Homophobia and the Secular Boom

Phil Zuckerman discusses a new study of college freshmen and their views on same-sex relationships as an explanation for their increasing secularism.

Simply put: Younger Americans are the least homophobic generation in our nation’s history, with a clear majority of millennials being accepting and affirming of homosexuality. And what do they see? That most major religions condemn homosexuality as sinful and wrong. Given this situation, these anti-gay and anti-lesbian religions are losing members in record numbers. Younger Americans are simply walking away from beliefs and institutions that they see as intolerant, unloving, and immoral.

There's some truth to this. In 2014, PRRI released "A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues" and the poll found that…

Among Americans who left their childhood religion and are now religiously unaffiliated, about one-quarter say negative teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people was a somewhat important (14%) or very important (10%) factor in their decision to disaffiliate. More than 7-in-10 Americans who have disaffiliated from their childhood religion report that was not too important (17%) or not at all important as a factor (54%).

However, I think that religion-based homophobia is just a gateway to secularism. It is the way in which many young people start questioning the tenets of their religion when they encounter LGBTQ individuals and realize they are (GASP!) human. From there, I think there's a snowballing process of questioning other teachings and, ultimately, abandoning identification. This is why membership among liberal religious groups is not blossoming despite increasing acceptance of homosexuality. Young people realize that they don't need religion, no matter how hip and abstract you want to make it.

When Religious Privilege Kills

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.

This Year Race Trumps Religion

My good friend and old colleague Dr. Mark Silk calls the end of religious identity politics a couple of weeks after declaring the Religious Right dead. Personally, I think race is trumping (no pun intended) religion this year, but as the natural progression (regression?) of an ideology rooted in white Christian supremacy. He writes:

In a crazy political year, perhaps we have one thing to applaud: the evident end of religious identity politics. Evangelicals have been decidedly lukewarm toward preacher’s kid Ted Cruz and fellow-traveler Rubio, and they showed no interest whatsoever in Mike Huckabee this time around. Jews, so far as we can tell, are not particularly feeling the Bern. And Catholics barely gave Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum the time of day.

I’m not so sure this end is a reason to applaud. The Republican Party is a Christian Party -or a party for certain types of Christians. All the candidates openly praised god, the Christian version of it. While it is true that some candidates were more a part of the Christian/Religious Right than others, at this point in history every potential GOP candidate knows what religious buttons to push.

Since all of them love Jesus, they have to differentiate each other by expressing who they hate the most. The foreign policy proposals of all the GOP candidates are about blowing up anything that is outside of our borders. Only Trump stands out by viciously (and explicitly) attacking and threatening violence against their domestic others: religious minorities, black, brown, red, and yellow, independent women. That’s why Trump is so appealing. And that’s no reason to applaud.

Photo credit: Donald Trump at 2015 CPAC. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Representing Secular Family Values

It is a well-known fact that the United States is the only major industrialized country in the world without a decent mandatory paid parental leave. I was once again reminded of that sad fact of life in America after reading Jessica Shortall’s piece in The Atlantic and think that this should be a major part of the secular political agenda.

Parental leave is once another part of our health and welfare system left up to capitalism to figure out. As Shortall puts it ” the time for rest, bonding, and recovery often is determined not by tradition, or even by a doctor’s recommendations, but by the new mother’s employment situation.”

This happens in a political system where the national legislature and a majority of states are controlled by those who claim to be in favor of “family values.” Of course, we know that “family values” mostly means “opposing abortion.” It means caring about the binary life/death outcome of a fetus. But it does not mean caring about the fetus having decent prenatal care, or the opportunities to live a fulfilling life once out of the womb.

In the United States, however, the time for rest, bonding, and recovery often is determined not by tradition, or even by a doctor’s recommendations, but by the new mother’s employment situation.

Jessica Shortall

Those “family values” are promoted by elected officials who are mostly male, overwhelmingly white, economically well-off, and practitioners of a toxic brand of Christianity. These elected officials are not representative of the people, not only because they do not look like the American people, but because 82 percent of Americans are in favor of paid parental leave and 85 percent favor paid sick days.

Instead of those “family values,” I propose secular family values. Those are values that promote the equality of sexes, not the continual subjugation of women based on ancient scripture. Parents should have the right, not the privilege as it is today, to spend time with their children. This is why we need to do more than voting. We must promote our own candidates and become more involved in political activism. Until secular people become engaged in politics as a united front: running for office, contributing time and money, endorsing candidates, challenging candidates, hosting debates, our values will not be prominently featured. We can show the American people that we about things other than policing prayer and religious symbols in public. That we care about people. And that you do not need religion to do so.

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

The Nones Look Like America

Source: Pew Research Center
Source: Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center recently released some numbers about the diversity of religious groups in the United States. To measure diversity, they gauge how evenly divided each religious group among 5 racial and ethnic groups in the United States: whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and “other”. If each of the 5 racial groups account for one-fifth (20 percent) of the larger religious group the score is a perfect 10.

The most diverse groups are Seventh-Day Adventists, Muslims, Jehova’s Witnesses, Buddhists, and the Nones in that order. However, while the first four groups are the most diverse in the sense that most of their membership comes from racial and ethnic minorities, the Nones are the group that most closely reflects the demographic composition of the country.

