Nonbeliever Nation by David Niose is a Secular Manifesto

In Nonbeliever Nation (2012) David Niose, President of the American Humanist Association and vice president of the Secular Coalition for America makes a strong case Secular Americans.

It is hardly surprising that Niose has received praise from the so-called ”Arch-Atheist himself,” Richard Dawkins. Nor can this Heathen polytheist disagree with the basic premise, that the Religious Right has hijacked our country and that we need to mobilize to defend our secular way of government or lose it altogether.

I make this point about my own religion because Niose is at pains to clarify his terminology. He wants it understood that secular means “without religion”; it does not mean “anti-religion.” A modern liberal democracy like the United States is founded on the principle of secular government. Someone who is personally secular, on the other hand, lives without theistic religion. Some Secular Americans are atheists, some are agnostic. Some call themselves humanists. As a religious person myself, I am 100 percent in favor secular government without being personally secular.

Am I a Secular American? By Niose’s definition I am not. I am theistic. Helheim, I’m polytheistic! All gods exist. But I support the secular cause. Secularism as the author points out, is not anti-religion. The goal is a government without religion – not a people without religion. I have no qualms about lending my absolute and unwavering support to the author’s avowed cause, because an America that respects all religions and not just one, is far better for me than the Religious Right’s dream of theocracy that grants First Amendment protections to Christianity alone.

According to Niose, a “Secular American” is no one thing. Defining Secular American is as difficult as defining a Christian, or a Pagan for that matter. There are gray areas, as there always are. But he makes a rough guess at the numbers of Secular Americans, putting a conservative figure at about 15 percent – or 50 million people. There are certainly enough Secular Americans to make themselves heard and Niose does make a strong argument for the emergence of a secular demographic.  The Religious Right, after all, has gone decades without real opposition.

Niose opens with what was for me an emotional glimpse into what America should be, seen not in some rosy future Utopian vision, but rather in a glimpse back through time, to 1912 of all things. It seems odd to look back to what Paul Krugman (Conscience of a Liberal, 2007:17) calls the “Long Gilded Age” for positive examples, but Niose does, and scores tellingly when he relates that how the most religious candidate in that election year, Woodrow Wilson, said of evolution: “Of course, like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be asked.”

Oh how Woodrow would be shocked at what they’re teaching in schools today. And Taft! William Howard Taft, the Republican incumbent, said “I do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe.”  He sounds very Jeffersonian but today he would be run out of town with pitchforks as an agent of the antichrist. In the post-Goldwater GOP there is no room for science or men who subscribe to it.

As Niose relates, “Typically, when we examine history from the vantage point of a hundred years, many of the predominant attitudes from that earlier time will seem antiquated; we may see beliefs that reflected a lack of knowledge that has since been gained, or perhaps prejudices that we now know to be plainly wrong.” The “process of antiquation seems,” as he concludes, “to have worked in reverse.”

And in case anyone misunderstands, Niose points out that the views of the modern Religious Right “would have seemed backward even hundred years ago.” And there is no escaping the fact that as Niose concludes, we look ahead “into the twenty-first century with justified trepidation.” Not, as the Religious Right would have it, because we don’t devote enough of our thoughts and prayers to the God of Abraham but because of too much religion: we have forgotten our secular origins.

It is important to know what the Religious Right has done. Nonbeliever Nation is not another book about the Religious Right, however. It is a book about resistance to the Religious Right. And that is an important distinction. This is more a secular manifesto than an investigative journalist’s prying apart of fundamentalism’s darkest secrets. That has been done before.

Instead, Niose has written a book for secularists  about secularism. The rise of a secular movement that has become, in his words, “the Religious Right’s biggest threat.” The avowed goals of the Secular American movement is to return the influence of the Religious Right to its pre-Reagan levels.

His is a position that I, as a religious minority, can identify with. He points to the relatively small number of atheists (only some 1.6 percent actually self-identify as an atheist) and one of the reasons this might be so: the stigma attached to atheism. He points out that many nonbelievers remain “in the closet” and this is true of Pagans as well, and for the same reasons. Americans have, as he puts it, “a grossly distorted view of nonbelievers” and I would apply this to religious minorities as well.

Niose makes the same point Timothy Ferris (The Science of Liberty, 2010:279-280) made a couple of years ago: that the crime rate rises right along with religiosity.  As Niose puts it, “industrialized countries with the lowest violent crimes rates tend to be much less religious,” and lists “Japan, France, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Republic,”  all as having lower violent crime rates than the “God and Guns”  United States. This may come as no surprise to liberals and David Barton’s despised “academic elites”  are well aware of the correlation, but it is a conclusion (that religion does not solve social problems) the Religious Right will steadfastly refuse to acknowledge.

This persistent anti-intellectualism, this attack on Enlightenment values, is a constant theme of Niose’s book and in particular he mentions the effect George W. Bush had on him personally, as a wake-up call. It was a signal to many that the Religious Right was here to stay, and that they would stay by marginalizing other voices, including especially those of Secular Americans. I remember my own reaction at the time was that the Religious Right’s message was this: if you are against Bush, you are against America, and since God chose America (and chose Bush to lead it), you are against God. Patriotism became synonymous with religious belief and a real American was a Christian (and not just any old Christian, as Rick Santorum has reminded us). I am not surprised Niose and millions of others were similarly affected.

Niose argues, and I think the evidence is all in his favor, that “the emergence of a recognized Secular American demographic will improve the country’s intellectual atmosphere.” The reader can only cheer as the author makes his case for making education an American value. America has drifted away from its Enlightenment origins. The case for superstition pales beside the prospect of an America no longer held prisoner by the Religious Right’s culture war.

And Niose says there is reason for hope, a hope which lies mostly with student activism; with religious skepticism on college campuses. It is ironic that secular America depends most on those places the Religious Right most loathes: universities. He discusses the growth of groups like the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), which has groups even in the Bible Belt. The difference here, I think, is that rather than religious students calling for a secular America, we are seeing students openly professing atheism. There is poetic justice in that it is fundamentalist homes that are producing the most enthusiastic atheists.

A final observation: Noise includes as an appendix the Secular Coalition for America’s 2011 Congressional Report Card. It makes for somber reading. And it is not the scores of Republicans that I find alarming. I expected “F’s”. What I found worrisome were all the “C’s” and “D’s” for Democrats. This report card is by state, district and party and you can easily find your own representatives here and plan to vote accordingly. Get active. Start writing letters, making phone calls, signing petitions, and most of all, speak out. The need, as this report card reveals, is real.

Make no mistake: this is a powerful, hard-hitting book, part history, part politics, part religion (and non-religion) and also a manifesto for a secular America. It is a perfect accompaniment for the battle being waged today for America’s future by a moderate Barack Obama against all the weight the Religious Right can bring to bear.

I highly recommend Nonbeliever Nation and am confident that it will satisfy a longing in others that it has satisfied in myself: for somebody to stand up and take their place in front of us with that precious candle that illuminates and holds back the darkness of superstition.  We no longer have Carl Sagan, but we do have David Niose.

My interview with David Niose will appear here tomorrow.

David Niose. Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans. NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012

Available on in hardcover and Kindle

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