What I’m Reading

The Lost Cause Rides Again (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) A must-read about HBO's ill-conceived "Confederate" show proposal.

Progress Never Just Happens— We Must Always Fight For It (Sara Pevar, The Establishment) A good reminder that all the progress that we have achieved wasn't the result of some magical decision by people to finally stop being jerks. It happens because some people cared and fought for it.

Democracy is dying – and it’s startling how few people are worried (Paul Mason, The Guardian) All over the planet, illiberalism is growing…and people don't seem to care.

The Rise of Dystopian Fiction: From Soviet Dissidents to 70's Paranoia to Murakami (Yvonne Shiau, Electric Literature) The early pioneers of dystopian futures didn't need much imagination.

Representation requires more than votes

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.

 

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.