Covers | May 17, 2010 at 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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