Can Atheists Become a Political Force in Tennessee?

Bob Smietana‘s article in today’s edition of The Tennessean tackles two big issues for atheism-at-large: Is Secular Humanism a religion? And can atheists achieve any type of political power?

(My answers: No… and not anytime soon, but we have to try.)

The article comes a week after the Secular Coalition for America held a conference call for anyone in Tennessee who might want to start a statewide chapter:

Nick Curry, 24, of Nashville, who calls himself a secular humanist, hopes to join the local Secular Coalition chapter. He grew up Lutheran in Franklin but dropped out as a teenager because he stopped believing what his church taught about God.

Curry said he’s not hostile to people who believe in God. But he’s concerned about politicians who want to bring their religious beliefs into politics and about religious groups that get money from the state.

“Secular humanists don’t care what you believe,” he said. “That’s on you. But don’t bring that into public policy.”

Robert B. Talisse, professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt and author of “Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief,” said nonbelievers need a better public profile.

He said they are still seen as suspect by the public in general. Even simple things, like the Pledge of Allegiance, show atheists as outsiders.

“If you are somebody who doesn’t believe in God and who doesn’t believe that a nation can be under God — then you can’t pledge allegiance to your country,” he said.

He’s right, of course. That’s the perception people have of us, and we have to work hard to correct that. One way to do that is by getting actively involved in politics, proving to people that you don’t need God to be patriotic.

Even if we did that, though, I’m not sure it’ll be enough. As I mention in the piece, it’s not like atheists are automatically going to vote for an atheist candidate. Hell, we can’t even say we’ll vote for the Democrat. That’s the downside to being a collection of freethinkers — it’s hard to get politicians to listen to us when we can’t promise them we’ll vote as a bloc to get them re-elected.

(image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://twitter.com/HealthyHumanist The Healthy Humanist

    No, but you can swear to uphold and protect The Constitution.  We need to hit the bible belt with its kryptonite.  Atheist veterans.

  • Gunstargreen

    The fact that we don’t and never will vote as a bloc is the main reason politicians pretend we don’t exist for the most part.

  • Kurt Helf

    Hemant, Robert Talisse is *not* right about the Pledge.  Recall that “Under god” was not part of the original POA and was added to it during the Red Scare of the mid-’50s.

  • dearestlouise

    No, we will not be establishing any sort of real political power here especially in the near future. We are 4th in the nation in the amount of people (84%) who believe, with absolute certainty, there is a God. We also rank 5th in terms of importance with 72% indicating  religion is very important in their lives. 
    http://www.pewforum.org/How-Religious-Is-Your-State-.aspx

    I’ve lived here my entire life. Religion is too ingrained and most people I encounter have no problem with Christianity guiding our laws. In the Republican primary Rick Santorum, who didn’t believe in the absolute separation of church and state, won with over 37% of the votes. 

    Fundamentalists have started taking over and we are seeing legislation like the Monkey Bill, the Don’t Say Gay Bill, the Gateway Sexual Activity Bill, etc introduced. They are also upset and currently attacking the Governor (Republican) for employing homosexuals, a Muslim woman, and Democrats.
    http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2012/jul/17/gop-groups-blast-haslam-for-retaining-democrats/ 

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t try and I’ll be supporting the TN chapter of the SCA, but change is going to be the slowest of the slow here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001627228091 Alexander Ryan

    I really wouldn’t expect Atheists to be a notable political force until maybe 20+ years from now. Mind you when we’ve still got people in this country and others so quick to toss Atheists down in the hole as one of the, if not the most distrusted groups in America, I don’t see us getting explicitly far in anyone’s political agenda for some time.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I think we always need to make the point of separating atheism, secular humanism, and anti-religion. It is important to emphasize that while all atheists lack a belief in a god or gods, not all atheists are secular humanists, and not all are anti-religion. (And it is erroneously stated in the article that secular humanists don’t care what other people believe- that is certainly not universally true).

