The rise of the non-believers

Neil Macdonald on the growing face of secular America.

I have no belief as to whether intelligent life exists on other planets. Furthermore, I don't care. I don't bother reflecting on the matter. It's utterly irrelevant to me.

Similarly, I have no religious beliefs. None. When Homer said "all men need the gods," he was wrong. Like roughly 34 million other people in this country (more than the population of Canada), I don't.

Why do I feel the need to go into this here? Because I live in, and write about, the United States. In this most religious of countries, I have learned to keep my lack of belief to myself.

There are signs now that attitudes here are slowly changing and I'll get to these in a moment. But think about it: holding no religious opinion at all, and saying so, has for many, many years been considered something of an antisocial act in this country.

While my neighbours might be amused by a discussion about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the sudden unveiling of an atheist at their table would likely provoke an uncomfortable silence.

Lacking belief

Even a senior editor at CBC advised me that writing a column like this might not be advisable — that it could make me a target for critics.

Mass at Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis: 25 deacons lay prostrate during the Litany of Saints. ((Associated Press))

The thing is, though, I'm not even much of an atheist. That would require a belief of some sort.

Atheists are people like Christopher Hitchens, the author of God Is Not Great, or Richard Dawkins, who wrote The God Delusion. They go around attacking the very notion of God, and they have at least something in common with the religious fundamentalists they attack: great faith that they are right.

There's a better word for what I am: an apatheist.

It's a neologism that fuses "apathy" and "theism." It means someone who has absolutely no interest in the question of a god's (or gods') existence, and is just as uninterested in telling anyone else what to believe.

Godless Communists

Thoroughly laissez-faire, apatheism is a viewpoint you'd expect would be welcome in America, especially these days. "After all, we don't start religious wars," notes Herb Silverman, president of the recently formed Secular Coalition for America.

But no. In vast swaths of this country, especially in the prairie heartland and in the South, you'll be made to feel at home if you're a Christian and you'll be tolerated, for the most part, if you embrace some other God.

If you don't worship at all, though, it's probably best not to say so.

Because the residents of Bible-belt America aren't interested in clever new terms. To them, if you don't believe in God, you're an atheist and atheist is a deeply pejorative term.

"We are despised," says Silverman, a professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. "Here in the South, the first question people ask you is what church you attend.

"If you answer 'I don't believe in God, so I don't go to church,' you're shunned. The demonization started in the Cold War. The references to 'Godless Communists,' that sort of thing. Atheists were just lumped in."

Survey says

Until recently, it seems, non-believers in America generally avoided the question of faith, or changed the subject. But there are some significant new signs that the U.S. has been quietly changing.

Religion in the U.S., by affiliation

 Catholics 57 million 25 % of population
 Baptist 36 million 15.8 %
 None 34 million 15 %
 Mainline Christian 29.3 million 12.9 %
 Jewish* 2.7 million 1.2 %
 Muslim 1.3 million 0.6 %

*Refers only to religious observers, not the ethnic Jewish population.

Source: American Religious Identification Survey 2008 

Two large studies suggest the United States is becoming less devout. The Pew Forum reports that Americans are becoming more fickle about religion.

And the most recent American Religious Identification Survey says that since 1990, the number of Americans describing themselves as Christians has declined by 10 per cent.

In that same period, the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation at all has nearly doubled, rising from eight to 15 per cent.

That's a much greater portion of the population than religious Jews (1.2 per cent) or religious Muslims (0.6 per cent). The no-religious-affiliation population is now pretty much equal with self-declared Baptists and gaining on Roman Catholics (25 per cent), which is the largest of the Christian denominations.

There are now 3.6 million outright atheists and agnostics in the U.S., up from a million 19 years ago. Furthermore, those who claim no religion at all are the only demographic that has grown in all 50 states since 1990.

Those are pretty significant statistics and politicians are noticing.

Christian nation?

In the presidential election last fall, Barack Obama carefully genuflected to religious voters, talking in speeches about "kneeling beneath that cross." No surprise there, given that self-identified Christians still comprise 76 per cent of the population.

Nonetheless, at his inauguration in January, Obama made this remark: "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers." And in a press conference last month in Turkey, he went further, declaring that Americans "do not consider ourselves a Christian nation."

That's pretty radical stuff in a country that still obliges its president, by law, to declare an annual day of prayer, a day which, for the past several years at least, was monopolized by people who seized on the occasion to reaffirm America's "Judeo-Christian nature."

But it's music to millions of secularists, humanists, atheists and agnostics, not to mention apatheists and varied other Americans who hold, as Silverman puts it, "no God belief," and who are increasingly emboldened to say so.

Silverman compares this outpouring of non-belief to the gay rights movement. He actually talks about secular Americans "coming out of the closet."

Ron Millar, one of Silverman's fellow secular activists, agrees. He says two factors provoked American non-believers to stand up in recent years: the political rise of the religious right, which tends to comprise people interested in telling others how they should live their lives; and the publication of a slew of agnostic and atheistic books, including Hitchens's.

Some of these books became bestsellers, notes Millar and they "sort of showed there was this community out there that people didn't realize was there, and it made people a little braver about self-identifying."

So what does all this mean? Possibly a return to a less overtly religious America.

As Silverman points out, this country was originally fashioned as a place of freedom to worship (often by those escaping religious persecution elsewhere), or not worship, according to your wishes. There is no mention of God in the U.S. Constitution and the phrase "one nation under God" was only inserted into the pledge of allegiance during the Cold War.

The phrase is still there, of course, and a great deal of attention is being paid these days to the Obama family's search for a new church here in Washington, D.C.

Apparently, a great many Americans care about the president's choice of a place to worship. Pretty clearly, though, quite a few others don't.