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Oct 05 2011

Far from being in thrall?

Is secularism really winning in the US?

The US is increasingly portrayed as a hotbed of religious fervour. Yet in the homeland of ostentatiously religious politicians such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, agnostics and atheists are actually part of one of the fastest-growing demographics in the US: the godless. Far from being in thrall to its religious leaders, the US is in fact becoming a more secular country, some experts say. “It has never been better to be a free-thinker or an agnostic in America,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF.

Well, it depends on what you mean by “in thrall” and “fast becoming” and the like. It also depends on what you mean by ”a hotbed of religious fervour” and “the homeland of ostentatiously religious politicians.” In other words it’s some of both. The US is becoming a more secular country in some ways, but it’s also becoming a less secular country in other ways. The US is in thrall to its religious leaders in the sense that religious zealots get elected to public office, including high public office, and several are running for president, with considerable success so far. The fact that agnostics and atheists are part of  growing demographic doesn’t rule out the fact that religious leaders entrance many people.

The exact number of faithless is unclear. One study by the Pew Research Centre puts them at about 12% of the population, but another by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford puts that figure at around 20%.

Most experts agree that the number of secular Americans has probably doubled in the past three decades – growing especially fast among the young. It is thought to be the fastest-growing major “religious” demographic in the country.

Good, good, but that still leaves a lot of people. The article goes on to admit that.

Yet there is little doubt that religious groups still wield enormous influence in US politics and public life, especially through the rightwing of the Republican party. Groups such as Focus on the Family are well-funded and skilful lobbyists.

However, it is still a brave US politician who openly declares a lack of faith. So far just one member of Congress, Californian Democrat Pete Stark, has admitted that he does not believe in God.

Well quite. We’re making progress, but it’s a mistake to exaggerate it.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Thomas Lawson

    I’d like to think it’s going to stick this time around.

  2. 2
    Rieux

    (My apologies if this is a double post; it doesn’t look to me as if the first attempt went through.)

    The fact that agnostics and atheists are part of [a] growing demographic….

    Well, we also have more power, socially and even politically, than we have in the past. That isn’t saying much, in light of how horribly disempowered we were (always have been), but it’s not just a flat “there are more of us numerically” bit.

    None of which contradicts the other points in the OP. More power than basically-zero-power ain’t much. More social acceptance than basically-zero-social-acceptance isn’t either. Religion and its privileged and/or atheophobic supporters still have the upper hand, overwhelmingly. But the trend is nevertheless encouraging.

  3. 3
    Jeff D

    In most areas of Amurrican culture except electoral politics, secularism and secular values seem to be making slow but steady gains, perhaps with demographics deserving most of the thanks. I’m hopeful that someday soon, general levels of honest doubt and skepticism will have increased sufficiently so that huge groups of believers-in-belief will drop the pretense of belief, stop going to church, and stop rewarding and reinforcing those who make the noisiest, most pious god-talk in public. In other words, we will become more like folks in the U.K.

    But there is a lot of work ahead. Somewhere this week I saw a video clip of Frank Newport of the Gallup organization, summarizing the changes in survey responses (between 1958 and 2012) to a series of questions asking whether the respondent would vote to elect an otherwise well-qualified person as President of the U.S., if that person was _______.” When “black,” a “woman,” a “Catholic,” a “Jew,” a “Mormon,” a “Hispanic,” a gay or lesbian person, or an atheist. The 2012 Gallup survey results, from June, are at http://www.gallup.com/poll/148100/Hesitant-Support-Mormon-2012.aspx.

    Between 1958 and 2012, the number of respondents who were not willing to vote for a qualified black person, woman, Catholic, Jew, etc. dropped preciptiously. But the number of respondents who would not be willing to vote for an atheist Presidential candidate dropped from about 90 percent to 49 percent. That 49 percent “no” response is an outlier. The next highest “no” vote percentage was for a gay or lesbian candidate (32 percent), followed by a Mormon candiate (22 percent), and Hispanic candidate (only 10 percent “no”), with black, female, Catholic, Baptist, and Jewish candidates all receiving “no” responses of 9 percent or less.

  4. 4
    John Morales

    It always bugs me when secular is used as a synonym for non-religious.

    (When people maintain that such as the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is secular, I grimace)

  5. 5
    Ophelia Benson

    John, I know. I quoted as little as possible of the misuse of “secular” from the article, but one made it in nevertheless.

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