Credit: Gallup/Matt Stiles/NPR
As the number of nonreligious people in America continues to rise, a coalition called Openly Secular hopes to leverage that momentum and encourage more people to come forward and be open about their secular views.
The primary mission of Openly Secular is to raise awareness about the discrimination atheists and other nonreligious people face on a regular basis—a pattern of prejudice that is often silent and largely disregarded by the media. By raising awareness and encouraging all nontheists to be open about their beliefs, Openly Secular aims to dispel the social stigma surrounding the nonreligious community and ultimately end the discrimination that comes with it.
The very practice of being honest and open promotes tolerance and naturally encourages others to do the same. Unfortunately right now, in many communities in America, the nonreligious know that by being open about their views, they risk the loss of family relationships, friendships, and community. Furthermore, being true to their own reasoning and heart carries the possibility of workplace harassment, loss of business, and social alienation.
As the nonreligious population in the United States grows, Openly Secular is uniquely positioned to demonstrate that—like all people—secularists are worthy of acceptance, common decency, respect and equality, no matter their religious views, or lack of them.
When more people choose to be open, and therefore, as familiarity and trust grows, a community of love and respect is created.
THE RISE OF THE NONRELIGIOUS
Numerous studies and statistics in the past decade have demonstrated that the number of nonreligious Americans continues to grow:
- An October 2014 study by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group found 38 percent of American adults are “churchless” or “post-Christian” and “essentially secular in belief and practice.” Further, 48 percent of those in the Millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 2002) are churchless.1
- A study by the Pew Research Center on Religion & Public Life revealed that from 2007 to 2012 the proportion of religiously unaffiliated American adults increased from just over 15 percent to just below 20 percent. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6 percent of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14 percent).2
- A new study released in February, by the Public Religion Research Institute, called the American Values Atlas, shows that the percentage of Americans who identify as unaffiliated may be even higher than the Pew Research Center report indicated. Its survey reveals that 22 percent identify as unaffiliated in 2014— the second largest group nationally, in terms of religious affiliation.3
- A late 2014 study called “The American Freshman” produced by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, demonstrates that the trend towards nonaffiliation is especially notable among the young. The number of college freshmen today who affiliate as “Nones,” is 27%, compared with 15% in 1971.4
These figures are amplified in the academic community:
- In a 2013 meta-survey, two philosophers, David Bourget and David Chalmers, found that 73 percent of philosophers said they accepted or were inclined to atheism, while 15 percent accepted or were inclined to theism.5
- The findings noted above reflect a similar stance within the scientific community. A paper called “Leading Scientists Still Reject God” appeared in a 1998 issue of Nature after authors Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham replicated surveys done in the early 1900s by sending out the same questionnaire to hundreds of members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. They found more than three-quarters of respondents had a personal disbelief in God.
THE STILL PREVALENT SOCIAL STIGMA
Despite the raw data reflecting the increasing number of secular Americans, many are still made to feel like social outcasts when they decide to be open about their nonreligious views. For instance:
- When asked to rate each group on a “feeling thermometer” ranging from 0 to 100—where 0 reflects the coldest, most negative possible rating and 100 the warmest, most positive rating—the public gives atheists an average rating of 41. Only one group scored lower; Muslims received an average rating of 40.6
- Atheists received a neutral rating of 50, on average, from people who say they personally know an atheist, but they received a cold rating of 29 from those who do not know an atheist.7
- More than three-quarters of white evangelicals (77 percent) and two-thirds of black Protestants (67 percent) would be unhappy if a family member were to marry an atheist, as would 55 percent of Catholics and 46 percent of white mainline Protestants.8
- Atheism is the most negatively viewed trait for presidential candidates seeking office. Just over half (53 percent) say they would be less likely to vote for someone who does not believe in God, while only 5 percent say this would make them more likely to support a candidate.9
- When it comes to electing an American president, people are less likely to vote for atheist candidates (53 percent less likely) than candidates who have had an extramarital affair (35 percent less likely) or who have used marijuana (22 percent less likely).10
The rise in the secular population in America reflects slowly shifting societal conceptions and beliefs. There are likely many contributing factors, most notably the massive Millennial population (individuals born between 1980 and 2002)—a demographic more tolerant of diversity than their counterparts in prior generations.
And as the population of nonbelievers grows, acceptance should come along with it. A study by University of Kentucky psychology professor Will Gervais demonstrated that if people perceive there is a prevalence of nonbelievers in their community (or country), that distrust and stigma diminishes — which makes this documented rise in the sheer numbers of nonbelievers encouraging.11
However, acceptance will take time. Even as the nonreligious population continues to surge, those who consider themselves religious still find it difficult to trust those who do not. The social stigma lingers, and its effects can still be devastating.
In 2013 Gervais published a research report examining the use of social psychology to solve the puzzle of antiatheist prejudice. He summarized, saying, “Antipathy towards atheists derives specifically from moral distrust—to many people, belief in a watchful, moralizing God is seen as a uniquely powerful and perhaps necessary component of morality. Without religious belief, atheists are viewed as moral wildcards who cannot be trusted.”12
Discrimination against nonbelievers takes on all forms. Openly Secular has heard from people all over the world who have experienced broken family relationships, loss of dear friends, and workplace bullying. In one of the more extreme experiences, a six-year old girl was violently assaulted by classmates on the school bus when she told them she did not believe in God. It’s clear that society’s lack of understanding about the secular population has very real implications and awareness needs to be raised.
This prejudice is also evident in the political realm, where being open about non-belief is an insuperable barrier to election. Moreover, seven states still bar atheists from holding office—a ban that violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on religious tests for public office, but remain on the books because no lawmaker wants to be seen supporting its repeal.
Therefore, bringing about the acceptance of secular Americans has large implications for who we are as a nation and our commitment to living up to our shared values. And there is precedence—history has shown this nation can evolve and become more accepting of once socially unacceptable practices—like a woman’s right to vote or marriage equality.
Openly Secular is banking on history. As more and more members of society go public with their secular beliefs, others will feel safe doing the same and follow suit. And as those numbers continue the rise, the distrust will diminish as people realize that these are still their beloved family members, neighbors and co-workers. As a result, America will continue to evolve and fulfill its mandate as a nation that loves thy neighbor and cherishes tolerance and diversity.
3 https://ava.publicreligion.org/#religious/2014/States/religion/16; http://www.alternet.org/belief/americans-turning-away-organized-religion-record-numbers
5 http://philpapers.org/rec/BOUWDP; p. 15
About OPENLY SECULAR
Openly Secular is a coalition with a campaign to raise awareness and eliminate discrimination against secular people – including atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, and humanists. The organization is comprised of more than two dozen nonreligious organizations, led by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, and Stiefel Freethought Foundation. www.openlysecular.org