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.