The Rise of Secular Americans
By David Niose
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 David Niose
All rights reserved.
THE WEDDING INVITATION
THE WEDDING INVITATION ITSELF WASN'T A SURPRISE, BUT ITS content was.
I hadn't seen Maria since we both graduated from college five years earlier. I met her during our junior year in an elective sociology class, where we sat next to each other and quickly became friends. As often happens among college crowds, she and her other friends started hanging around with my buddies and me, and we all spent lots of time together, staying up late chatting, as only college kids with too much free time can, about everything — life, love, politics, truth, religion, God. Neither Maria nor I had majored in philosophy, but in real life every college student sooner or later becomes a late-night philosopher. Along with our friends, we would be sitting around watching stupid pet tricks on Letterman or listening to Pink Floyd, when inevitably someone would start speculating about something deep.
More often than not, the opinions would be nothing too profound, but Maria's comments were always intelligent and articulate. She was born into a Catholic family but by then was a nonbeliever and secular humanist who had no room for any of the superstition or doctrine of traditional religion. In fact, while unsympathetic in her assessment of all revelation-based religion — Christianity, Islam, and Judaism — she was especially tough on the Catholic Church, which she considered a grossly outdated relic overseen by a paternalistic, misogynistic hierarchy. She loathed the church's positions on birth control and abortion rights, considered its views toward sex repressive, thought the whole celibacy thing was absurd, and blamed the church for the anti-Semitism that eventually gave rise to the Holocaust. To call her a disaffected Catholic would be an understatement.
After graduation, we went our separate ways but managed to stay in touch with one or two phone calls a year. So I was not surprised to find, when I opened my mail one day in 1989, an invitation to Maria's wedding. Since I knew she had been dating someone seriously, the invitation was certainly no shocker, but what bewildered me was what the invitation said: the wedding would take place at the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Maria's hometown. Knowing her as I did, it made no sense that Maria would turn to the Catholic Church to seal vows of love and commitment with her life partner. As I mulled it over, I concluded that Maria had probably gone back to her family's church to get married because that's what her family, especially her parents, expected. Coming from a big Catholic family that hadn't seen any of its members have a wedding (or at least a first wedding) anywhere else but the hometown Catholic church, she probably couldn't break with tradition.
It turns out that I was right. It would be several more years before I would be able to have a conversation with Maria and her husband about it, but when that conversation finally happened, over dinner one night when I was visiting, Maria explained the whole ordeal to me. "The Catholic Church is the last place I wanted to get married," she said. "But I really felt we had no choice. In our family, especially with Mom and Dad paying for the wedding, there was no way it was going to take place anywhere else. It wasn't even a topic that was open for discussion."
The rest of the night was a lot like being back in college. We all sat around and chatted about life, love, politics, truth, and religion, the only difference being the years of added life experience. She was still a secular humanist, still a wonderful person, and now married to a great guy. I was happy for her.
Maria's story is a common one, and it illustrates a dilemma that many young, secular people face in our society. Family pressure and cultural expectations often force nonbelieving or halfheartedly believing participants into religious ceremonies that convey validity and legitimacy upon institutions for which they have little admiration and sometimes even contempt.
In Maria's case, the chain will end there. Despite the fact that her family pressured her into having her wedding at the Immaculate Conception Church, she and her husband are raising their children without traditional religion. Though there was some controversy when the wider family learned that the kids weren't getting baptized or going to church, they eventually accepted the couple's decision to raise a secular family.
Maria and her family have joined the ranks of the Secular Americans, a growing group of individuals who affirmatively choose to live without religion or, at the very least, without theistic religion. Secular Americans have existed as long as the country itself, but only in recent years have they begun to stand together as a unit and demand recognition, respect, and equality. Whereas in the past someone in Maria's position would have been more likely to yield to family pressure by indifferently shuffling the kids through the milestones of a Catholic upbringing — baptism, Sunday school, First Communion, Confirmation, and so forth — today a growing segment of the population sees the value of rejecting such gestures outright, of standing firm as openly secular.
