Why Candidates Ignore Secular Voters

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Susan Jacoby published an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday titled “Sick and Tired of ‘God Bless America’” where she bemoans the fact that despite being a fast-growing demographic, we the secular still get no respect from politicians. In the piece she asks a question that, well, she doesn’t answer:

The question is not why nonreligious Americans vote for these candidates [who pay lip service to religion] — there is no one on the ballot who full-throatedly endorses nonreligious humanism — but why candidates themselves ignore the growing group of secular voters.

I think I have three answers to the question why candidates ignore secular voters. The first one deals with the strength of secular identity, the second with the intersectional identities of many in the movement, the third is the lack of sophisticated political thinking in the secular community and its organizations.

Although the secular population keeps growing, as Jacoby rightly points out, it seems that most nonreligious Americans do not care much about religion. In other words, among those who identify as nonreligious, being secular is not a very important aspect of their lives. A bit of public opinion polling can help illustrate this point.

In 2012 Public Religion Research Institute, my former employer, released its annual American Values Survey. The 2012 AVS focused on religious change, with an emphasis on Catholics and the unaffiliated (or nones). One of the questions, which is more or less standard in religion studies, is asking the importance of one’s religious identity in our life. The AVS found three different types of religious nones: atheists/agnostics, secular, and a category called “unattached believers.” The latter tend to give more importance to being religious in their life, as 57 percent report that their religious identity is “the most” or “very” important. Among those who identified as secular only 12 percent said this identity is very important.

Self-identified atheists and agnostics are supposed to be the most active in terms of secular identity politics. These are the ones more likely to belong to secular organizations but only 13 percent say that this identity is very important. It is possible that many of these people are very active politically, but their secularism (as an identity) is not political. It is more of a personal choice, like being vegetarian.

It could also be the case, that many secular Americans have intersectional politics. This may be the case with younger cohorts, particularly women and people of color. I participated in the Secular Social Justice Conference earlier this month where I met many secular activists of color who are doing the tough balancing act of being openly secular and working for social justice on issues that are way beyond the sphere of church-state relations. These are people changing what we think of secularism and politics: moving beyond policing Ten Commandments monuments and opening prayers into making the world a better place. In other words, they are practicing their humanism.

But many secular people do not feel they have to bring their secular identity to the fore when doing social justice work. Many are working in political or social justice causes but their secular identity is superseded politically by other identity or identities. They are active politically, they have candidates listening to them, but they are focusing on other issues like when I was working on campaigns with Latino voters.

Finally, the secular movement is in its political infancy. The Religious Right has a 4-decade head start on us. They became a force in American politics not waiting for politicians to listen to them and whining when they don’t. They organized and used the power of their organizations to build an amazing infrastructure of think tanks, political training, and legal work.

They made politicians realize they matter. They didn’t sit around waiting for them to show up. If you do that, you will be irrelevant regardless of how large your presumed constituency is. Politicians don’t do outreach, they look for votes, sure-fire votes. The organizing is ours to do. So far our secular organizations have failed us in that regard. They have not shown the leadership required in the political arena.

There are some exceptions. Jacoby mentions the work of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy, especially Michael De Dora. He is a great ambassador for politics, but the OPP’s work is primarily lobbying. Also, she calls CFI a think tank, and as much as I like the organization, I don’t think we have real think tanks in the secular world. I know think tanks, having worked for some or other sort for a decade and a half, the secular world is not even close to have the sort of think tank we need. Something like the Heritage Foundation…without the crazy stuff…is more akin to what we need.

There may be other reasons why we are not as strong politically as we should be. These are my three cents. But one thing is clear to me: it is ironic that a movement built on science and reason, is waiting for miracles to happen.

Photo: President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast (Wikimedia Commons)

Iowa and the Future of Secular Politics

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Many Iowans (on the Democratic side) felt the Bern, leading the former Independent-turned-Democrat Senator from Vermont to virtually tie Hillary Clinton in the caucuses there on Monday.

While Sanders’s lefty populism has been the catalyst fueling his surprising rise, I think his support also tell us a lot about the future of secularism and its relationship to US politics. In my opinion, Sanders is also benefiting from a more secular Democratic electorate. His message, in other words, is resonating with the rising secular left that is mostly comprised of young people with no religious affiliation.

