Review: Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans by David Niose (2012 book)

A number of independent opinion polls conducted over the past several decades have noted a significant increase in the fraction of adult Americans who don’t consider themselves members of any religion. For example, in 2014 the nonreligious accounted for 21 percent of those interviewed for the long-running General Social Survey based at the University of Chicago, which in 1972 they found a mere 5 percent in that category. Other sources also show growth but with different percentages depending on the exact questions asked.

An April 2 report from the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life projects that in the United States the category they call “religiously unaffiliated” will increase from 16.4 percent of the population in 2010 to 25.6 in 2050, with growth in other advanced democracies during the same period (e.g., 57.0 to 67.7 percent in Japan, 28.0 to 44.1 in France, 27.8 to 38.9 in the United Kingdom, and a more modest 24.4 to 29.8 in Germany). Worldwide, however, they estimate that the percentage of unaffiliated will decline from 16.4 to 13.2, at least in part due the higher rate of religious belief and population growth in the third world and religious opposition to birth control.

Nonbelievers hold a wide diversity of views, including a fair number, it seems, who just don’t think about it very much. The General Social Survey classified only 3 percent of Americans as atheist and another 5 percent as agnostic, but they report that only 70 percent of those interviewed said they believe in an afterlife and only 58 percent in God. On the other hand, the American Religious Identification Survey in 2008 found that 69.5 percent expressed belief in a personal God and another 12.1 in a “higher power,” a total of 81.6 percent who believe in God of some sort. I suspect the different numbers result in part from a diversity of notions about the definition of “God” and varying degrees of certainty about one’s belief.

In this book, David Niose acknowledges the difficulty of counting secular Americans (he suggests 15 percent as a reasonable guess) but notes that while the exact number may be uncertain, they probably outnumber any other religious category in the United States besides Christians.

Niose cites a number of examples of hostility toward nonbelievers, some of them disturbing, but the single funniest coming from a 2011 talk by Newt Gingrich in which he said that he feared for his grandchildren, aged 11 and 9, because “if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.” How a country can be both “secular atheist” and dominated by radical Islamists Newt didn’t bother to explain.

Niose notes that the unreligious tend not to talk about their beliefs, in part to avoid hostility (but also, I suspect, in part because not believing doesn’t define who they are, any more than people who don’t play golf identify themselves as non-golfers). He notes that if more were public about their lack of belief it would help disabuse their religious relatives, co-workers, and friends of the notion that nonbelievers are necessarily horrible people.

Developed countries with lower rates of religious belief also tend to have lower rates of homicide, childhood and adult mortality, teen pregnancy, STDs, and abortion. A similar pattern holds among U.S. states. As Niose takes pains to acknowledge, correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, and he’s not arguing that religion causes all these problems, only that the data contradict the idea that secularism is the cause of such things.

He writes, “Secular Americans do not want favoritism — only equality and government neutrality,” the principles championed by Jefferson, Madison, and other Founding Fathers, quite a few of whom were Deists. It’s not an accident that the Constitution contains no mention of religion in its main text or Amendments except for Article VI’s prohibition on religious tests for public office and the First Amendment’s prohibition of an establishment of a religions or interference with its free exercise.

Niose also cites the familiar example of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which in passing asserts that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The treaty was signed by John Adams, unanimously approved by the Senate (at that time only its third unanimous vote out of 339), and widely published in the press without notable surprise or complaint. And it’s not like nobody took the time to read it; it was one of our first treaties and runs under 1000 words.

(An aside: Some on the religious right have made much of the fact that the page containing Article 11 in the Arabic version of the treaty is missing from the archives, with an irrelevant letter found where it should have been, but this rather misses the point: It was the English version that was unanimously approved by the Senate and widely published in the United States.)

It’s an interesting book and at only 225 pages (not counting end notes and index) a fairly quick read.

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