Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans
July 3, 2012
“Religious freedom is a cherished American value,” writes David Niose in his new book, Nonbeliever Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), “but religious predominance is not.” Published in July, the book takes the reader through a history of secularism in the United States and renders the powerful rise of the conservative religious right in sharp detail. But what makes the book groundbreaking is Niose’s survey of the growing number of Americans who call themselves secularists, humanists, atheists, freethinkers, and skeptics—in general, the nonbelievers who have been organizing and growing as a force to be reckoned with, namely by the religious right that continues to impose its dogmatic agenda upon the nation. An attorney who is also the president of the American Humanist Association and author of a humanist-themed blog for Psychology Today, Niose is perfectly poised to check and report on the pulse of the current secular zeitgeist. Richard Dawkins characterizes the book as “simultaneously disturbing and reassuring” and Michael Shermer calls it “The Feminist Mystique of this movement, destined to be a classic in freedom literature.”
The following three excerpts are from Chapter Seven of Nonbeliever Nation by David Niose. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
Reason for Hope and Hope for Reason
AS SECULAR AMERICANS have emerged over the last few years, one of the most fascinating and exciting areas within the movement has been the phenomenon of student activism. Religious skepticism on college campuses is nothing new, but what’s happening today is truly unprecedented. Across all lines of wealth, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, students are standing up together to identify as personally secular.
The historical role of religion in higher learning is somewhat paradoxical. On one hand, by definition higher learning should be an exercise in skepticism—questioning facts, finding flaws in arguments, and developing work that can withstand intellectual scrutiny—so it should not be surprising that colleges and universities are havens for the critical analysis of religious claims and doctrines. Nevertheless, established churches have historically wielded enormous influence over social and political life in both Europe and America and, therefore, have often had close relationships with institutions of higher learning. Harvard, Yale, the College of William and Mary, and virtually all of the oldest colleges in America were mainly incubators for clergymen in their earliest years. When Connecticut legislators founded the college that would later become Yale in 1701, they declared that they were motivated by “Zeal for upholding & Propagating of the Christian Protestant Religion” to educate “a succession of Learned & Orthodox men” who through “the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church & Civil State.” Thus, it is ironic that these bastions of intellectual pursuit, which would ultimately do more to chip away at the credibility of established religion than any other social institutions, were often established by men for whom the idea of separating God from academia would have been unthinkable.
With the Enlightenment already underway in Europe when religious men were founding the earliest American colleges, the relationship between religion and higher education was bound to eventually get tense. One obvious dilemma was that established religious institutions, which were by their nature conservative, inflexible, and reliant on ancient doctrine, needed educated, literate leadership to maintain power and legitimacy. This was not so problematic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when an advanced education did not necessarily conflict with religious authority. As the years progressed, however, Enlightenment ideas, industrialization and commercialization, the discoveries of Darwin, and other advances in knowledge made it increasingly likely that a college education would result in religious skepticism, not reinforcement. Over time, this resulted in the diminished role of religion in higher education, and as early as the nineteenth century we begin to see atheism and agnosticism as visible, sometimes even acceptable, schools of thought in establishment academia.
That trajectory continued into the twentieth century, resulting in skepticism being not the exception but the rule in many institutions of higher education. While schools of theology can still be found in many of the great educational institutions, theology as a discipline of study is often seen as a puzzling relic from a bygone era. Much more dominant are the schools of science, technology, medicine, law, business, and liberal arts, most of which, depending on the specific institution, are likely to be populated with instructors and students who, if asked, are skeptical or ambivalent about religion. Few courses of study will expose students to ideas that are particularly sympathetic toward traditional religion. This is in part because few of those doctrines withstand a search for empirical truth, and also because many courses of study, such as history, anthropology, and gender studies, expose students to ideas that may delegitimize religion and portray it in an unfavorable light. Students learn of historical and contemporary religious justifications for the mistreatment of women, the rejection of basic matters of scientific truth on religious grounds, atrocities attributable to religion, and convincing arguments that religion is a natural phenomenon and not the product of divine revelation, to name a few examples. Thus, for anyone alive today who has attended college, it is likely that notions of atheism, agnosticism, and general religious skepticism were a part of the college experience.
A Primary Secular Identity
Despite all this, even though atheists have been a fixture on America’s college campuses for decades, the situation today is unprecedented. Today’s secular students, unlike their parents and grandparents, see secular identity as a primary, important part of who they are. While there were atheists and agnostics all over college campuses in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, most nonreligious students in those days, if asked, would have first defined themselves as many things other than atheist or secular. They may have first seen themselves as liberal, conservative, socialist, libertarian, environmentalist, gay/lesbian, feminist, antiwar, no-nukes, or one of many other labels; in fact, their religious skepticism often would have been incidental and very low on any list of importance. Today, nonreligious students are increasingly seeing their personal secularity as a key aspect of their character and their approach to life, an identity that immediately conveys much about what they accept and reject.
Nothing better illustrates this point than the explosive growth of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), the national umbrella organization for campus atheist and humanist groups. Founded in 2000, the SSA had less than fifty campus affiliates in early 2007, but by 2011 it had over 340. Currently, the SSA has affiliates from coast to coast and even throughout the Bible Belt. With groups such as the Penn State Atheist/Agnostic Association, Students for Freethought at Ohio State University, the Boise State Secular Student Alliance, and the University of Alabama Atheists and Agnostics, SSA affiliates demonstrate the national significance of atheist-humanist identity on college campuses today.
“We’re witnessing a major shift in our society,” SSA spokesperson Jesse Galef told me. “More students are proudly calling themselves atheists, which inspires others to do the same. We used to go out and find them. Now they’re springing up everywhere and finding us, asking to join the movement.”…