Nonbeliever Nation

The most influential political movement for my generation has to be the Religious Right. While I’m sure its members have never felt that they’ve ever completely succeeded, they’ve done more to change politics in America than any other group. They’ve redefined public religion: our most prominent Christians used to include liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick and Henry Ward Beecher, now their ranks are almost completely conservative. They’ve redefined politics, largely by elevating the role of religious identity. Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon, and Barack Obama, who was raised in a nonreligious home, both try to sound like a conventional Christians when behind the podium.

But every successful political movement selects for its own defeat, since it inevitable creates a backlash. Yet while there have been several attempts to organize a Religious Left, none have been successful enough to make a dent. Could a non-religious left be the answer?

That’s the hope expressed in David Niose’s new book Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of the Secular Americans. Niose does some fiddling with definitions and back of the envelope calculations and decides that 15% of Americans are secular. That’s a grab-bag of atheists, agnostics, cultural Catholics, humanistic Jews, seekers, post-modern believers and other people who don’t consider themselves conventionally religious.

While still a minority, that’s a substantial number. Particularly since, as Niose points out, it consistently votes more progressively than other groups. But is this really the beginning of a “post-theological” era, as he suggests?

Niose gives a brisk history of America’s secular tradition and the rise of the Religious Right. This does what it needs to, but it won’t be any news to readers in the atheosphere. Niose easily debunks the idea that religious belief leads to personal morality and social stability. Again not new information for this audience, but necessary since this has been the most popular argument in favor of public religion.

The second half of the book is more useful. He gives a history of some of the profusion of secular groups that have arisen, like the Secular Coalition of America and the American Humanist Association. He devotes a separate chapter to the rise of student groups, calling the a “Reason for Hope and a Hope for Reason.” This is a useful service for those of us who have lived through the rise of these groups and can no longer remember what all those blasted acronyms stand for.

I suspect that these are the issues that are going to be most interesting to future historians of American politics. The Religious Right owes much of its success to networks of small groups that plowed the field during the mid-20th century. And while we cannot and start our own religious schools and colleges, which were another boon to the Religious Right, our student groups may offer some of the same appeal. I think Niose’s instincts here are dead on, and I hope that he will continues to watch and comment on these groups.

Niose gives a rundown on some of the culture war issues that secular group have been fighting, then lays out a some suggestions for future areas of progressive politics that secularism will play a part in. I like that his focus on education, feminism (something of a hot button issue there) and race. However, it’s a bit harder to see how we can go from banging the drum for a group described as “nonreligious” and then claim that we’ll reduce the tribalism in American politics.

All told, the book is not quite a history, nor a political manifesto or a cultural analysis. It’s a mingling of all three: enough of a history to know where we’ve been, enough analysis to know who we are, and enough manifesto to give us an idea of where we’re headed.

  • L.Long

    Since the principles of the ReligiousRight are centered on HATE (kill gays), CONTROL of others (abortion), and I’m being persecuted (atheists go away) it is easy for them to collect into a power front because all that emotion feeds on itself and the hate and bigotry is easy to channel (no thinking needed). Islam is another excellent example, as is the right jews. All the emotion is easy to drive forward where secularism-Atheism-Humanism requires thinking which for the RR is an impossible activity because it requires intellect.
    Any idiot 5yr old can find and throw a stone thru a window, it takes intelligent ADULT activity to make a window.

    • JohnMWhite

      I find it sad that essentially those are the principles of the religious right. They are not exerting anything like the energy they do on homophobia and misogyny on any kind of social justice. Jesus was no saint, frankly, but most Christians have a construction of him in their head that was very concerned with healing the sick and feeding the poor and standing up to political corruption, religious hypocrisy and excessive greed. But the Christian community seems to only really be motivated to get off their butts if they get to eat chicken and display their hatred of homosexuals at the same time. They sure aren’t protesting corporations getting better treatment than people, or religious leaders facilitating the rape and molestation of thousands of children.

  • vasaroti

    Sounds like a decent book; I hope the author does well and attracts more people to his organization. A quick search on “David Niose interview” shows that he hasn’t made it to TV yet, apart from AskAnAtheist.

    No, we don’t need our own network of schools, though I wholeheartedly support recreational/educational groups like Camp Quest. What we need are more parents who are out about their atheism and expect the public school system to adhere to its secular charter, from kindergarten on up.