The entrance polls confirm that Sanders’s base is among young people. The CNN results show that Sanders’s support was concentrated among those under the age of 40. Indeed, more than 8-in-10 Democrats under 30 claimed to support Sanders.

The poll did not show results by religious affiliation. But as a proxy we can use the American Values Atlas, a project of the Public Religion Research Institute. PRRI’s analysis of Iowa religious demographics show that the fastest growth has been among young secular people. Moreover, secular people are largest religious cohort in the Democratic coalition in the state. Still, Iowa is not a very secular place. The size of its secular population is similar to the U.S. percentage, and the secular proportion of its Democratic coalition is similar to the proportion of the Democratic Party nationally.

The next stage is New Hampshire, which is terrain favorable to Sanders because is his turf (New England) and is above-average in its secular composition. The question is whether Sanders’s secular economic populist message can fare better once it moves away from New Hampshire and into more religious states. A friend once argued that candidates like Howard Dean (also from Vermont) had a problem reaching out to more traditional Democratic (religious) constituencies such as Catholics and African American Protestants. If Bernie, with a largely secular message can give Hillary a run for her money without major religious outreach, goes far in this race he will show that secular politics are possible the Democratic Party, even if he falls short in the end.

 

 

The Quest for Social Justice in Secular America is a Real Thing

That is a real thing. I just returned from an amazing meeting of the minds at the Secular Social Justice Conference at Rice University in Houston, TX. The event was organized by the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, the Houston Black Non-Believers, and the Humanists of Houston. It was led by Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, with the support of Dr. Anthony Pinn at Rice.

The conference was a great vehicle to connect secular people of color and allies who have been in the trenches of social change. The participant’s roll is a who’s who of secular leaders of color. In addition to Drs. Hutchinson and Pinn I was able to reconnect with the AHA’s Maggie Ardiente, CFI’s Debbie Goddard; finally met in person American Atheists’ Sincere Kirabo and Houston Black Non-Believers’ Ashton P. Woods, whom I knew from Facebook. In addition, I was able to meet in person two of my favorite bloggers: FreeThoughtBlogs’ Greta Christina and Stephanie Zvan.

I participated in the panel “What’s Race Got To Do With It? Racial Politics and Intersectionality In the Atheist Movement” with Frank Anderson, Georgina Capetillo, Alix Jules, Sincere Kirabo, Jimmie Luthuli, and Vic Wang. The panel was moderated by Daniel Myatt. We discussed many issues ranging from coalitions with religious people, our role as atheists of color in the secular movement, the state of intersectionality politics in the United States. Interestingly, the conversation ended with a discussion about the pros, cons, and possibilities (and a bit of definition) of revolution.

In addition to this panel, there were other 4 panels:

  • Feminism(s) of Color and the Secular Movement
  • Humanism and Hip-Hop
  • Finding Justice in an Economic System that Proclaims Financial Opportunity for All
  • LGBTQ Queer Atheists of Color and Social Justice

I attended the 1st and 3rd on the list since 1 &2 and 3 & 4 were held simultaneously. I ended in those panels after a coin toss, it was very hard to decide. Following the conversation in Twitter (#SSJCON) I realized that those panels I missed were as interesting as the ones I attended.

Over the next few days I will unpack a bit more of my experience in the conference and also try to flesh out what I said in the politics panel a bit more.

 

What I’ve been up to

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I closed the old site in 2012 to adapt to a new full-time job that required moving from Connecticut to Washington, DC, and to work on my dissertation with the limited free time I was going to have. My level of activity in the secular world declined considerably, but I was still able to get in debates every once in a while. The pace picked up last year after completing my dissertation. Below is a list of my publications, media appearances, and speeches after shutting down the old blog.

Most of my writing was done for my employer’s (PRRI) blog. I used the platform to write about Latinos and politics. But I also did some writing on secularism. My writings on secularism from that period include an analysis of the secular vote between 1980 and 2008, the theological diversity of the secular population, a 2013 Darwin Day post on evolution and American public opinion, and a secular interpretation of New England’s embrace of same-sex marriage. My other blog-ish piece during that period was an article for Religion in the News in the Fall of 2013 titled “Congress gets a None.” The article chronicles the strange case of Arizona representative Kyrsten Synema’s decision to avoid the label “atheist” when discussing her religious beliefs.

