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40 Million Nonbelievers in America? The Secret Is Almost Out

Secularists have very quietly become one of America’s largest minorities -- how long before they use their power?

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True enough, but the same can be said of most religious believers. This is no reason to downplay the fact that so many have clearly fallen away from religion—that is, they live their lives without any sort of God. Nor can we ignore ARIS’s statement that the six percent of Americans who refuse to answer the question about their beliefs “tend to somewhat resemble ‘Nones’ in their social profile and beliefs.” Which means, according to ARIS’s most striking conclusion: “The U.S. population continues to show signs of becoming less religious, with one in five Americans failing to indicate a religious identity in 2008.”

Furthermore, among those who do, over 12% of the total sample describe their belief in ways that ARIS concludes are “deistic (a higher power but no personal God).” One in eight American believers are as religious as... Thomas Paine. Those who continue to believe in a traditional Jewish, Christian, or Muslim personal god have dropped to under seventy percent of the American population. Despite all efforts to ignore or minimize this, it is big news.

Moments of Prayer into Moments of Silence

And the discrepancy between those willing to be public and open about their religious disbelief and those who are not is also big news. Among nonbelievers, judging from my discussions with hundreds of them over the past several months, many are not “new atheists” (militantly doing battle with religion) but are, in Peter Steinfels’ terminology, “new new atheists.” These people are not primarily concerned with arguing against the belief in God, but are trying to find ways of coexisting in a society in which both nonbelievers and believers can expect to be around for a long time to come. They shy away from labels as they seek their own bearings and their own comfort zone in today’s America.

Secularists welcomed President Obama’s shout-out to nonbelievers during his inaugural address, but are painfully aware that when launching his campaign he criticized them for trying to keep religion out of the public square, but not the religious right for its attempts to erase the line between church and state.

They worry, along with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, that Obama’s renewal of the Bush Faith-Based Initiative in the new Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships has not ruled out proselytizing and discriminatory hiring for religious social service programs that are granted Federal dollars. And they wince when recalling that he subjected himself to the informal religious test of being drilled like a catechism pupil by Rick Warren on his own particular way of believing in Jesus Christ (the same Rick Warren who announced that he would never vote for an atheist for president).

Above all, rather than combating religious belief at every turn, many nonbelievers would cheer if the President initiated a genuinely multicultural approach to both believers and secularists in today’s America. This might entail, as was not done at the Democratic National Convention last August, inviting secularists as well as believers to platforms that normally exclude the irreligious (i.e. the “values and unity” event preceding the Convention that was exclusively for religious believers). It might entail as much political attention being paid to nonbelievers as believers at public events—transforming moments of prayer into moments of silence. In other words, it would mean abandoning the implicit assumption of so much of American public and private life that religious values, norms and practices apply to everyone—and show respect to American’s enormous nonreligious minority.

Ronald Aronson is author of Living without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists and the Undecided (Counterpoint, 2008). He teaches history at Wayne State University.