A good FYI:
The Pew Research Center released its now-traditional “Faith on the Hill” study of religion in Congress. Among the not-so surprising findings are that Christians are overrepresented compared to their share of the population. The most underrepresented group, once again: the nones (nonreligious/atheist/agnostic). Emma Green has a piece up at The Atlantic blaming nonreligious Americans for their lack of representation in Congress. In essence, she argues that secular Americans don’t vote in large numbers and for that reason they do not have enough members of Congress representing them. She also makes an argument that the movement is not coherent because many nonreligious people don’t really care about religion enough to organize about the issue.
Both arguments are wrong. Let’s take first the first argument that the nonreligious do not vote enough to get representation. Green shows a chart from PRRI (full disclosure: I was once an employee of PRRI) showing the percentage of people who identify as nonreligious in the general population and the percentage of nonreligious voters in exit polls. The latter number is always much smaller, but that does not mean that we are certain that the secular cohort is less likely to vote. Most general population polls are conducted over the phone (landline and cellphones) and/or (increasingly) online. Exit polls are mostly done face-to-face. Considering how disliked are nonreligious people, particularly atheists, in the United States, it is possible that many secular-minded people are not willing to tell a stranger their real religious beliefs.
Even if it were true that secular Americans are less likely to vote, they are still a significant part of the of the electorate and should have more than 1 openly nonreligious member. But in our political system numbers do not translate to equal representation. After all, women do not account for half of our representatives and people of color do not comprise a third of elected officials. Just because the number of secular Americans has jumped in the last decade, mostly thanks to young people, doesn’t mean that they have a pool of people ready to run for office and win offices that are not very often open for business when we consider the high reelection rates of incumbents.
There are some changes coming that way. In 2016, the Freethought Equality Fund, a secular PAC, endorsed several candidates, many of whom got elected and did not run away from identifying with a secular label or from the support of a secular group. These candidates ran mostly at the state and local levels and represent a growing bench of secular leaders.
On Green’s second point, that is hard to organize a group of people with little in common except for their lack of religion, truth is there is a lot in common. Secular Americans regardless of labels agree on many social and economic issues. As a Puerto Rican, I have experience with imagined identities among groups with a hint of history together. Latinos have become an important force by combining the forces of groups that share some traits, but also have some major differences (I know a bit about this, trust me).
There are important problems of collective action in the secular movement that hinder its ability to become a major political force in the short term. I’ve written about this before. But there are important structural and cultural problems in this country exacerbating the lapses in political organization in the secular movement. Those are to blame for the lack of representation during this decade. We need to work on reversing them in the future.
Last week PRRI released a new survey providing an in-depth look at the nones. The nones are now America’s largest “religious” cohort, surpassing Catholics. This is no coincidence. Former Catholics (or people raised as Catholic like yours truly) have been boosting the numbers of the nones for years. The stability of Catholic religious identification in the United States was a mirage. The growth of the Latino population in the 1990s and 2000s, back then overwhelmingly Catholic greatly contributed to the overall numbers and give the impression that Catholic identification was very stable in the face of overall declining religiosity in the country.
Back when I was at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) and we released the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey we noted that anomaly. On page 15 of the 2008 ARIS Summary Report Barry Kosmin & Ariela Keysar noted that “…Catholicism lost ground within every ethnic group between 1990 and 2008. If the Hispanic population, which is the most Catholic, had not expanded then the Catholic population share nationally would have significantly eroded.” This observation was based on an analysis of a subsample of nones that received additional questions on ethnic heritage. We found a substantial number of former Catholics of Irish descent among the nones that was further explored in ISSSC’s report “American Nones.”
Even as Latinos seemed to give Catholicism a boost, under the surface there were problems. The third ARIS report, published in 2010, was on Latino religious change. In that report we noted that Catholic identification among Latinos had declined from to-thirds of all Latinos in 1990 to 6-in-10 by 2008 while the share of nones had doubled. The decline in Catholicism among Latinos led us to conclude that “…while Latinos helped to mitigate some of the losses in Catholic identification in the U.S., the Catholic identification is much lower than it could have been.”