The score of the Nones is 6.9, 1.5 points lower than the 4th-ranked Buddhists but their racial distribution nearly matches that of the nation as a whole. Just a few years back, this was not the case, and there are still ways to go. Atheists and agnostics are still overwhelmingly white. Moreover, while the Pew post discusses racial diversity, this is not the only source of diversity. The group is still mostly male, though some progress has been made. It would have been nice to see how gender diversity could affect the rankings.

The good news about this chart is that the Nones are growing parallel to the general population. That was the subject of my first talk at the CFI leadership conference at the end of July and it is great to see it in an infographic. The group is drawing from the country’s racial diversity. In other words, the Nones look like America.

Air Conditioning is the Key to Rise of the Nones

A new Baylor University study of counties in the United States finds that those with “with more beautiful weather and scenery have lower rates of membership and affiliation with religious organizations.” It makes sense looking at the top metro areas in terms of their percentage of religious nones. Portland, Ore. (42 percent), Seattle, San Francisco (33 percent each), and Denver (32 percent) rank as the least religious metro areas according to the American Values Atlas (see chart below). They are also beautiful places, and great for outdoor activities.

Click to see full size

The metro areas with the lowest percentages of nones tend to be in the South. Nashville, with 15 percent finally caught up to the rest of the country (in 2008). After the capital of country music, Charlotte has the lowest percentage with 17 percent. Several Southern cities are also tied in the next tier. In Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Orlando the none population is 18 percent, as is in Pittsburgh , which has the lowest percentage of nones in a non-Southern city.Yup, hot weather and religion go together.

The lesson of the Baylor study is that the secular movement needs to invest in nice buildings with air conditioning. Maybe that’s why mega churches in the region are legion. Air conditioning can create heaven on Earth, at least in places where the weather approaches hellish temperatures.

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

I was in Buffalo over the weekend. Not really in Buffalo exactly but in Amherst, NY at the Center for Inquiry’s global domination headquarters. I was a featured speaker at CFI’s annual leadership conference. This year’s theme “Moving Freethought Forward” clearly aligned with my current research interests in race and politics among secular Americans.

I arrived in Buffalo on Friday morning after being stranded for a while on Thursday night (airport celebrity sightings: Curt Schilling and Sen. Elizabeth Warren). After a brief check-in at the hotel and working a little on the first of my two presentations, I went to the CFI headquarters and was able to catch some of the morning sessions. The speakers in those sessions were some of the student participants discussing how their own college (or high school groups) organize and conduct events. The CFI staff also presented about some of their projects.

Watching those presentations gave me an idea of who most of my audience was (the other audience members were leaders of CFI branches, who at the time attended a different event). My first presentation was on the increasing diversity of secular Americans. While initially I focused on race, building on my presentation at the American Humanist Association conference in May, I shifted gears a bit and also discussed sex and gender identity. The movement, or at least the greater secular community, is not just a collection of old white males. Using data from my previous employers, the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) and Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), I showed that the percentage of people of color and women have increased over time among the “nones.” I also included data on LGBT Americans that shows high levels of secularism among this population.

Sharing the stage with James Baldwin and Nemesio Canales
Sharing the stage with James Baldwin and Nemesio Canales

After the statistical part of the presentation I discussed why these groups are increasingly secular. While education is part of the explanation, I moved away from the usual STEM explanation: that as people learn about science they become more secular. Instead I argued that questioning the power structures in society can be a path to secularism. The picture on the left shows the slide where I placed two secular thinkers of color: James Baldwin and Nemesio Canales. Their secularism wasn’t the kind that refutes religion with science but the one that questions divine authority in light of very inefficient results.

I finished the presentation with a segway to my next presentation. In a slide showing different political leaders of different religions I made the argument that the politics of religious groups in America vary by race: white and black Protestants vote differently, as do white and Latino Catholics. But this is not the case with the Nones.

Trying to explain how to make up for a 40-year organizational deficit.
Trying to explain how to make up for a 40-year organizational deficit.

My second presentation compared a bit the secular left and religious right. They are mirror images of each other, with the exception that the latter is a major force in American conservatism, and the former a bunch of people who tend to agree on political and social issues. My goal was to show that regardless of nomenclature (nones, atheists, agnostics), secular Americans largely agree on the issues that are important today. Moreover, they also have similar levels of political party affiliation, and have been abandoning the GOP in the last quarter-century.

I liked how my presentations were received. Several students and leaders talked to me about what they liked and to continue a bit the conversation. Overall, it was a great conference. The diverse faces in the crowd: young men and women reflective of America’s diverse population give me hope about the future of the movement. Of course, the conference was not possible without the hard work of the CFI crew. I was finally able to meet Debbie Goddard in person and chat again with Paul Fidalgo. I also met Sarah Kaiser, Stef McGraw, and Cody Hashman, who made my life easier handling logistics and tech. And I had the opportunity to meet some amazing fellow presenters: Columbia’s Melanie Brewster, a rising star in the secular scholarly community; Desiree Schell is the person who can put in practice whatever theory of politics I come up with; Keith Lowell Jensen made my face hurt with his jokes, especially those about Max, his 5-year old tweeting daughter; and is always good to see James Croft, one of the most engaging speakers around and whose presentation was, luckily, after mine. I also want to thank Matt Enloe for tweeting a storm, the pictures in this post come from his account.