THE SECULAR AMERICAN DEMOGRAPHIC
Before discussing who the Secular Americans are, what they want, and what they are doing to get it, a few words about terminology are in order. The word secular simply means "without religion." Some dictionaries will use the definition "worldly or temporal, rather than religious or spiritual." In civics class, we usually learn that "secular government" is a basic characteristic of most modern democracies. That doesn't mean that a secular government must be antireligion, but only that government should be neutral on religion and not controlled by clerics or based on religious law. Some modern democracies, such as Great Britain, technically mix church and state (the British monarch is also head of the Church of England, the nation's established church), but aside from such exceptions, we usually associate modern democracies with secular government. Secular democracies support religious tolerance and freedom of conscience, and for this reason they are almost universally seen, at least in the developed world, as enlightened and desirable.
Unlike secular government, to be "personally secular" means that an individual is personally without religion. Thus, while most Americans support the general notion of secular government, a smaller number are personally secular, living as individuals without theistic religion. These Secular Americans identify in various ways. A very small percentage of them openly identify as atheists, meaning they do not believe in the existence of any gods. A similarly small percentage identify as agnostic, which is commonly defined as a view that nothing can be known about the existence of a god. Agnostics often say that they don't believe there is a god, but they don't necessarily have an affirmative belief that there isn't one either, because they simply concede that they don't know. Generally speaking, however, most agnostics are functionally atheists, because they have no affirmative belief in a divinity and they typically have little use for organized religion.
Other Secular Americans, again a small percentage, prefer to be called humanists. Unlike atheism and agnosticism, both of which address only the single issue of the existence of a divinity, humanism is a broad philosophy that includes affirmative values and ethical principles without relying on belief in a supernatural deity. Humanism is sometimes divided into two categories: secular humanism and religious humanism. The difference between the two has nothing to do with their views on the existence of a god (both secular and religious humanism are not theistic), but they may have significantly different practices. Secular humanists generally have no need for any kind of religious structure, such as membership in a church, whereas religious humanists usually find value in belonging to some kind of religious institution, whether it be a Unitarian-Universalist church or fellowship, a congregation of Humanistic Judaism, an Ethical Culture group, or some other religious entity. Thus, religious humanists are a puzzling category to some, as they are nonbelievers who nevertheless consider themselves "religious." But since the word secular can also mean "without theism," religious humanists can still be considered Secular Americans.
Finally, there is another segment of the population that also fits under the Secular American umbrella, and this is by far the largest: those who are without religion or without theism but do not identify as atheist, agnostic, or humanist. These Secular Americans will often answer "none" when asked for religious identity, or many will even continue to identify with the religious category of their upbringing despite having long ago rejected the tenets of that religion. Many are simply apathetic to the question of whether deities exist, seeing the issue as unknowable and irrelevant to daily life, and still others may even acknowledge some kind of vague belief akin to Deism. What is similar about these individuals is that they typically approach daily life without supernatural beliefs, don't rely on an interventionist god, and have little use for traditional theology.
Calculating the number of Secular Americans is difficult because, like many questions relating to religious categorization, the answer depends on whether we define the term according to religious belief, religious identity, or religious practice. We can see this dynamic by considering other religious categories, such as the Catholic demographic. Currently, about fifty-seven million Americans, or 25.1 percent of the adult population, identify as Catholic. There are, however, many Catholics who are less than devout in their belief, often to the point of rejecting most or all of church doctrine. Many never attend mass, for example, and many routinely use birth control even though the church considers contraception not just a sin, but a mortal sin. It is not at all unusual to hear ordinary "Catholics" say that they question the authority of bishops and cardinals, have serious doubts about life after death, and even doubt the divinity of Jesus. The point is not to suggest that Catholics are more uncertain than others with respect to their core religious convictions, as surely inconsistencies and outright contradictory views can be found among the adherents of most religions; rather, the point is that precise categorization is an impossible exercise.
We see these same kinds of inconsistencies when we try to quantify the Secular American demographic. The most glaring inconsistency is found when we compare findings on religious belief and religious identity. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, just over 81 percent of Americans affirmatively claim a belief in a divinity (69.5 percent claim a belief in a personal God; 12.1 percent in a "higher power"), leaving almost one in five (18.4 percent) who do not affirm such a belief. Of that 18.4 percent, about one-third (6.1 percent) refused to answer the question, with the remaining two-thirds stating that they disbelieved, felt there is no way to know, or were unsure. Even if all of those who refused to answer are in fact believers (which is highly doubtful, since it is more likely that the stigma attached to nonbelief would often be the reason for refusal), we are still left with over 12 percent who are implicitly atheist or agnostic based on their answers (either stating disbelief or conceding uncertainty or lack of knowledge).
