Atheists making political inroads


For the first time ever, a majority of Americans would now vote for a qualified presidential candidate who is an atheist. Fifty-four percent said so in a Gallup poll published last month. The poll seems to indicate that today’s secular movement, though still flying under the radar of many Americans, is producing results. The United States is witnessing a growing, empowered nonreligious demographic.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, about 15 percent of Americans identify as “none” when asked for religious identity, almost double the number who did so in 1990. Thus, the improved prospects of a theoretical atheist presidential candidate — up from only 18 percent when the question was first asked in 1958 — reflect progress for America’s seculars.

This newfound tolerance for secularity is reaching the highest levels. President Barack Obama has included nonbelievers several times in his description of American pluralism, including a direct reference in his inaugural address. Secular groups also scored a victory in 2010 when they met withWhite House officials to discuss policy issues of concern to them — the first such official recognition of American nonbelievers ever.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the momentum of secularism more than the Secular Student Alliance, the national umbrella organization for college atheists, which has expanded from just a few dozen campus groups in 2007 to more than 350 today. Last year the alliance began venturing into high schools, a move that is sure to further normalize atheism at the grassroots level.

Secular activists like to describe their movement in terms of what it stands for — reason, critical thinking, science and ethics — but the movement can perhaps best be understood by what it stands against: the overbearing influence of religious conservatism in America. In fact, the fast growth of the modern secular movement in many ways reflects a new form of opposition to the religious right.

Although the religious right has always had opponents, most of its adversaries haven’t been very effective. Since Jerry Falwell‘s newly formed Moral Majority helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, politically engaged religious fundamentalists have exerted more influence with virtually every election cycle, while few efforts to slow down the juggernaut of the Christian right have been successful.

Written By: David Niose
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  1. Whilst this is very welcome news it seems to contradict everything that we on the U.K. side of the pond usually hear, regarding the rising power of the religious right in the U.S.It will be very interesting to see exactly the proportion of the vote secured by Romney,to see if these statistics hold water.

  2. While most atheists wouldn’t want to vote for Romney there are some who would, either because they have very right-leaning economic views and consider them of higher importance than their disagreement with his religious views, or because they see Obama’s working with liberal religious leaders as being no different than Romney’s religious right backing and consider that issue a wash (I don’t understand how you could see them as equivalent levels of religiosity, but there are people who do).

    I don’t think it’s a smart idea to presume that a rise in atheism automatically translates into a rise in left-leaning politics over right-leaning politics.  And it’s especially a bad idea to set it up such that you’d conclude “oh look Romney won, I guess that means atheism isn’t really on the rise after all.”

    For an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about consider your UK celebrity Jeremy Clarkson.  He constantly makes fun of fundamentalist religious views as being utterly stupid and idiotic (especially when he can use that as a means to make fun of American fundamentalists), yet is still quite right-leaning when it comes to his political views about everything other than religion – to the point of even being a global warming denialist.  There is space for a Jeremy Clarkson in the UK but not the US specifically *because* there’s less tie between religion and politics in the UK than in the US, and thus in the UK knowing somebody is an atheist or at least not particularly strongly religious does not guarantee you can predict their political views from that alone, while in the US if you guess “left” you will be correct an overwhelming majority of the time.

    As acceptance of atheism by politicians rises, and as atheists stop being a demographic that it is politically safe to ridicule, expect to see more right-leaning atheists come out of the woodwork and declare themselves more openly.  At the moment they have to be careful and quiet about it because of how deeply intertwined fundamentalism is with the Republican party.  Remember it wasn’t *always* that way.

  3. “Secular activists like to describe their movement in terms of what it stands for — reason, critical thinking, science and ethics — but the movement can perhaps best be understood by what it stands against: the overbearing influence of religious conservatism in America.”

    I feel it’s very important that the emphasis here is on the “for” rather than “against”.
    People need to hear positive messages from atheist organizations. 

  4. The right is quite aware of this. That’s why they’re trying to create wedges, such as the recent division between cryptoradical “Mens’ Rights” Activists and the dogmatic/legalistic faction of feminists. The MRAs are very sneaky, and will tend to draw more support, particularly as 1) a lot of time has been spent trying to make feminists seem completely unreasonable 2) they sometimes actually are unreasonable (like most other groups, c.f. ).

