Why Politicians Should Pay Attention to the Non-Religious

Given that the percentage of Secular Americans is on the rise and higher than ever before, politicians are wasting a unique opportunity by ignoring us.

As a community, We don’t ask for all that much. Basically, we want our politicians (no matter the party) to support church/state separation. That means having a rational basis for policy decisions rather than religious-based ones. That means not using your political office as a means to spread your faith. That means paying attention to non-religious communities and our concerns as much as you pay attention to religious ones.

Kelly Damerow of the Secular Coalition for America gets even more specific with her list of five reasons politicians should pay attention to us. She goes more in depth, but here are her bulletpoints:

  1. We’re a growing constituency.
  2. The youth vote is important, and more young people are non-religious than ever before
  3. Many of us are Independents and we can be persuaded.
  4. We’re ahead of the curve when it comes to big issues like same-sex marriage, so following our cues could help candidates get on the right side of history.
  5. There are many atheists who would identify as Republicans but for the fact that the GOP doesn’t consider them “True Americans.” The GOP could help themselves by being more inclusive.

Of that list, #1 is the most important.

Politicians want votes. We’ve got the numbers. Do the math.

We don’t care if the candidates are atheists or not. We just ask that they keep their religious beliefs to themselves and not let it affect public policy (hello, Joe Biden!) and not treat religious Americans as if they’re somehow better people or better patriots than the rest of us.

But what about the argument that we’re mostly liberal, anyway, so the Democrats already have us in their pockets? Why should politicians pay attention to us when they already have our votes? That makes as much sense as President Obama spending October campaigning in Illinois — it’s unnecessary and a waste of time.

That’s the wrong way to think about it.

The danger isn’t that the Nones are all-of-a-sudden going to vote for the other party. The danger is that, if Democrats ignore us long enough, we may not vote at all.

Apathy is just as dangerous to Democrats as a strong opposition.

Even if we’re not as organized as the Religious Right used to be, it really shouldn’t be that hard to win our support. Right now, though, the candidates aren’t even trying.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Levon Mkrtchyan

    I think the unfortunate political reality is that trying to win the support of the Nones would hurt a candidate’s chances with other constituents.  Even if it’s simply saying “I believe that my governing should be guided by reason and not by my faith,” it would hurt the politician’s chances.

    Considering how strongly want Romney to lose, I be upset if Obama tried to court us Nones and lost the election because of it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-A-Anderson/100000016895400 John A. Anderson

    The problem is that any appeal to us will repel the religious, who outnumber us. Don’t expect any candidate to say anything nice about atheists.

    • http://www.atheistrev.com/ vjack

      A candidate who made it clear that he or she was a strong supporter of church-state separation and was committed to keeping his or her personal delusions out of the decision-making process would be wonderful. It wouldn’t be necessary for such a candidate to say nice things about atheists.

      • Rory

         And that would still be toxic to the kind of person who goes around saying that America is a Christian nation. I don’t know how many voters would be turned off by a candidate declaring (and acting in such a way that demonstrates) strong separation and church of state, but it might well be larger than the number of voting Nones.

        • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

          Because the “nones” are the only supporters of church and state seperation?

          • Rory

             No, they’re not, and I shouldn’t have implied that. But most of those who are against separation have a particular religious belief which they’d like to see endorsed–in most parts of the US this probably means evangelical Christians. Folks of that persuasion are unlikely to appreciate a politician who firmly and openly advocates separation regardless of what his rationale is.

      • http://www.facebook.com/abb3w Arthur Byrne

        I suspect the best approach for candidates would be to invoke the memory of Madison — who was clearly religious himself, but utterly adamant against the establishment of any one creed over another,

    • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

      Good points, John.
      But even though the religious outnumber us, there are MANY religious who do not want government officials imposing religion into government.

      And MANY “religious” do not attend church regularly, and are only nominally ‘religious’.

      Lastly, we don’t need them to say anything nice about atheists (but that would be good!), but instead they just need to NOT saying anything dismissive about us, and not legislate anything discriminatory against us.

  • Roentgenster

    Socially liberal, perhaps.  

