This is a guest post by August Brunsman. He is the Executive Director of the Secular Student Alliance.
Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans by David Niose sets about to accomplish four main goals: 1) define the existence of a demographic category of “Secular Americans,” 2) establish that the rise of the Religious Right (and its progenitors) played a critical role in the decline of American society since the late 1950s, 3) establish that attempts to embrace religion by the political left have been counterproductive, and 4) demonstrate that the best hope we have against this damage is for “Secular Americans” to rise as an influential force in American society.
Our troubles begin as the Cold War gets underway. Three symbolic changes from 1952 through 1956 set the stage: the creation of the National Day of Prayer (1952), the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance (1954), and “In God We Trust” becoming our official motto (1956). These were all part of a broader attempt to differentiate ourselves from “godless Communists.” Today these are often dismissed as “merely symbolic” issues, but Niose argues that together they formed a ripe medium that allowed ancient modes of thinking to occupy power at the center of the most powerful country that has ever existed.
Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (founded 1961) and Jerry Falwell Ministries (founded 1956) grew strong in this rich soil over the next several decades and radically altered how religion interacted with politics in the United States. To illustrate the change, Niose contrasts statements from John F. Kennedy and Mitt Romney about the separation of church and state as both men vied to become President. Americans of 1961 looked at Kennedy’s Catholicism with a similar skepticism that they viewed Romney’s Mormonism over the past decade. In 1961 Kennedy said “I believe in an American where the separation of church and state is absolute.” By contrast, in 2008, Romney said that “Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift from God.”
Whereas the shape of American politics in the 1960’s was such that a minority religion candidate was benefited by celebrating the secular common ground of making governmental choices that were fair to all citizens regardless of their religious views, by 2008 the way to overcome being perceived as a religious outsider was to trumpet devotion to monotheism writ large.
Niose further argues that the consequences of the political ascension of a movement dedicated to an ancient and dogmatic worldview have been disastrous. After World War II, we joined the rest of the industrialized world in making our environment cleaner, our citizenry better educated, our social safety net stronger and generally improving our society. However, as the Religious Right came into more and more power, we lost more and more ground to the rest of the world. Indeed, we do not lead the world in education, low teen pregnancy, low divorce rates, or low crime rates. We can boast the largest prison population and the largest military. Niose cites several studies that show an inverse relationship between a country’s religiosity and the quality of life of its citizenry.
The reaction of the left to the rise of the Religious Right was to try to appear more pious. Rather than proudly calling out nonsense as nonsense and championing secular values as the common values by which can come together and live better lives, from the 1970’s into the 2000’s the left attempted to cast itself as “just as religious” as the right. This seems to have done very little to reduce the power of the Religious Right’s arguments. Rather, it sapped power from the sphere of secular debate and pushed arbitrarily claimed religious authority in the center of public discourse.
As the left unwittingly catalyzed the right’s attempt to push evidence and reason out of public debate, environmental and safety protections have fallen, and prison and military spending have skyrocketed. Indeed, the only major progressive victory in the last few decades has been that of the Gay rights agenda. Niose argues that the core of their success has been that they formed an identity movement. Certainly some on the left have claimed that God loves gays. Also, the obviousness of the intellectual case for queer equality has been made by many straight people. However, tons of people getting to know so many of their fellow citizens as openly queer seems to have done the heavy lifting.
Niose sees the rise of “Secular Americans” as a well-known demographic category as the best hope to bring reason and evidence back to be celebrated as the cornerstones of civilization that they are. The argument seems to rest on the notion that Americans are still overwhelmingly invested in being decent to the people they personally know. Knowing openly queer folks has caused Americans to be much more supportive of LGBT equality in the law. Hopefully knowing openly secular folks will cause Americans to engage with and be respectful of this group of fellow citizens. Maybe mainstream American will learn that it must use reason and evidence instead of appealing to faith because that’s how to connect with secular Americans. Personally, I’d rather people embraced reason and evidence because they work, but if politeness can act as an incentive, I can live with that.
If nothing else, the case that being out as secular Americans is the most critical thing we can do to promote our own acceptance is a clear lesson of the LGBT movement’s success. It is also most central take home point from Nonbeliever Nation.
Whereas the works of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett and so many after them spoke so powerfully to individuals about why religion is no good for them personally, Nonbeliever Nation speaks to how much damage religion has done to society and what the secular movement can do to fix it. Niose has done the secular movement a wonderful service by laying out, in a format both detailed and accessible, how the secular movement, as a movement, has the power to steer political discourse back towards evidence and reason.