I was privileged to attend this years American Humanist Association (AHA) conference in New Orleans. During this conference the President of AHA, David Niose, gave a short talk about his new book Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans. His talk was very inspirational. I would like to briefly outline some of his main points.
Niose described humanism as not just a movement, but a movement that is a response to the threat and rise of the religious right. He focused on three main themes:
1. How the religious right has decimated this country and how many are simply unaware of how many problems are directly attributable to the religious right.
2. Why the opposition to the religious right has been so unsuccessful and ineffective.
3. How the modern secular movement is providing a successful opposition that if successful, could revert the religious right’s influence back to pre-Reagan levels.
Niose spoke about the infamous “culture wars” that continue to rage. Many on the religious right and even religious moderates still claim and exalt America’s rich religious heritage. They use this as a means to justify Christian predominance and influence in the public square. This, according to Niose, has created a mythology. And this mythology glosses over some terrible truths that seem to have been forgotten.
Many of our initial founders in the new world, namely pilgrims and puritans, actually despised religious pluralism and freedom. They first left England for Holland and then left Holland specifically because it was to open a society for their taste. They came to the new world in order to establish a theocracy. We seem to forget that they would hang Quakers and other Christian denominations simply because they challenged their exclusive claim to truth. And of course let us not forget the Salem Witch Trials, motivated by religious Puritanism.
Many often refer to the great religious revivals in American history. But are these revivals anything to be proud of? The apocalyptic visions they espoused still permeate our religious and unfortunately political discourse to this day (albeit more covert). And of course, they were all infused with an anti-Catholic bigotry.
Niose simply asks us to compare our religious heritage to our secular heritage. Is there anything to be ashamed of in our secular heritage? Our secular heritage was based on the values of the enlightenment. It was based on science and reason. For the first time ever, some people, in some places, under certain circumstances could actually reject Christianity openly without any repercussions. This heritage, more often than not, is never acknowledged. There is nothing in our secular history that is embarrassing, nothing we need to sweep under the rug. Rather, it is something to be proud of. Pop culture has embraced this heritage, has embraced skepticism to a degree. Yet this acknowledgement, Niose says, ends with politics. Seven states (Texas, Maryland, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina, Arkansas and Pennsylvania) still ban atheists from holding public office, despite our federal constitution stipulating otherwise.
The created mythology points out that America is a Christian nation. Many often cite the reference to a “creator” in the Declaration of Independence and the legacy of the pilgrims as being evidence to this heritage. Yet these arguments fail to mention that this was before our nation was actually founded. This was in the colonial era. Our nation was formed by our constitution, which not only has no mention of God or any higher power, but also goes no further than to start saying “We the people…” That is all the authority the required. Those on the religious right also love to be in denial of the famous Treaty of Tripoli that explicitly states, “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…” This treaty passed unanimously and there were ZERO vocal objections to its passing. Many state governments, at our nations inception, did have state recognized religions. However, after the constitution was passed and came into effect, every state within two decades disestablished those religions. Our nation, I’m happy to say, is not a Christian nation. It is a secular nation. In this way it puts all faiths, including those with no faith, as being equal before the law.
Non-Christians now make up around 25% of our total population, more than ever in our history. No public official espouses humanism, or secularism openly. Instead they try and prove to everyone that they are also religious! Nonbelievers will even downplay their non-belief! This not only validates religion but also equates religion with morality. Atheism has become a bad word. It has become a term linked to immorality.
Humanism espouses a belief that human beings can solve human problems without any divine intervention, direction or blessing. Humanism and the religious right are engaged in a battle, a battle for the very consciousness of America. What this boils down to is identity and identity politics. Secular identity can no longer be secondary as it has been in previous generations. It must become primary! Especially if it is to be the one effective force we have against the growing power and influence of the religious right in our politics. The minds of Americans need to be changed so that discrimination against non-believers must end and the religious right can finally be challenged.