    I think Republicans would find a lot of us who would make common cause with them over skepticism towards the role of government if they’d just lay off the need to control the personal lives and thoughts of all Americans.

  • http://www.facebook.com/billhaines.net Bill Haines

    “The danger is that, if Democrats ignore us long enough, we may not vote at all. ”

    N0pe.  Nearly all of us value 
    reason  and education – so the vast majority know we should vote and actually will do so, and also know better than to vote for anyone in the current incarnation of the Republican Party at the federal level.  I’m not voting for Obama — I’m voting against Romney.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/A37GL7VKR3W6ACSIZPH7EID3LI rlrose63

      My husband has unregistered and will not be voting for exactly the reason Hemant states.  He’s a brilliant man, but the promises never materialize.  Ever.  Voting for either major party is essentially voting for the same thing.  Maybe not in terms for their platform or ideas, but certainly in the way they govern.  The Democrats will continue to try to compromise and play fair, and the Republicans will continue to ignore fair play and do whatever the heck they want to do.  And if they don’t get what they want, they have a tantrum and threaten to hold their breath until they turn blue, so the Dems roll over.  Again.

      I’m as tired of it as my husband, but I refuse to stop voting.  It’s my right and my privilege to vote, even if I will continue to be disappointed.

      And before there are a ton of replies saying we should vote for some Green Party, Independent, or Libertarian candidate or write someone in… NO.  The Republicans will be out there voting the party line in masses.  If we split the Dem vote, we will LOSE and lose hard.  I hate the 2-party system we have right now, but this year is not the year to test the waters of adding a third party.

      I am with you, Bill… I’m voting against Romney by voting for Obama.  He has let me down but he’s not Romney.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    “We just ask that they keep their religious beliefs to themselves and not let it affect public policy….”

    Actually, I don’t ask that they keep their religious beliefs to themselves. They are (and should be) free to express their religious beliefs, as long as it is not while they are on government time (e.g. at a government meeting) and not while acting in their capacity as a government official (e.g. during a press conference about your new government policies is NOT the time to say it’s based on Jesus).

    But if a politician has an interview about their personal life for People magazine, or is publishing a book about growing up poor or whatever, let them share away about Jesus in their life or whatever.

    Thus, I say let them express their beliefs, just doing so when they are NOT on government time and NOT affecting government policies.

  • de

    I once saw an interview with Bush’s former press secretary Ari Fleisher who was asked how the GOP would court the increasingly secular youth vote.  He said it was sad the youth were losing their faith, and he was optimistic they would see the error of their ways

  • mobathome

    Your post implicitly assumes there are only three choices for voting: Republican, Democrat, or not at all(*).  And while America may appear in practice to be a two-party state, it isn’t.  There are other choices in the political landscape, some that act as many secularists wish Democratic or Republican politicians would.  To vote for them expresses your political opinion.  And when enough people vote for one of these other choices, even when that choice may not have enough support to have a chance to win, those politicians who have enough support will notice and change their behavior try to get your support so they can actually win.

    (*) Would any non-believer join the “Nones for Neither” party?

    • C Peterson

      Nice sentiment, but the reality is that there are only two choices, and America is a two-party state. The influence of third parties, as they come and go, is nearly zero (except to occasionally throw an election by dividing votes). The sort of social upheaval that allowed the Republican party to become the new second party 150 years ago appears nowhere on the horizon.

      If you seek political change today, you’ll do it by persuading the Democrats or the Republicans to change, or you won’t do it at all. Voting for any other party may make you feel good, but won’t do much else.

      • Chris Lam

        I wonder how much representation the other parties would get if the voting system were changed to allow an order of preference to be specified. While the majority of votes would still go to the big two, I believe a more diverse spectrum of political representation would be evident.

        • Foster

          So three votes go to your top choice, two to your second, and one to your third?  How would that work exactly?

          • http://twitter.com/leinappropriate Thomas Hansen

             Exactly like you just said, idiot.

          • amycas

             It could be a ranking system such that they have in Australia.