By 2013 I had joined PRRI and our Hispanic Values Survey found that the growth of Latino nones was fueled by an exodus of Latino Catholics. The next year, 2014 the Pew Research Center found that 20 percent of Latinos were nones.
In sum, though the growth of the nones seems to be a mostly white, male phenomenon because the most prominent secular faces are white dudes, people of color especially Latinos have helped the group become the largest “religious” cohort in the country. So, secular America, in the name of all former Latino Catholics I say, you’re welcome.
At TheHumanist.com, Sincere Kirabo writes about black conservatives. In the piece he dismantles the arguments of African-American speakers at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. A task simplified by the fact that there were so few, most fit in one magazine column. A sample quote below:
Black conservatives, along with their brethren, favor respectability politics and place faith in the idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”—both notions supported by a victim-blaming rationale that neglects the way some identities are privileged over others.
Sincere Kirabo, “The Black Conservative Anomaly“
Though Kirabo’s focus is the current lineup of black conservatives in the GOP, black conservatism is an ideological current with a long history, something I learned during my years in graduate school. In fact, it was the scholarship on African-American ideologies, particularly the work by Michael Dawson and Melissa Harris-Lacewell (today Harris-Perry), what inspired me to write a dissertation on Latino ideology.
In this regard, Kirabo’s piece reminds me of Chapter 3 of W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. That chapter is a serious takedown of the respectability politics and black conservatism of Booker T. Washington.
There’s a big difference between Washington and today’s black conservatives in the GOP. Washington’s conservative rhetoric included actions, such as the founding of the Tuskegee Institute. He was part of a debate about how to improve the conditions of the African-American community after the collapse of Reconstruction. Today’s GOP black conservatives deny there’s a problem at all, or that the problem lies in individual responsibility.
Which leads me to the contradiction of today’s GOP. As the party has moved from “dog-whistle” statements about race to explicit racism, it has also seen a boom in elected officials of color. The Party of Trump has South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only African-American U.S. Senator, two Latinos in the U.S. Senate (Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz), as well as governors Brian Sandoval (NV) and Susana Martínez (NM), Indian-American governors Nikki Haley (SC) and Bobby Jindal (LA). Let’s not forget Dr. Ben Carson’s and Alan Keyes’s presidential aspirations. This shows that the party’s base may be racist, but also colorblind. They will elect anyone who spews the hateful rhetoric and reality-denying views they like.
The other day I was watching cable news in room as I waited for a meeting. I don’t recall which network it was, but I recall hearing something like this: A commentator asked where are the reasonable black conservatives like Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, and Michael Steele. And I though to myself, if Michael Steele is now considered a reasonable black conservative, the Republican Party is beyond salvation.
The Yale Humanist Community is one of my favorite groups for various reasons: (1) it is very active in the state that I called home for more than a decade, (2) it is led by the amazing Chris Stedman, and (3) I’m part of their advisory board. They find new ways of promoting humanism and making people skeptical of our philosophy realize you can be good without believing in a god. One of their current projects is the Green Light Project. I’ll let Chris explain it, from his recent piece in TheHumanist.com:
After more than a year of planning and meeting with community partners, YHC has launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund an interactive, nonreligious sculpture that will go up alongside the religious symbols and serve as a reminder that, even during the coldest and darkest months of the year, human beings can come together to create light and warmth.
By doing this, we have a chance to model that nonreligious communities can stand alongside our religious neighbors in peace. But we also have a chance to model humanist values—to exemplify a universal, inclusive humanism that can speak not only to the growing number of nonreligious Americans but also to the shared values of our religious neighbors.
Go and support this project and if you contribute today you’ll be able to double your donation!
Luciano Gonzalez is exploring secular history and major figures in the secular movement. He starts with George Holyoake:
This post is meant to mark the beginning of a series I want to do talking about figures who have relevance to the history of irreligion. One of the first figures I’d like to talk about is George Holyoake. This guy was and is someone who has real significance to global secularism, partially because he coined the term “secular”. I’m sure that at least some English atheists, secularists, and otherwise irreligious people are familiar with him but I know that many free-thinkers from other parts of the world aren’t as aware of him and the work he did.
