The Political Ascension of the Nonbelievers

The Political Ascension of the Nonbelievers

People attend the Reason Rally 2016 at Lincoln Memorial.

SourceRiccardo S. Savi/Getty

Why you should care

Because a shift in who goes to the polls could mean a shift in the laws, too.

As residents of This Town, in the nation’s capital, voted yesterday to cap off a primary season that’s felt historically hostile, they did so a stone’s throw from the Lincoln Memorial, where another, less historically powerful crowd recently exerted its own rising influence.

Under slogans like “Good Without God” and “Make America Secular Again,” more than 25,000 showed up for what was dubbed the “largest gathering of nonreligious voters in history,” a little more than a week before yesterday’s primary in Washington, D.C. Camped out picnic-style, they cheered for speakers like Bill Nye the Science Guy and physicist Lawrence Krauss, as well as Aussie singer Shelley Segal, who crooned lyrics such as “I don’t believe in fairies … or Jesus.” The event — dubbed the Reason Rally — also attracted at least a couple of lawmakers, whose presence may have spelled career suicide just four years ago, when not a single legislator appeared at the rally’s first rendition. “That’s a powerful shift,” says Lyz Liddell, executive director of the rally. “They are willing to take that risk.”

These nonbelievers believe their time has finally come. Almost a quarter of Americans don’t espouse any particular religion or belief in God, but they severely underperform at the polls, making up about 12 percent of the electorate in 2012. Still, they show signs of mobilizing a collective politicking will, congregating online on atheist-friendly Reddit threads, dating sites and networking groups. They also openly speak of normalizing atheism in a similar way to prominent members of the queer community coming out in recent years to help normalize LGBT causes. And they applaud a presidential election that features less of a godly tint, insisting that the lasting contribution of 2016 will not be the rise of populism but rather a bipartisan rejection of what they perceive to be the religious right and left. “The religious fault lines that have been so bright in past elections don’t seem to be as stark,” says Daniel Cox, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit.

Of course, the litany of reasons to think nonreligious voters haven’t arrived yet could fill many a psalm book. Sure, the bad rap of the term is fading, as such folks “come out of the closet,” says Cox, and more than a third of under-30s list themselves as religiously unaffiliated. But Congress remains nine-tenths Christian, while evangelical Protestants — the only demographic larger than the nonreligious — are much better at getting souls to the polls.

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Bill Nye (yes, the Science Guy) speaking at the Reason Rally at the Lincoln Memorial earlier this month.

Source Riccardo S. Savi/Getty

To consolidate their numbers and thus their power, nonbelievers will have to shift strategy, suggests David Silverman, president of the American Atheists. Their community has split itself into too many indiscernible terms, he argues: atheists, agnostics, humanists and “other,” to name a few. While most do so to avoid criticism from their peers, in reality they diminish their own power — only 2.5 percent of voters self-identify as atheists, even though the term, by definition, includes all of the above groups. The problem isn’t mere linguistics, Silverman tells his audience: “We willingly, and eagerly, divide ourselves.” His belief is that together, they conquer; divided, they fall.

If united, atheists could grow into an acceptable force, and a demographic worth wooing. At the rally, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii was a featured speaker, a move that even a decade ago would have been unthinkable — consider that Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts admitted to being gay while in office, and yet didn’t reveal he was atheist until after he retired in 2013, prompting Politico Magazine to call atheism “the last taboo.” Gabbard, who is Hindu and a military vet who fought against theocratic regimes in the Middle East, told OZY after the rally: “Looking at the incredible conflict, violence and human suffering in many parts of the world, it stems back to this sectarian issue of people of one religion using violence to try and get in a position of power to dominate those of a different religion.”

As it so happens, Gabbard is one of the top surrogates for Bernie Sanders, whose candidacy has largely eschewed references to religion any more specific than vague overtures to a divine being. While nonreligious folks tend to skew liberal, especially on social issues, some have a Sanders-like pox-on-both-parties tone. Liddell, for one, says that lawmakers recently kept atheists off a bill they had worked on together to fortify church-state separation laws. “Not only do they not cater to us,” Liddell says, “but they demonize us.” For his part, Sanders has made some nonreligious voters feel at home for the first time in recent memory — and his urgent approach to progressive issues has special appeal. And Donald Trump has succeeded in making the first largely areligious argument for the Republican nomination in decades, experts say, as he’s focused on immigration issues and trade deals while emphasizing faith less than past presidential candidates (for his part, Trump has said he’s Presbyterian but also that he’s never asked God for forgiveness).

If nonreligious voters coalesce behind a single banner, they wouldn’t simply swing politics to the left, some say. The nonreligious are a diverse lot on more secular subjects, like the economy or taxation, while issues perceived to be more morally motivated — such as transgender bathroom laws or access to abortion and contraception — would get less play. These voters could also shift the racial and religious makeup of Congress. “It’s hard to overrestimate the way that would really reshape the political landscape,” says Cox.

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