      • 3lemenope

        The influence of third parties on US politics is historically profound. The preeminent example in American history is the GOP itself, which at one point was a third party in every sense of the word and rose to prominence after displacing the Whigs. Probably more important for our purposes, though, would be the Populist and Socialist parties from 1880-1920 or so. Neither party was directly successful at getting national offices elected, and yet through widespread public support pretty much every single one of their policy priorities made it into the two major party platforms, many of which–direct election of senators, women’s right to vote, Social Security, looser currency, state referenda, regulations of capitalism, and farming subsidies–still exist in large part today. They lost at being parties, but won in every way that matters.

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    Votes are certainly important and Hemant is exactly right about that.
    But support is also important and if the Democrats keep pushing faith
    and ignoring us, we may not support them the way we had in the past even
    if we still decide to vote for them. That means we won’t feel fired up
    to donate money, put out lawn signs and bumper stickers, and we will be
    less likely to talk about the candidate to our friends and neighbors.
    Those add up to lost votes too. So while I’m politically active and will
    vote on election day, I am less likely to give other support to the
    Democratic Party because they don’t seem to be supporting the issues I
    care about and in some ways have said and done things that go against my
    secular values. 

  • John of Indiana

    Why do we keep counting the merely non-churched amongst non-believers? How many of these “no preference” people who don’t think much about religion would answer “Uh, I GUESS so…” if asked “Is there a God?”

    And don’t get me started on the “Spiritual but not Religious” clowns.

    I think real, “There are NO gawds” Atheists are still less than 5% of the population.

  • C Peterson

    We don’t care if the candidates are atheists or not. We just ask that
    they keep their religious beliefs to themselves and not let it affect
    public policy…

    Of course, not allowing their religious beliefs to affect public policy is a given. But I certainly do care about a candidate’s religious views. I certainly do care whether they are atheists or not, and other factors being equal, will always vote for an atheist over the alternative.

    • nadrewod

       Another reason to care about a candidate’s religion is because some of them “can’t think of a way to separate their public life from their private life and their religion”, and openly say that when questioned.

  • Randy

    It’s no surprise I don’t agree.  While it would be great for politicians to address us, this is something WE have to make attractive to them.  It’s not on them to just do it, and they won’t.

    Why Politicians Should NOT Pay Attention to the Non-Religious

    1.  While the “Nones” are growing, it’s not clear we as a group have much in common that relates to this status.  Indeed, even the explicitly atheist among us cannot agree on a whole lot, and although I wish it were otherwise, this particular subgroup’s size might be overstated.  At best, “fuzzy”.
    2.  There are more effective ways to earn the youth vote, without also alienating the religious vote, which includes religious youth, but also religious seniors who vote very effectively.
    3. Independents are blown by the wind.  They’re persuaded (or not) by anything, not just religion.  You might as well have good hair, as a good argument, to win their vote.  Some will appreciate a secular approach, and as many will condemn it.
    4. Being “ahead of the curve” on other issues eliminates the need to address atheism directly.  Candidates couldn’t care less about history, except as how that potential future history can win them cash and votes today.  Ironically, this is probably most true for candidates who don’t believe in an afterlife.
    5. While you’re right about the GOP, frankly I prefer it the way it is today, tied to Christianity, which is shrinking.  Helping this party survive (esp. in light of #4) is not smart.  A shrinking GOP leaves room for a new party, on the right, but also on the left.

    And yes, I do care if a politician is atheist.  If the choice is between a religious bigot, or atheist bigot, I’ll pick the religious one.  They can have the bigotry on their team.  I don’t want it on mine (I’m talking to you, Julia Gillard).  I also care that someone who has openly lived atheism is part of the law-making process.  When religious bigots attack us in the lawmaking process, someone must be at the table personally pushing back.  When a lawmaker promotes superstition as a public good, someone must be pushing back.  This is not something we can put on religious humanists or our supposed allies like Obama, because they backslide on our rights, and truly do not believe disbelief can even be a public good.  It must be done ourselves, in person.

    When a substantial subset of us organize politically, and demonstrate that we can effect election results at least as much as LGBT groups by voting as a group, even if nobody asks for our vote at all, then people will pay attention.  But the first step will have to be ours.  Nobody is going to come looking for us until we intend to have an effect on elections, and win them for whomever we decide to back.


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