  • advancedatheist

    Eh, this shows the problem with taking atheism as a political issue, when it really doesn’t have that high a priority among conservative politicians’ agendas. No conservative politician I know of wants to punish atheists by threatening to take our guns away from us, for example, and they offer us the same economic program that they offer to everyone else; so do these politicians really consider us  all that dangerous and in need of the kinds of persecution which matter practically?

    Instead of viewing the Christian Right as an ideological problem, to me it makes more sense to view it a party in the biology-based conflict between male and female reproductive strategies, and we can see this in how conservative politicians want to re-regulate women’s sexuality. Progressives want to empower women’s hypergamy at the expense of beta males; while conservatives, especially religious ones, want to defend the interests of marriage-minded beta males who feel disadvantaged in the current setup because they know that when women can become promiscuous, make babies without getting married to the biological fathers, and tap into welfare benefits paid for unwillingly by productive beta males’ taxes, that spoils these women forever as potential wives for these mid-status men. 

  • Onamission5

    I live just over the border from TN, and I can’t tell you how many TN born or raised progressives I have spoken with who relocated here from their home state just to get their kids away from the single minded, fundamentalist reach. It’s not that the entirety of NC is sweetness and light, hello amendment 1, but at least one can find large non-fundie enclaves here, where school districts work hard to remain secular and where activism in the community involves more than holding school revivals and denying evolution. Yes we have that here too, but in NC, they feel like they have a fighting chance. I think that speaks volumes for the political climate on the other side of the mountains seeing the fights that NC has been involved with recently.

    So relocation of progressive minded folks to NC from TN, good for NC. Not so good for them. Maybe though if enough progressives come west, and NC can successfully move forward, some of that will rub off on our neighbors. One can hope.

    • dearestlouise

      Interesting to know that other Tennesseans are doing that.  I’ve thought about doing exactly that, myself. Asheville is just about 3 hours from me and the Triangle, while further, seems interesting too. 

      • Onamission5

        I’ve met a good handful of TN families since relocating here myself some seven years ago, and most of them say similar things. They needed a more supportive environment for their children. Better schools. Less lip service to diversity in the community and more actual work toward improvement, where representative diversity doesn’t mean “more different kinds of christians.”

        Asheville isn’t perfect. We’ve got our pet fundies with their ultra-religious agendas just like every other southern town. I will say this, though, the sense of community pride here is strong, community involvement improving, and the secular movement– religious and atheist alike– actually has legs. I have friends who say very nice things about the Triangle, too, I just can’t handle the summers. 

  • Bill Haines

    I find the nine points at the bottom of this article helpful:  

    http://atheism.about.com/od/religiondefinition/a/definition.htm 
    since even religions like Jainism and Buddhism meet at least a majority of five while philosophies of life like Ethical Culture or Secular Humanism meet at most a minority of four, but also think it’s important to point out that for some intents and purposes all of these should be treated in the same manner:  
    http://www.militaryatheists.org/chaplain.html#position 

    And I’d say we’re already achieving political power. ;)

  • L.Long

    You know we are starting to be a power because we are being blasted by the fundies in every way they can.  They are fighting hard to push science, evilution, and any sort of humanism out of the schools. 
    BUT we can forget about them keeping their religious BS out of politics.  That will never happen as they are mandated by their fictitious sky-pycho to push it onto everyone.
    But I agree that we have to keep the pressure up and continue the fight.  Enough minor victories will give up the win someday.

  • http://richarddawkins.net PERSON

    “it’s hard to get politicians to listen to us when we can’t promise them we’ll vote as a bloc to get them re-elected”
    Actually, counterintuitively, I think the opposite can be true. When they are shown to exist by polling, political operatives spend a lot of time courting independents, i.e. people who might be persuaded, rather than people who are already going to vote for their party/candidate or who will never vote for them. It’s also important to have a motivated base, so they’ll be enthusiastic (that’s partly why Romney keeps saying weird things that are totally contradictory to his previous positions). That’s important for getting people to vote. But a rich vein of independents, particularly ones who can argue persuasively and are trusted to be knowledgeable, rational, impartial/objective and informed, would seem like something campaigns could sensibly see as worth spending resources on. The trick is getting meaningful policy concessions in return.


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