Much of this stigma is left over from the Cold War. Susan Jacoby, in her 2004 best-seller Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, documented the Cold War-era association of atheism with Communism. American society long defined itself in opposition to the atheistic, church-closing Soviet Union.

Anti-Communist religious fervor led to the insertion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and made “in God We Trust” the national motto in 1956. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of nonbelievers, inchoate prejudice against atheists remains widespread. Dennett explained, “There’s still … large pockets of the nation where if you say [you’re an atheist] you’re basically saying you’re an evil and criminal sort of person.” However, he continued optimistically, “that’s changing, and that’s changing rapidly.” Still, the prejudice remains so deep-rooted in American society that a 2007 Gallup poll showed that 53% of Americans would not vote for an atheist for president, more than said the same about any other minority group.

Strategies for a New Era?

To combat stereotypes that portray them as immoral and hedonistic, and to uphold the separation of church and state, non-believing groups have banded together to try to strengthen their collective political voice. The Secular Coalition for America, founded in 2002 as an umbrella group uniting several smaller organizations, seeks to be the nonbeliever’s voice in Washington. “Essentially, the plan really seeks to bring secular Americans to their proper place in American life,” Sean Faircloth, the SCA’s executive director, told the HPR. Faircloth said that the SCA is not single-mindedly anti-religious. “We want to have a whole Chinese menu of issues … so that people can come to us and say ‘this is the issue that makes me feel impassioned.’ But if that doesn’t work, here’s nine more.”

Despite the existence of many other organizations that claim to speak for a broad coalition of nonbelievers, Faircloth insisted that “what is really exciting about Secular Coalition for America is that for the first time … these groups have coalesced in a way that unites them. And the way is public policy.” To that end, the SCA tries to get its membership motivated about concrete issues, not abstract debates. “When it comes down to the issues, like should a [sick] child … die because of the religious view of their parents, immediately everybody unites,” Faircloth said.

On a more localized level, another umbrella group, the United Coalition of Reason, has attempted to unify the non-believing communities of many cities,  encouraging cooperation and coordination between existing organizations. Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, a board member of the United Coalition of Reason, explained, “After we set up BostonCoR, we realized there was a Humanist event going on here nearly every day.” UnitedCoR buys these pre-existing groups ad space, like the “Good without God” billboards. By increasing their visibility, United CoR hopes to accomplish the same goal as the SCA: to leverage the growth of nonbelievers into increased tolerance and acceptance in the public arena.

The Future of Good Without God

Nonbelievers have always been controversial in the United States, and though their numbers are growing, the stigma against them has proven resilient. Yet nonbelievers may also hold some cards in their favor. According to the Pew Forum, 25 percent of 18-to-29 year-olds are nonreligious, and as that cohort becomes more civically active, it could contribute to a stronger secular political movement. Indeed, this younger generation will come into maturity as the Cold War-inspired generation begins to decline. Thus non-belief seems to hold an important demographic advantage. Whether or not the growing unity of non-believing Americans will hold in the years to come remains uncertain, but it is unquestionable that more Americans than ever are making it clear that they can be good without God.

Jimmy Bohnslav ‘13 and Georgia Stasinopoulos ’13 are Contributing Writers.

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  • Linda Lanouette

    Interesting article. You are correct in thinking the unbelievers have the advantage. I have given this point alot of thought. I truly believe parents are not performing their God given initiative in bringing the children up in the admonistion of The Lord. We Christians are COMMANDED to do this. Now America is suffering the consequences.
    If Novembers election doesn’t give us the win we need, our freedoms will be gone for good. God’s judgements will be fixed and unabated.

  • L. S. Lerner

    The map says it all. Compare the percentage of nonbelievers in each state with the well-known level of the state in any of the standard indicators: income, crime rate, divorce rate, education level, health, etc. The only possible conclusion is that nonbelievers contribute to the public welfare far beyond their numbers, As a well-know compendium of superstition puts it, by their fruits shall ye know them.

  • Phil Kyson

    Ignorance is the true evil of this world. Religion can only survive in ignorance. If you have any doubts, study the proven history of any religion. The reason why nonbelievers are on the rise is due to technology and the availability of knowledge. True enlightenment is with facts not fantasies, the truth will set you free. The universe as we now know it is more awesome than any dreamt God of any human mind.

  • jonathan

    Good article, well done. BUT…

    I can’t tell you how much a I DISLIKE the term “non-believer”. As if, just because someone doesn’t believe in a old man in a white beard in the cloud, they don’t believe in anything.


    The very term is reprehensible.

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  • edwords

    I second Jonathan’s comment. We’re NON-
    believers because we don’t accept religious
    superstitions? Hardly.
    Linda L. blames atheism’s growth on parents
    who are too lax in brainwashing their children.
    But adults who have been raised to think and
    question are a democracy’s strength,
    the Linda Lanouettes, its weakness.

  • Anne Onimous

    Where do you get your rights?

    You’re not granted rights from the government…

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    So if you don’t believe in any God or anything just jot down your address and I’ll come take all your stuff off your hands.

