The Steady Rise of The Nonreligious

Mar 10, 2015

Credit: Gallup/Matt Stiles/NPR

THE BACKGROUND

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 ANALYSIS

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.


1 https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/685-five-trends-among-the-unchurched#.VFMbMovF-PS

2 http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/
3 https://ava.publicreligion.org/#religious/2014/States/religion/16http://www.alternet.org/belief/americans-turning-away-organized-religion-record-numbers
4 http://heri.ucla.edu/monographs/TheAmericanFreshman2014.pdf
5 http://philpapers.org/rec/BOUWDP; p. 15
6 http://www.pewforum.org/2014/07/16/how-americans-feel-about-religious-groups/
7 ibid
8 http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/16/so-you-married-an-atheist/
9 http://www.people-press.org/2014/05/19/for-2016-hopefuls-washington-experience-could-do-more-harm-than-good/
10 ibid
11 http://psp.sagepub.com/content/37/4/543.abstract
12 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/spc3.12035/abstract


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

29 comments on “The Steady Rise of The Nonreligious

  • Christianity requires peer pressure to prevail. It prevailed so long because it was able to ruthlessly stamp out any opposition. Christians work very hard to ensure their children hear of no other possibility. Parents even discourage children from reading the bible for themselves least they discover its errors and inconsistencies. Cloistering is getting harder and harder by the day. Christians may rule TV, but they do not rule the Internet. Christianity is a house of cards. I am glad I was born at this time in history so that I could watch its collapse at least in Canada and to have had a small role in its demise.



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  • “Christianity is a house of cards. I am glad I was born at this time in history so that I could watch its collapse…”

    Is this an example of the tolerance of diversity which the rise in the secular population will bring?



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  • We have many things, like cancer, that we endure, even tolerate, that we will be glad to see the back of. Tolerance does not lesson the want for something to end that is the essence of intolerance itself.



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  • …the number of nonreligious people in America continues to rise

    Bravo Openly Secular!

    …more and more members of society go public with their secular
    beliefs

    That is wonderful. I think that public persons like actors (which have great influence upon public) should talk more of secular qualities and advertise non religious views. I have also a little remark about beliefs in this sentence. There is no such thing as secular beliefs as far as I am concerned, but I can understand that they probably had to use this word in order to make statements understood by believers.



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  • In my opinion, religions in general are increasingly being shown up to be relics of the past. As with many aspects of life one finds those that welcome positive change, those that observe change happening and those that wonder what happened. The extremely rapid growth in knowledge is proving difficult for the masses to keep up!



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  • I have been a non-believer for most of my life. Not just Christianity but all religions that I have lived around in the Middle East and Asia and even in places where to admit non belief in any of them could result in death. Where I decided that I could not accept what they were selling was during my Conformation study in the Episcopal Church. My conclusion was “This is all too far fetched and unbelievable to have any base in reality” but in the early 1940s for me to admit such a thing would bring more strife than I could handle.
    It is a bit better now but so called People of Faith seem to have a license to hate and entertain prejudice against anyone who does not blindly follow their lead and put their money in the collection plate. They claim to Love thy Neighbor but I can confirm that aint true. I am an out Atheist, a male to female trans. person and a member of the LBGT community and as such these People of Faith consider me to be a threat to life on this planet. The facts that I am a Veteran, have been a volunteer helping the elderly and sick and live a productive life in the community makes little difference to those who consider people such as I to be the devil incarnate. They insist it comes from the voice of God, they hear him and that is the only time when you hear voices that you are not considered to have a mental problem.
    It makes me sad that so many good people, a number of them politicians are busy trying to spread hatred and prejudice in an effort to diminish the lives of other good people and insisting that those people are not good enough to have equal rights. Then we have the wars all around the planet mostly based on “My God is better than your God” If this God guy did exist he would have one hell of a lot to answer for.



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  • For me, the essence of a tolerant society is one in which the citizens have respect for each other. The tolerant person is someone who is able to find a common humanity with people whose lifestyles and opinions and very different to their own; even with people whose lifestyles are in active opposition to their own.



