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Why Is America's Most Progressive Voting Bloc Often Overlooked?

This group consistently polls as the most progressive and has the potential to shake up the political landscape.

Photo Credit: michael rubin /


The renowned physicist Max Planck once said, "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

And this isn't just true of science: the same principle holds true in the political arena. Most progressive advances don't come about because vast numbers of people are persuaded to drop their prejudices, but because younger generations to whom new ideas seem normal and familiar eventually replace the old guard. To name the obvious example, this is what's happening right now with marriage equality, as young people who are overwhelmingly comfortable with GLBT rights grow up and replenish the electorate.

But there's one political issue that seems to be an exception to the trend of progress over time, and that issue is abortion. A recent poll found anti-choice views in the slim majority for the first time in decades. What's worse, the anti-choice side is far more aggressive and well-funded, partly because they're not burdened by providing actual medical care and can spend all their donations on propaganda, and they've been hard at work creating hurdles for women's rights throughout the country.

However, there is one ray of light in this gloomy picture: one rising demographic that's strongly supportive of a woman's right to choose. Who is it? Atheists. From a May 2012 Gallup poll:

Americans with no religious attachment (self-identified atheists, agnostics, and those with simply no religious preference) identify as pro-choice by a 49-percentage-point margin over pro-life, 68% to 19%. This represents the strongest propensity toward the pro-choice position of any major U.S. demographic (as distinct from political) subgroup.

In America, atheists, agnostics and the nonreligious are pro-choice by a 49-percentage-point margin, an overwhelming majority. To put this in perspective, the nonreligious are substantially more pro-choice than women; they're even more pro-choice than registered Democrats (who, by contrast, support reproductive rights by a mere 30-point margin).

This is a strong argument for the fundamentally religious and faith-based nature of anti-abortion arguments. As people lose their religious beliefs, their anti-choice views drop away as well. If anti-abortion views were based on evidence and reason, then we'd have every right to expect that the atheist community would be more evenly divided, and that there wouldn't be such a chasm between the religious and the nonreligious on the issue of choice. This is the same unobjectionable logic we use to conclude that rejection of evolution is driven mostly by religious belief.

But it's not just reproductive rights where we see this progressive pattern. A Pew survey from 2009 asked about the permissibility of torturing people suspected of terrorism. The religiously unaffiliated and those who never attend church were more likely than Catholics, evangelicals or mainline Protestants to say that torture can rarely or never be justified. The nonreligious were also more likely than Protestants, Catholics or Mormons to oppose the war in Iraq. And of course, the nonreligious support marriage equality by a stratospheric 76% margin.

All these data points show that while there's no logically necessary connection between atheism and progressive political views, in practice it usually does work out that way. The rise of atheism and the rapid growth of the secular community, especially among the Millennial generation, should therefore be developments that all progressives should welcome. As PZ Myers put it, atheists have the potential to be a progressive air force, shaking up the political landscape and changing the nature of culture-war issues that have long been mired in deadlock.

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