I learned about Holyoake when I was working at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture and I encourage Luciano to continue his unearthing of secular history. It is something I’ve been interested in for a while and served as the start of my first talk about diversity in the secular movement last year at the CFI Leadership Conference. Some books that have been helpful in my search are Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers and her fascinating biography of Robert Green Ingersoll The Great Agnostic, and John Farrell’s biography of Clarence Darrow.
Personally, I’m also interested in Hispanic/Latino/Latin American secularism which is why I am very interested in the history of the Spanish Civil war and the Cristero War in Mexico. About the latter there are two movies: an excellent La Guerra Santa (1979) a censored movie that my amazing in-laws tracked and found for me in Mexico a few years back but that you can watch in Youtube now. The second is the pathetic pro-Catholic propaganda film For Greater Glory. I also have in my to-read queue El Epistolario de Benito Juárez (the letters of Benito Juarez) to better understand his thinking on Churc-State separation. Finally, I have started re-reading a favorite author from my (Catholic) high school days Nemesio R. Canales, a Puerto Rican freethinker, lawyer, satirist, and politician.
Note: With the victory of Freethought Equality Fund-endorsed candidate Jamie Raskin, it is time to unearth this article from the last time a “none” was elected. This piece was originally published in Religion in the News (November 2013).
Conventional wisdom, backed up by survey data, says that no one is less likely to be elected president of the United States than a professed atheist. Yet voters are beginning to send to Washington politicians who claim no religion identity—a sign of the growing acceptance of “Nones” in American society.
The rise of the Nones has been widely recognized since the release of the 2008 Trinity-American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), which found that 15 percent of Americans answer “none” when asked, “What is your religion, if any.” In the intervening years, the percentage of Nones has continued to rise, at a rate comparable to the 1990s, when they increased their share of the population from eight to 14 percent.
According to the 2013 Economic Values Survey of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), Nones now constitute 21 percent of all American adults, and 35 percent of those under 30.
To be sure, Nones are not easy to pin down. As the Trinity-ARIS report, American Nones: The Profile of the No-religion Population, points out, “‘None’ is not a movement, but a label for a diverse group of people who do not identify with any of the myriad of religious options in the American religious marketplace.”
Nones are defined by what they are not—not religious. Many of them believe in God, as either a personal deity or as some kind of “higher power.” Others are outright atheists and agnostics. Still others are simply indifferent to religion and/or divinity.
Nevertheless, they embrace similar positions on many social and political issues, and are beginning to identify themselves as Nones. They have, willy-nilly, become a significant part of America’s religious and cultural scene.
When Barack Obama won reelection in 2012 the media focused on the lopsided margins that the President received from racial and ethnic minorities, particularly Hispanic-Americans (71 percent to 27 percent) and Asian-Americans (73-26 percent). But the president received a comparable 70-26 percent margin from the Nones.
A few reporters did take note. Nones have become “to the Democratic Party what evangelicals are to Republicans,” wrote the Orlando Sentinel’s Jeff Kunerth on November 13, 2012. Liz Halloran made the same point a month later on National Public Radio.
Yet despite becoming a significant part of the Democratic coalition, the Nones have only a handful of senators and members of Congress to call their own. Only one, Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), openly identifies as a None. An additional 10 (all Democrats) simply decline to give a religious identity, according to the latest CQ compilation of congressional demographic data.
Sinema was first elected to Congress last year, winning a close race in a newly created 9th district that comprises south Phoenix and all of Tempe, home of Arizona State University. A social worker turned lawyer, she grew up in Tucson in a conservative Mormon family.
While serving in the Arizona state legislature she spoke to the Humanist Society of Greater Pheonix and received an “Award for the Advancement of Science and Reason in Public Policy” from the Center for Inquiry, one of the country’s leading secularist organizations.