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  • 9
    hisxmark says:

    That is a “liberal” attitude. To the conservative, opposition is an indication of basic evil. Liberals see complexity. Conservatives simplify. Liberals are willing to compromise. Conservatives stand on their principles. Liberals look toward a better future, which may never exist, conservatives look to a past that never existed. Liberals value justice. Conservatives value obedience. Liberals tend to tolerance, conservatives to righteousness.



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  • 10
    dcrobertson01 says:

    Yes – we should respect peoples rights to hold views, but that does not mean we have to respect their views. It doesn’t mean we can’t actively oppose those views.

    We don’t have to respect people who hold racist or sexist views, and act in a racist or sexist way. We don’t have to respect people who are corrupt or lie, cheat and steal.

    The thing that annoys me about people who go on about how we have to respect them is they are often the first people to try to shout down anyone who disagrees with them.



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  • “The thing that annoys me about people who go on about how we have to respect them…”

    Nobody is obliged to respect other people. But I don’t think a disrespect for law-abiding others suggests an evolution towards a society that “cherishes tolerance and diversity”.



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  • Ewan Mar 11, 2015 at 3:05 am

    “Christianity is a house of cards. I am glad I was born at this time in history so that I could watch its collapse…”

    Is this an example of the tolerance of diversity which the rise in the secular population will bring?

    No! It is a recognition of the true nature of religions viewed impartially without the rose-tinted spectacles each group of believers use to view their own.
    The history of religions, as told by historical records, as distinct from rosy-blinkered mythologist versions, is one of woeful abuses glossed over with PR spin and the rewriting of events to paint activities of the chosen religion in a good light.
    Gluttonous monks living in palatial monasteries funded from the surrounding areas, pretending to help the poor, while spending twice as much on rich foods for themselves as on the poor they were purporting to be helping! (The archaeologists analysis of skeletons and monastery accounting documents confirm this.)

    While peasants were living short harsh lives, do you never ask where the money for the lavish cathedrals and monasteries came from? (Or the golden thrones and palaces lavished with the finest art in the Vatican.)

    The pastors with megachurches, limousines, and private jets, are the modern equivalent.



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  • @OP – 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.

    US politics has decades of intellectual catching up before its politicians are on a par with those in Europe.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_atheists_in_politics_and_law#United_Kingdom

    … . . . and when we come to science:-

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_atheists_in_science_and_technology



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  • Ewan, I’m sorry, I’m a more direct type, I find it more efficient: are you daft? Get some reading comprehension and stop victimizing yourself, it’s not impressive.

    Plus, abiding to laws doesn’t automatically make anyone respectable. As Robertson said, respecting the right to hold views is important but debating the correctness of said views is equally – if not more – important. Ideas don’t have rights, only people do.

    Look, really, I do care of people right now, I do want them smarter, I do want them stronger, I do want them to look back and facepalm at how stupid they were, as opposed to how liberated and learned they are, but I’m not fighting for a religion-less tomorrow for the actual people, but for society itself. The effects will, of course, have a positive impact on people too, but ideas are MORE important than people (because they are potentially immortal and can effect so much), hence why they should be criticized to no end, killed if they are bad and have the reason why and the method of killing public so that, in a future, if we were mistaken to kill an idea, someone can bring it back to life, by means of the same democratic criteria used to evaluate every idea.



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  • @Ewan

    We don’t have to respect people who are corrupt or lie, cheat and steal.

    This summarizes religion. Especially the lying and the cheating. How can you respect this belief.

    I will start from a position of respect with any human I meet. I will maintain that respect while it is reciprocated. But if you try to impose your will (or religion) on me, I will gradually withdraw that respect. This is what religion does. It tries to impose it’s brand X on the rest of humanity. I will never respect that. In fact, I will resist it.

