It’s a great moment for atheist and agnostic Americans. Nonbelief is selling books. Nonbelief is giving the Faith and Values punditry a Fresh New Angle. Nonbelief is providing a symbolic and therapeutic refuge for Red-Staters escaping from abusive Fundamentalist homes. Nonbelief is generating buzz. Nonbelief is hot!
Yet all of this obscures a point of no small relevance: Nonbelief is in a state of complete political disrepair. It lacks everything from effective and recognizable leadership to grass roots infrastructure. In terms of size (i.e., votes) it is dwarfed by the ranks of believing secularists (not to mention believing non-secularists).
The crucial distinction between believing and nonbelieving secularists (see below) is lost on many and it is not unusual to find even opinion makers equating secularism with nonbelief. The recent success of the so-called “New Atheist” writers has done much to foster the perception that a “secularist” is not only a nonbeliever, but a person who profoundly loathes religion. All religion.
That distinction surely was lost on many who watched CNN’s YouTube debate two months ago featuring the Democratic presidential candidates. A young participant’s query drew attention to one of this election season’s most intriguing (and under-reported) storylines: the paradoxical predicament of American nonbelief.
Describing himself as a citizen who “does not believe in God,” one Stephen Marsh opined:
I about the amount of time given to evangelical concerns while secular voters are more or less getting snubbed . . . So my question is this: Am I wrong in fearing a Democratic administration that may be [giving] lip service to the extremely religious as much as the current one? And if so, why?
Mr. Marsh is not wrong in fearing that the Democratic Party’s presidential frontrunners are pandering to the religious. His reference to “secular voters,” however, requires a little greater precision. I recently noted that American secularism, as conceived in political terms, consists of two distinct, albeit overlapping, constituencies.
The first is represented by people like Mr. Marsh: nonbelievers who favor strict separation of Church and State. The second secular constituency consists of believers who favor strict separation of Church and State.
I will tackle the prohibitively complex dilemma of the true size of the atheist and agnostic movement in a future post. For now I simply observe that believing secularists are an immensely larger and more lucrative cohort. As far as political mobilization goes they are a “pre-fab” constituency.
You want to mobilize scads of believing secularists? Then speak to Mainline Protestants. Consult with liberal Catholics. Go kibitzing in almost any synagogue. Build bridges with your American Muslim compatriots. And never forget that there are probably more than a few million secular Evangelicals out there to boot (hint: spend quality time with disaffected Baptists).
You want to mobilize nonbelievers? Then speak to . . . who exactly do you speak to? Since atheists and agnostics don’t periodically congregate in any one place (like a church, synagogue or mosque, for example) where and how do you sign them up? Since their rhetoric of late has turned virulently anti-religious how do you get them to lock arms with believing secularists (or vice versa?).
Permit me, then, to offer a few answers to Mr. Marsh’s question.
Yes, Democratic strategists understand that they cannot be too closely associated with a small, wildly unpopular group of godless Americans with no discernible political organization.
Yes, the Party is doing all in its power to shuck its godless image (consider everything from Howard Dean’s appearance on Pat Roberston’s 700 Club to the religious imaging consultants on the staffs of all the presidential frontrunners).
Yes, its candidates are paying “lip service” (and more than just that) to religious voters.
Yes, that young man asked an excellent question.
No, it’s not a grand political moment for godlessness in America. To quote Lyndon Baines Johnson, “If you have a mother-in-law with only one eye and she has it in the center of her forehead, you don’t keep her in the living room.” The ironic truth is that nonbelievers (who are a rather youthful demographic) have become that aging, unsightly matriarch in the eyes of cynical Democrats.
But as they also say in D.C., “catastrophe breeds opportunity.” On Thursday, I unveil my proposal for rescuing nonbelief from its current malaise.
By Jacques Berlinerblau |
September 18, 2007; 8:48 AM ET
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