On election eve, Hemant Mehta, author of the popular Friendly Atheist blog on the Patheos website, lamented the defeat of Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), a Unitarian who came out as Congress’ only “non-theist” (as he called himself) in 2007. Stark’s loss to fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell after 40 years in the House of Representatives was “especially bittersweet,” Mehta wrote, because Swalwell had used Stark’s opposition to reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the national motto against him.
But Mehta took heart at the apparent victory of Sinema, who was “believed to be both an atheist and bisexual, though she hasn’t spoken about either in her capacity as a politician.” After her election was confirmed, both Politico’s Patrick Gavin and Kimberly Winston of RNS described Sinema as the sole atheist in Congress and the atheist blogosphere rejoiced.
Chris Lombardi of the Secular Coalition for America wrote that, despite Stark’s loss, the SCA was “feeling emboldened by [Sinema’s] apparent victory” because “her nonbelief was not a factor in her election.”
Bisexuality was one thing, but atheist? Soon after her election a spokesman for the Sinema campaign responded to Winston’s story in an email: “Kyrsten believes the terms ‘nontheist,’ ‘atheist’ or ‘nonbeliever’ are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character. Though Sinema was raised in a religious household, she draws her policy-making decisions from her experience as a social worker who worked with diverse communities and as a lawmaker who represented hundreds of thousands.”
The atheist community was not happy. “In an election with so many historic firsts,” wrote Mehta, “the one group that seems to be taking a step backward are atheists.”
Chris Stedman, assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, posted on the CNN Belief Blog that he was “disheartened that the only member of Congress who openly identifies as nonreligious has forcefully distanced herself from atheism in a way that puts down those of us who do not believe in God.” Atheists, he added, “are Americans of good character, too.”
Stark, by contrast, thanked them for their support in an open letter in Friendly Atheist.
Yet Sinema seemed a more natural fit for the None community with which she identified, for just 18 percent of Nones identify as atheist, according to the 2013 Economic Values Survey.
In March, PRRI and the Brookings Institution’s Religion, Values, and Immigration Reform Survey asked whether particular groups were changing America for the better or for the worse. Atheists and people with no religion were considered twice as likely to be changing America for the worse than for the better, the ratio growing to four-to-one when it came to atheists alone. (To be sure, in both cases, nearly half the respondents thought that they had no impact at all.)
Sinema’s election does appear to signal the political mainstreaming of the Nones. But whether a professed atheist can win a seat in Congress, much less the presidency, remains an open question.
On Tuesday, the growing secular population reached a milestone. Jamie Raskin, a state senator from Maryland, won the Democratic Party primary to succeed Rep. Chris Van Hollen in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. Van Hollen won his own primary to become the party’s candidate for U.S. Senate and replace the retiring incumbent Barbara Mikulski. Raskin is an open humanist who was endorsed by the American Humanist Association’s Freethought Equality Fund. The district is a safe Democratic seat, making it almost a certainty that he will become the first openly atheist candidate to win Congressional seat.
Coincidentally, Maryland’s 8th Congressional District is where I have resided for the last 4 years and my part of the district belongs to Raskin’s state senate district. Given this history it was natural for me to vote for him. However he wasn’t the only qualified candidate in the race, which was crowded, and my decision to support him wasn’t an instantaneous one.
People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution; they don’t put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.
What made a major difference in my decision to vote for Sen. Raskin was the endorsement and excellent outreach of the Freethought Equality Fund. In a race that broke spending records and where three candidates had a decent chance of winning, every vote counted.
In a weird turn of events the district that apparently was bombarded by mail ads, but I never received ads from any candidate despite being fairly reliable Democratic voter in Connecticut and Maryland. It wasn’t until the Freethought Equality Fund reached out to me with letters and ads on behalf of Raskin that I was officially mobilized.
Of course, I didn’t vote for Raskin just because he’s a fellow atheist. He’s also a progressive who stands for many of the same things that I do because of my humanism. In this sense, the AHA and the Freethought Equality Fund found an excellent high-profile candidate to endorse. He shares humanist values and identifies as one, but he’s also an experienced lawmaker (and the only leading candidate in that race with experience in elective office).
