The New Secular Strategy

Jul 9, 2013

Organized religion is slowly dying in America, following a trend already being witnessed in Europe among the non-Muslim population. Here are some interesting figures from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which lists by generation the percentage of religiously unaffiliated in the U.S. as of October 9, 2012:

Greatest (born 1913-1927)________________5
Silent (born 1928-1945) __________________9
Boomers (born 1946-1964)______________ 15
GenXers (born 1965-1980)_______________ 21
Older Millennials (born 1981-1989)_______30
Younger Millennials (born 1990-1994)____34

Overall, nonreligious Americans (“Nones”) constitute 20 percent of the total population compared to 48 percent Protestants and 22 percent Catholics, with the remaining 10 percent everyone else. Jews and Mormons each constitute about 2 percent while no other major world religion can claim more than 1 percent.

Among the Nones, only 6 percent of Americans admit to out-and-out agnosticism or atheism, although there are reasons to think this is an underestimate of actual convictions. Many Nones say they are “nonreligious but spiritual.” Unfortunately, surveys have not yet gathered sufficient data to unpack what this means.

Based on individual comments, at one end of spirit spectrum among the nonreligious-but-spiritual you will find the New Age quantum spirituality of Deepak Chopra, where matter is an illusion and reality is whatever you want it to be. At the other end, you will find those who accept that the universe is very likely matter and nothing more but consider themselves “spiritual” because of their love for humanity and the environment.

Nonetheless, a common attribute among the Nones seems to be their personal rejection of organized religion, which they perceive as detrimental to society. They recognize the irrationality of making judgments, including public policies, based on traditional, dogmatic faith rather than evidence. Perhaps they are best described as seculars.

What’s rather astonishing is that the seculars, who almost match Catholics in actual numbers and far exceed every other group except Protestants, have had so little influence on American society. But this may be changing. On the Fourth of July, full-page adds appeared in big-city dailies across the country, including a beautiful color spread in the New York Times, celebrating “Our Godless Constitution.” The cost of these ads alone indicates that the support for secular causes has grown to the point where public outreach is now possible as it never was before.

Pictures of six of the founding fathers — Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and the first four presidents — were accompanied by quotations from each that laid out in no uncertain terms that the United States of America was not founded on Christian principles. Rather, it was based on the values of the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment, when for a brief time, reason was allowed to challenge the magical thinking that has ruled humanity throughout history.

The ads were purchased by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the largest and most effective secular voice in the nation with about 20,000 members. Although referred to by the media as an “atheist group,” FFRF does not promote atheism but rather the right of everyone to speak and think freely without coercion. The organization takes legal actions that challenge the misuse of tax dollars by local and state governments in support of sectarian institutions, and confront those officials who unilaterally promote Christian teachings while doing their best to suppress all others — in particular, nonbelief.

Operating out of Madison, Wisconsin, FFRF has a legal staff that has been very effective in fighting off attempts to erode the wall of separation of church and state. Although FFRF files an occasional lawsuit, their lawyers mostly send letters to government officials that elucidate the applicable laws and constitutional principles. The officials usually back down on advice of their own lawyers and to avoid the cost of fighting the issue in court.

Here’s how I understand the basic conclusions of past legal challenges by FFRF and other secular organizations, as they have been ruled in the courts:

(1) Governments may not sponsor any events or conduct any rituals (such as prayers) that favor one religious sect over another, or over no religion;
(2) Religious displays and rituals (such as prayers) may be located on public property, provided equal space is given to other religions and no religion, and no public resources are expended.

This seems to be leading to a new strategy by which secular groups can have their messages heard without infringing on any other group’s right to have its message heard. Recently, American Atheists attracted national attention when it installed a monument, a 1,500-pound granite bench, right next to a Ten Commandments statue outside the Bradford County courthouse in Starke, Florida. The AA monument contains engraved quotations from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and the late founder of the group, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was much reviled after her actions led the Supreme Court in 1963 to ban Bible-reading in public schools.

FFRF, AA, and other secular groups have posted messages on billboards around the country and have attempted, not always successfully, to place winter solstice messages alongside the nativity displays that are commonly found on public property in many communities during the holiday season.

Rather than protest the religious displays, which has not met with much success anyway, the new strategy is, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” It seems to be working. If public spaces are to be open forums and all voices are heard, then how can anyone complain?

As this article was ready to post, it was reported that the Daily Oklahoman refused to publish the FFRF ad. Oklahoma is the home of Hobby Lobby, whose “In God We Trust” ads appeared even more widely on July 4th.