    When a religious person screams and rants that I don’t respect their belief, you are dead right. I don’t. If you adhere to an idea, then defend that idea. If you can’t you can either change your idea, or if you persist, then you can continue to expect disrespect to follow. The promotion and defense of ideas is called free speech. If you don’t like what I am saying, turn down the volume, walk away, but you can expect strong resistance, if you try to invoke the law makers to prohibit my questioning of your belief. My right to say, “Hang on, it’s obvious your books are written by men, not god. Thus you have no evidence for your god.”

    Respect starts with the person but is conditional on reciprocal respect. Religious folk do not reciprocate, they evangelize. They don’t respect the native tribes they convert to their religion. They don’t respect individuals who disagree with their religiously motivated intent to have the laws of their country reflect their personal gods ideas. America would be a theocracy if it wasn’t for the constitution. The Islamic world would be cutting off hands and abusing women en masse. You want me to respect this. I don’t think so Tim.



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  • @Ewan.

    I should add, that my position on religion is that it should be practiced by consenting adults (with the emphasis on ADULTS) in private. It no longer has any privileged place in the town square or at the high table. If it wants to compete in the field of ideas, let it argue its case with supporting evidence. That is, give me some evidence that your personal god exists, and says the thing you say HE does. If you can, I’ll wear your funny clothes and impress god with my hair style. If you can’t, then back to consenting adults in private.

    This is 2015. The future of planet earth is too important to waste time with religious infections.



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  • but I’m not fighting for a religion-less tomorrow for the actual people, but for society itself.

    And of course you’re free to take part in such a fight. I would simply argue that it doesn’t suggest to me an approach based on the cherishing of tolerance and diversity.



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  • “Respect starts with the person but is conditional on reciprocal respect.”

    Not necessarily. It is possible to respect the common humanity that you have with someone even though they express nothing but disrespect for you.

    Humans are extraordinary even when they despoil their humanity.



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  • It is possible to respect the common humanity that you have with someone even though they express nothing but disrespect for you.

    Sounds spookily like “Turn the other cheek.” Nup. Not if you want to teach creation in science. Not if you want to factory farm a women’s uterus. Not if you want identify and isolate minorities in society because they don’t conform to your gods template. All without evidence. I won’t turn the other cheek.



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  • Ewan Mar 11, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    And of course you’re free to take part in such a fight. I would simply argue that it doesn’t suggest to me an approach based on the cherishing of tolerance and diversity.

    I have great respect for honesty, competence, and integrity, and while I will debate politely with people, frank exchanges of ideas are required by those seeking to agree on the truth of situations.

    That is seeking the truth about material situations, not whimsical notions of mythological unevidenced pseudo truths-by assertion.

    If we are talking about competing interests we need to evaluate and balance the interests of the various parties.

    If we are talking about science, I need to see a basis of scientific evidence. If we are talking about history, I need historical evidence. I can accept that this can be scarce or hard to find, but claims which fly in the face of the evidence are carelessness, error, delusion or dishonesty.

    Viewpoints need to earn respect. Respect or claims of expertise, cannot simply be demanded by waving a particular religious or political badge.

    (You will note that a favourite ploy of religious fundamentalist (or other) pseudo-science, is the presentation of false credentials as a badge of “authority”!) Claims based on fake credentials are commonplace in US pseudo-science publications. – they deserve no respect!

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/us/ties-to-corporate-cash-for-climate-change-researcher-Wei-Hock-Soon.html?_r=2&referrer=
    Though often described on conservative news programs as a “Harvard astrophysicist,” Dr. Soon is not an astrophysicist and has never been employed by Harvard. He is a part-time employee of the Smithsonian Institution with a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering. He has received little federal research money over the past decade and is thus responsible for bringing in his own funds, including his salary.

    Though he has little formal training in climatology, Dr. Soon has for years published papers trying to show that variations in the sun’s energy can explain most recent global warming. His thesis is that human activity has played a relatively small role in causing climate change.

    Many experts in the field say that Dr. Soon uses out-of-date data, publishes spurious correlations between solar output and climate indicators, and does not take account of the evidence implicating emissions from human behavior in climate change.