  5. A welcome article, especially in such an otherwise bland ‘newspaper for everybody’ as Newsday. Simply reporting that atheists are increasingly accepted goes to further increase that acceptance. 

  6. Steven – good comment, but now you have fallen into the same trap and linked climate change denial to the right wing?

  7. This is good news.

    Could it be that the backward march of time has slowed? That the religious con-artist clowns have been found out?

    It’s a pity that Hitchens senior isn’t still with us to witness this development.

  8. Or linking 
    climate change denial to science denying cocks like Jeremy Clarkson. He recently made a joke about taking out strikers and having them all shot. Oh how we split our sides at that one.

  9. I’ve always believed that common sense based on empiricism existed in the USA;but it appears that now it’s starting to rear its pretty head.
    I’m raising a glass of classy Long Island Chardonnay.

  10. I’ve been a committed atheist since I was 14; but am also a right wing libertarian believing in the treasure of free speech.
    Leftist fascists now embrace Grascian political correctness forming an alliance with Islamofascists to oppose American dominance.
    I believe that show business should develope more satire of religion ;such as with the Life of Brian; which these days would be prohibited, if a similar satire was aimed at Mohammedans.

  11. Hi Snackbar. I’m on the right too in a libertarian, personal freedom, green way and I am increasingly concerned that the media, who are generally and naturally left-leaning, will eventually be an unwitting participant in the return of dictatorship in the west. Their constant cry of “something must be done” and their hostility to any form of government cutback, leads to ever bigger government and less space for individuality. Not only that, States around the world are tooling up with surveillance and tracking hardware – ID Cards, cameras, spy drones etc. These are the tools beloved of dictators and apparantly by our elected politicians. Of course, it’s all done for our own protection and safety.

  12. As an American, I don’t know … It’s a day-by-day migration. Some days I feel like the tides are definitely turning and our secular advancements are quite large. And then, there are days where I simply can’t believe what’s happening in my country.

    I agree with your political points. I consider myself a social liberal, but I’m fiscally conservative. I think where the State’s politics diverge from Britain’s (and much of the rest of the civilized world) is in the sheer polarization of our political parties. I think many outside the U.S. simply don’t understand how loony things are getting. Our system is broken, ideas don’t matter at all anymore. The only thing people care about in America is what party you belong to … not the merit and value of the ideas you bring to the table.

    Personally, I think the only sustainable goal politically, socially, economically, etc; is to create a Global Society built on shared experience and understanding. If we are still talking about “nations” in 100 years, I don’t think we make it another 100. If we don’t merge into a collective-culture where progress of the species (as a whole) is put before nation-state ideologies and partisan politics, I’m afraid we simply don’t make it. Technology and the rate/means of destroying ourselves will simply become too vast for a society still fixated on boarders of floating mantle and crust.

  13. The media is not “naturally” left-leaning, or indeed left-leaning at all. The public is, or at least has been perceived to be, and the media attempts to curry favour with the public to maximise profitability.

    I’d ask: if it is naturally left-leaning, what is the origin of that nature? What political, socioeconomic, etc, forces create it?

    The (US and much international) media has a leftish/liberal/social liberal style, i.e. it is neoliberal, and mentions some leftist groups (rarely, and in a misrepresentative way) but the arguments and agendas are not left-wing, except in a few rare cases, e.g. the Maddow show, which actually goes out of its way to be balanced in making those arguments.

    This is easy to see if you watch some actual left-wing channels like “The Real News” or “Democracy Now”, both of which are far more scrupulously concerned with accuracy than their right-wing equivalents.

    Even if that wasn’t all so, how do you square FNC with the idea that the media is all/naturally/inherently left-leaning?

    ID cards, cameras and drones have nothing to do with left-wing views. It’s in large part been the left who has objected to and protested against the drones.

    “Their constant cry of “something must be done” and their hostility to any form of government cutback”

    Which is resolved by a constant cry of “nothing must be done” and unquestioning joy at any government cutback? That’s the kind of anti-government dogmatism that leads to people saying things like “keep the government’s hands off my medicare!”
    I’m no statist. However, it’s silly to say all government is all bad all the time.

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