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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.

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Arguably, there are liberal clobber verses as well -- passages condemning wealth and telling believers to give to those who ask, for example -- but for whatever reason, liberal believers have been slow to deploy them and inept when they do try. (Most likely, it's because they're more attentive to nuance and lack the judgmental certitude that animates the fundamentalists.) In any case, playing the game of dueling Bible verses inevitably gets bogged down in the futile and endless debate of who really understands God's will. Arguments like these have been fracturing Christianity since the days of the Roman Empire, and are unlikely to be settled before the next election cycle.

The major progressive movements that have overcome religious opposition -- women's suffrage and civil rights being two examples from recent history, with gay rights moving along the same trajectory -- didn't do so by offering a more convincing reinterpretation of the Bible (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. notwithstanding). Instead, they won out by emphasizing a sense of identity, a narrative that resonated emotionally with the broader public, and a demand for fairness and justice previously denied to them. These are all things that the secular movement has to offer, and as I've shown, its values and goals are very much in accord with the larger progressive movement in America.

But there's one more reason for progressives to cheer the rise of atheism: the secular movement, unique among all progressive movements, has the potential to weaken its opposition's numbers as it grows stronger itself. Black Americans demanding their civil rights didn't lead to fewer white voters, and gay Americans coming out of the closet had no effect on the number of straight people, right-wing paranoia about "recruiting" notwithstanding. But the foot soldiers of the religious right are the most reliable source of support for conservative politicians, and as atheists get our message out, we can predict that our growth will come at their expense.

This isn't because atheists engage in outright proselytizing the way religious evangelicals do. It's safe to say that we'll probably never go door-to-door trying to persuade people to stop going to church. But the mere existence of outspoken atheists creates a space in public dialogue where people who already have doubts about religion can air those doubts. If everyone in society was religious, and was proclaiming that religion was a necessary part of being a good person (which is the mistake that religious liberals made) then this safe space wouldn't exist, and people who did have doubts might find it easier to smother them and go with the flow. But when there's room for doubt, then all the diversity and unorthodoxy that already exists can rise to the surface, as in social-science experiments which show that people are far better at resisting peer pressure if there's even one other person standing with them. We have every reason to expect that this will lead to more outspoken atheists and fewer people willing to do the religious right's bidding.

As long as our public policy is harnessed to what the Bible says, America's government will be unable to rise to the challenges that face us. The Bible's laws were dreamed up in an agrarian Iron Age monarchy, and its authors couldn't even have imagined the world we live in today. On many of our most pressing political issues, like climate change or the management of the economy, the Bible gives no relevant guidance at all. On others, like the importance of human rights or the equality of women, its laws are cruel, outdated and unsuitable to a decent and morally enlightened people. When secular Americans become a more influential force on the stage of democracy, we can expect this nation to become a more progressive and a more rational society, and this will prove to be better for all of us, religious and non-religious alike.

 
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