Outside of the PRRI blog, I was able to publish 2 book chapters. “A World of Atheism: Global Demographics” was a collaboration with Dr. Ariela Keysar, my former colleague at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, and published in the Oxford Handbook of Atheism. The chapter analyzes international survey research to come up with an estimate of the number of atheists around the world and came out in the fall of 2013.

The other book chapter was published in the summer of 2015 and also explores atheism using survey data. However, this time it is confined to the United States and touches the subject of (in)tolerance toward atheists. The chapter is titled “Nonreligious Tolerance: American Attitudes toward Atheists, America’s Most Unpopular Religious Group” coauthored with my former PRRI colleagues Dr. Robert P. Jones and Dr. Daniel Cox. It was included in Dr. Paul Djupe’s Religion and Political Tolerance in America. The other academic publication during this period is, of course, my dissertation The Diversity of Latino Ideology, which I defended in March 2015.

I discussed the world of religion surveys in two interviews. I appeared in Dr. John Shook’s show Humanist Matters on December 2013, and almost a year later (October 2014) I was interviewed by Hemant Mehta for the Friendly Atheist podcast. My other podcast appearance was discussing my talk about secular Latinos at the American Humanist Association conference in The Humanist Hour.

Finally, the completion of my dissertation allowed me to travel more than I had been able to in previous years. I took the chance to speak at three different conferences (an additional appearance had to be cancelled because it coincided with the birth of my child). In May I spoke at the 74th AHA conference in Denver. The title of my talk was “The Rise of the Latino Nones: How Secular Latinos will Shape the Future of American Secularism”. The next stop was Buffalo, where in late July and early August I addressed the student and community leaders in the Center for Inquiry’s Moving Freethought Forward Conference. I presented twice in the conference. A talk about racial diversity among the growing secular community titled “The Many Faces of American Secularism” and another on politics in the secular movement titled “Balancing The Force: The Secular Left as an Antidote to the Religious Right.”  I closed the year with a presentation in October as part of Humanist Haven, a series of talks sponsored by the Yale Humanist Community. The title was “The Nonreligious in American Politics: Challenges and Promises” and gave me the opportunity to return to Connecticut for the first time since my dissertation defense.

This year I have more in store. Tomorrow I depart for Houston to take part in the Secular Social Justice Conference. I also have 2 book chapters on secularism and race, 1 book chapter on immigration, and an article on secularism and race that should finally see the day of light (and print) at some point this year.

My permanent secular writing home

Over the past few months I’ve been moving back and forth between my official homepage at http://www.juhemnavarro.net and this site when blogging. As a new year’s resolution I decided to permanently move here. After some url issues were solved earlier this year, I’m finally able to transfer some old writings and start my new writing here again.

It’s been almost 4 years since I shut down the old LatiNone website. Back then the pressures of starting a new job in a new city while trying to complete a dissertation meant that some of my online activities had to go. Hence, the blog was placed in a semi-permanent hiatus.

I’m looking forward to start writing again in this blog. Hopefully with the frequency I did back in the day. In 2011 and 2012 (before I shut down), I was writing a short piece a day. I’m not sure if I can match that feat, but I will certainly try. In the meantime, use this site as a way to keep up with my upcoming appearances, announcements of new publications, and my musings on the intersection of race and secularism.

This Weekend: Secular Social Justice Conference

If you’re in Houston this weekend, consider stopping by the Secular Social Justice Conference. A great group of secular activists and/or scholars of color will be discussing how to advance social justice in the growing secular community.

I look forward to reconnect with leaders like Sikivu Hutchinson, Anthony Pinn, the AHA’s Maggie Ardiente, and CFI’s Debbie Goddard. I also hope to meet others whom I’ve followed for a while like Sincere Kirabo and Alix Jules. Hopefully, Greta Christina also makes good on her promise and attends!

 

Twenty Percent (or 7.5 Million!)

Today is December 12, the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. Which is a good day to remind people how Latinos’ religious composition has changed in recent years, and how large the secular cohort has become. We are now 20 percent of the Latino adult population, or 7.5 million. So, my secular Latino friends, look at this quick infographic and remember: you’re not alone.

La Guadalupana