Raskin’s victory in the primary shows how that applying the muscle of the secular movement as a collective entity can lead to political victories. More importantly, he’s not some candidate trying to get money out of us but a fellow member of our movement. Our movement just demonstrated it can play in the big leagues, that it can deliver, and that one of us can win a high-profile campaign (our “hometown” media market is Washington, DC) without having to hide his identity. Kudos to the AHA for a job well done in building our movement’s political capital.
One of the saddest articles I’ve read in a long time is this piece at Reveal News about the regulation exemptions for religious non-profits allowing them to run daycares with little to no supervision. This has led to maany horror stories of accidents and deaths of children that could have been prevented. This part of the article is quite revealing:
Religious advocates suggest parents need not worry about the lack of oversight because day cares are guided by a moral authority that eclipses any regulatory agency.
In other words, because they respond to a “higher authority” these institutions don’t need to be accountable to the state. We seriously need to end religious privilege in this country and treat religious institutions not as special snowflakes but as any other organization that is bounded by the earthly rules of government.
A couple of weeks ago Mark Silk wrote about a Pew poll that found that majorities of nones supported Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in their respective party contests. According to the poll, 61 percent of Democratic or Democratic-leaning nones favor Sanders over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Thirty-five percent prefer Clinton. On the Republican side, 57 percent of nones support Trump while Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich lag well behind with 17 percent each.
The survey confirms a hunch I’ve had for a while. In my social media feeds there are apparently more Sanders than Clinton supporters. Of course, my maybe 1,000 social media contacts (some of them repeated across platforms and not all of them secular) are not likely to be representative of the nones, but those suspicions now are confirmed.
Sen. Sanders’s support is strongest among young Americans of the Millennial generation. This happens to be the most secular generation as well. On paper, it is also a generation that is to the left of the general population on social/economic issues (in favor of more spending on government services and the social safety net). In this regard secular Millennials are the core of Sanders’s coalition.
Sen. Sanders’s support is strongest among young Americans of the Millennial generation. This happens to be the most secular generation as well
What I wasn’t sure, though I also had a hunch, was the preferred candidate among Republican nones. My social media contacts were no good for this since I barley have any Republicans, let alone any Republican nones (these are very rare). My hunch was that the GOP-leaning nones’ preferences were maybe leaning toward Trump, and that Kasich would be ahead of Cruz. And I was way off-target in that regard.
Two-thirds of Republican nones are men according to Pew’s Religion Landscape Survey.
My reading of the Republican nones assumes that this is a conservative group on economic matters but more liberal on cultural matters. That assumption is likely correct and will be the subject of a forthcoming post. Trump, depending on the day, is the least religious candidate in the Republican field, a positive for those who only care about Church-State issues. What I probably underestimated is the extent of the racism, sexism, and hatred to “pc dialogue” among many in the secular community.
It’s fair to say that, for the first time in American history, the Nones making their influence felt on the presidential nominating process.
-Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics, “The Year of the Nones“
I am aware that some communities such as men’s rights activists and even groups of white supremacists can be a draw for secular men. And I think that is what drives Trump’s high numbers among the Republican nones, who are primarily young men. Two-thirds of Republican nones are men according to Pew’s Religion Landscape Survey.
Mark Silk interprets the Pew poll findings as part of a “year of the nones”making their influence felt on the presidential nominating process.” I partly agree with that interpretation. It is true that the nones are becoming larger portions of the parties’ coalitions. But the secular movement keeps waiting for the parties to knock on their doors instead of trying a hostile takeover of party structures. What I mean is that nones are not being organized as political blocs but rather as individual voters who happen to coincide in their preferences for particular candidates. That is no way to gain any sort of clout.
While I think the none vote will be decisive, it is less clear if politicians will care until there is a coordinated effort in the secular leadership to exploit their strength in numbers. In that sense I would modify Silk’s “year of the nones” to the “year of the none” because it is the coincidence of individual nones what may become decisive in this primary season, rather than the collective undertaking of the nones to affect the ouctome of the elections.
Image Source: ABC News