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.

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