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  • Is it surprising that religious people distrust atheists? In addition to all the mystic nonsense contained in the religious holy books, they also contain the only widely known rendition of the ‘golden rule’ principles that most people in the west live by. For the last 2000 years all the useful moral examples have been swallowed up by organised religion. So when i tell somebody I am an atheist, they cannot be sure if I am also rejecting some or all of the golden rule principles. Reasonable grounds for mistrust I think.
    Better perhaps to say I am a humanist, even though that word is poorly defined. I wonder what the survey would look like if ‘humanist’ was an option, and everybody understood what that meant.



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  • 24
    neilrieck says:

    Riding on a wave of the enlightenment, the founding fathers of the United States began their new country from the perspective of Deism ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deism#Deism_in_the_United_States ) so I am always surprised when I run into Americans who claim “the USA is a Christian country” or “was founded on Christian principles”. (obviously much of this is due to lies told from the pulpit). Now if you are like me and received way too much religious education before you were able to reason then this next link may be your only road to a more peaceful mind ( http://deism.com ). You might not be able to put away your Christianity but you will no longer feel comfortable singing “Onward Christian Soldier”



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  • Steve_W Mar 12, 2015 at 7:08 am

    For the last 2000 years all the useful moral examples have been swallowed up by organised religion.

    That is standard theist practice! It’s like the pseudo-science mixing of dogma into the science of evolution, to create the pseudo science of “theistic evolution” which they then refer to exclusively as “evolution”!

    So when i tell somebody I am an atheist, they cannot be sure if I am also rejecting some or all of the golden rule principles.

    Having mixed dogmas with the “golden rule” to falsely claim the dogma has equal value, the hate preaching then pretends that the religious group has exclusivity of the “golden rule”, and anyone who rejects the dogma is also rejecting the “golden rule”!

    Reasonable grounds for mistrust I think.

    Sheeples who regularly uncritically swallow the above preaching, consider it reasonable, but it is actually contrived deception.
    To fundamentalists, “reasoning”, is assembling a circular heap of words, which starts with dogmas, wanders around some obfuscating semantics, and arrives back at the dogma, claiming this is a “reasoned conclusion”!



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  • I live in the UK, and the attitude to atheists here is so different. This was brought home to me a couple of days ago through one of my blog posts, when I made several contacts from people in the US, all women incidentally, who had ‘come out’ as atheists. All were from strong Christian communities. Their stories were heart-wrenching. All had lost friends, family and respect. One was suicidal. One woman told me that if she’d known the consequences she’d never have left the church. I can understand why many don’t, but suffer in silence.

    I’d never considered gender before, in relation to atheism, but I think in some communities women, especially those with children to consider, must be under extreme pressure to stay silent.



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  • @ alexa

    extreme pressure to stay silent

    Keep the chicken quiet! (a variation on M*ASH last episode).

    A family friend deeply regrets telling his child’s teacher “our family is atheist”, when said teacher started unfavourable bias towards the child.



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  • I agree with your comments Alan, but the aim of my post was to address the distrust of atheism, as discussed in the article (see the Gervais 2013 comments).
    If you are trying to persuade the average christian, (who in general are good moral people) to abandon mysticism, atheism (belief in nothing) is always going to be a tough sell. Asking someone to throw out the baby (golden rule principles) with the bathwater (mysticism) is always going to engender mistrust. Offering humanism (which is to me the 21st century shaping of the golden rule) as an alternative to religion is much more likely to be productive. The trouble is, ‘humanism’ is not well known with the public at large (that includes me to an extent). Maybe that is where any effort should be applied.



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  • Indeed. I was at a function in December where America the Beautiful was sung… It has been decades since I have sung the song and generally forgot the words until actually singing. When it got to the “god” part– I just stopped cold. I had forget that it was a religious hymn. This is why people believe that America is a “Christian” nation— all the brain washing. This “function” was a college graduation ceremony that also included TWO Christian prayers. I haven’t seen that much religion since I last went to church about 24 years ago… Ugh. Living in the South is such a treat!



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