Most interesting, however, is that these belief numbers differ markedly from the reported numbers on identity. Even though almost one in five Americans do not affirmatively report a belief in a divinity, and more than one in ten can undoubtedly be defined as nonbelievers, only 1.6 percent actually identify as atheist or agnostic! Even if some of the aforementioned 18.4 percent would not be accurately categorized as atheist or agnostic, the inconsistency between secular belief and identity is undeniable. This inconsistency is no doubt attributable to the stigma surrounding atheist identity in America. For complex reasons that will be discussed later, Americans have a grossly distorted view of nonbelievers, causing many to remain "in the closet."
For the purpose of quantifying the Secular American demographic, a modest estimate could use the range of 12 to 18 percent just described, depending on whether one chooses to include those who refused to answer. This range is almost certainly conservative when we consider that 20.2 percent of Americans reported either "none" (15 percent) or "don't know" (5.2 percent) when asked for religious identity. The "none" category has doubled since 1990, one of the only categories of religious identification to show significant growth during that time period, and among younger people it is even more prominent (22 percent).
Although one could argue that some who reported "none" might nevertheless be devout believers, it can simultaneously be argued that many who report religious identity are essentially secular in their views and practices. The most obvious indicator in this regard is church attendance, which shows that less than half the population attends religious services on a regular basis. Moreover, given the various social and cultural pressures that encourage over-reporting of religiosity (the stigma attached to non-belief, the general societal association of religion with morality, and family pressures to identify with the religion of our upbringing), it would be reasonable to infer that the 12 to 18 percent figure is probably conservative.
We should also acknowledge that these kinds of studies are unable to reflect the complex layers of nuance and subtle variation in individual religious beliefs. It is almost insulting to suggest that a person's religion can be quickly categorized under a neat label with millions of others. We do it, of course, because we need some categorization to effectively examine such a topic, but we should be mindful of the inherent limitations.
For example, is a person who is "spiritual but not religious" a Secular American? Can someone who believes in an afterlife, but is otherwise not religious and not theistic, be called a Secular American? These are some of the gray areas that make categorization difficult. Just as someone who practices birth control and doesn't believe Jesus was a god might still identify as Catholic, many would argue that some beliefs that are less than ardently naturalistic should not automatically disqualify someone from the Secular American group. Some people sympathize with a secular worldview and rationally conclude that it is both right and good, but they nonetheless have undeniable inclinations to believe in some supernatural concepts. Religious identification and nonidentification can require deeply personal "soul searching" (if you'll excuse the term). Each of us must find our own center of gravity, our own comfort zone for identity, and many will conclude that they don't fit into any neat category.
For these reasons, any numbers estimating the size of the secular demographic are going to be generalizations that fail to fully capture the country's religious diversity. But even the conservative estimate of Secular Americans — 15 percent — represents almost fifty million people, a noteworthy demographic bloc. This is a group that outnumbers the combined populations of American Methodists (about eleven million), Lutherans (nine million), Pentecostals (eight million), Presbyterians (five million), Jews (three million), Episcopalians (three million), Mormons (three million), and Muslims (1.4 million). All of these religious groups together would not outnumber a conservative estimate of America's secular population!
It is remarkable that this enormous demographic category has been over-looked for so long. Being personally secular is nothing new in America; religious skeptics have been a part of the country since its earliest days. Thomas Paine (1737–1809), the founding era's great agitator, whose pamphlet Common Sense helped raise anti-British sentiment and launch the American Revolution, later wrote another treatise, called The Age of Reason, intended to stir antireligious action. He was unambiguous in his views on religion: "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church." Other important early Americans — Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others — were religious dissenters of varying degrees as well, and they will be discussed in some detail later. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Nonbeliever Nation by David Niose. Copyright © 2012 David Niose. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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