    If there’s no God then you have no rights because he isn’t here to grant them to you.

  • Anne Onimous

    I’m not asking people to believe in the same things I believe in, simply asking people to believe in something…

  • http://n/a bob

    It was amusing to note the high degree of religious affiliation in some of the deep south, long known for intolerance and bigotry, red necks, homophobes and misogynists, and high school dropouts.

  • Anonymous

    So what was the cure? What finally killed it? or did we?

    How is it that the most deadly and contagious virus of the mind, one that leaves the infected host a mindless zombie, lost in delusion on pandemic proportions.. How does it manage to regress?

    This is both hopeful and terrorizing.

    A calm before the storm perhaps?

    Is there is one thing i’m sure of… It’s that religion is not going to simply wander off peacefully into the night allowing us to live without it.

    Its lurking.. Building it strength. Repairing to strike.

    Be on guard.

  • Anonymous

    I’m simply asking people not to believe for the sake of believing.. But to believe based upon the evidence that supports facts.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry Anne.. our “Bill of Rights” is not imaginary like your “Gods”.

  • Anonymous

    how about.. “the mentally sound” ? or perhaps.. “The non-infected”? OH OH I know.. “Brothers and Sisters in Logic!”

  • Anonymous

    Now if only we could figure out a way where we could throw our selves on the floor flopping and screaming in tongues and not get tossed into nut houses.
    :( I really wanna flop. But don’t want the dogma that goes with it.

  • WilsonStanford

    “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (from The Bible)

    Only a fool would state a contradiction.


    to Anne Onimous Come on over, religitard. The first of my possessions you will acquire will be a piece of lead into what you are passing off as a brain.

  • Old Yellar

    I doubt that it will be possible to “unify the non-believing communities”: it’s more about independent thought, than believing in a consensus viewpoint. It would be useful however, to at least agree on a pragmatic approach: do prayers for healing actually cure cancer? are Christians “good”, and commit no crimes? Philosophically this can be argued without conclusion, but objectively religion does not produce effective results.

  • John

    i believe what you are referring to is known as islam.. and we are striking. we are at an all out war.. or two..

    not to denigrate moderate muslims, but people in general are waking up to the real harm of religious dogma, and when worlds collide as we are currently seeing, both sides do what they can to level out the other.. it would be better to fight a war of ideas instead of literal wars, but when has that every happened in the history of the world?

    i was raised catholic, but disavowed a few years ago.. and i, and the experts, too, predict that religious influence will continue to decline. did you see the article on here predicting nine countries will lose their religious majority in the next few years? including ireland!! one of the most religious countries that are non-muslim.

    if the world is still around in 80 or 100 years, we will see it much more secularized. i can’t wait.

  • Web Hosting Service

    I think the religion and god all depends on the person who is concerned and I personally do not believe in the God, I mean, I have my own God, which comprises the ones I love. So, this change in the rate of non believers depends on the society and their own feeling.

  • Register domain names

    This is first time i am reading your post, you are right. God is great and he knows everything. And we have to believe on God.

  • Anonymous

    No.. I speak of all religions.. Not just Islam. Christians are responsible for just as many horrors throughout history and into today as any other.

    All of them are equally as insane and foolish.

  • remove MS Removal tool virus

    Nonbelievers have always been controversial in the United States



  • mixy

    You realize that’s from the Declaration of Independence right? A document specifically made as a “fuck off” to Great Britain. The Bill of Rights is were our rights come from.

  • D.M. Maze

    Ms Ominous says “believe in something”. I’m sure everyone does, whether it’s him/herself, or something based on faith. To say everyone needs to believe in something leads me to think she means God and God only. No thanks.

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  • Marker

    i was raised catholic, but disavowed a few years ago.. and i, and the experts, too, predict that religious influence will continue to decline. did you see the article on here predicting nine countries will lose their religious majority in the next few years? including ireland!! one of the most religious countries that are non-muslim.
    Mila Kunis

  • Reason wins out

    Let’s face it, religion (at least the organized, theistic kind) is outdated in modern society. It was created to explain things we couldn’t yet explain, as a way to control the masses. Today it is simply not needed. Some people use faith in some supernatural being as a crutch to give some meaning, purpose, or hope in life (and for an afterlife). This is archaic, weak-minded thinking in my opinion, but I can tolerate it, as long as they dont try to convince me to do the same thing.What isn’t right is when a particular religious group in our officially secular country is trying to impose their own beliefs on the rest of us, for example opposing civil same-sex marriage because homosexuality is “immoral” and trying to teach the archaic christian myth of creationism alongside evolution in the science classes (why not teach hindu and ancient greek creation myths too?). In the US we are guaranteed freedom of and freedom from religion via the first amendment. I don’t care if you practice your religion as long as you don’t force me to abide by it by trying to pass laws that cater to your faith. I think we are slowly learning as a society and I’m glad about it. Based on current trend I think withIn a hundred years time I predict Christian adherents will make up less than half of the population, and only a small percentage will actually be seriously into the religion.

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