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Don’t Count Us Out

October 20, 2008

By Ronald Aronson

A

s the presidential campaign winds down, members of America’s largest and most silent minority may be excused for feeling a little left out. As Republicans and Democrats escalate their appeals to 2008′s most contested and prized constituency — swing voters among evangelicals and Catholics — they treat those who are not religious as if they are invisible.

Democrats, no less than Republicans, have been reshaping themselves into a party of believers, claiming as did the Rev. Leah Daughtry both before and during their interfaith unity event the week of the convention in Denver that “Democrats are people of faith.” Both John McCain and Barack Obama submitted to a religious test by the Rev. Rick Warren — before a national TV audience. McCain, always diffident about religion, chose the far more demonstratively and conservatively religious Sarah Palin as his running mate. And Obama, speaking on Labor Day in Detroit, led his audience in silent prayer for those threatened by Hurricane Gustav.

And why not? Surveys regularly receive front-page coverage for reporting, as the 2008 Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey did, that nearly all Americans believe in God. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life concluded that 92% of Americans are believers and that only 5% of Americans don’t believe in God (3% gave some other answer, didn’t know, or refused to answer).

But something is wrong with this picture. It erases vast numbers of Americans — not only atheists, agnostics and secularists, but also those who have turned away from the God and religion of the Old and New Testaments. And it makes it seem as though most of those who claim to be “believers” believe pretty much the same things — though this is manifestly false. It encourages the sense that there are two kinds of Americans, the overwhelming majority who believe and belong, and those few do not believe, and are outsiders. But the conventional wisdom that nearly all Americans believe in God is wrong.

Fuzzy math

The politics and prejudices that marginalize secularists are unintentionally abetted by surveys, which are undermined by two fundamental problems. First is the tendency to lump together such profoundly different conceptions as a Judeo-Christian personal God, a distant God, a cosmic force and a universal spirit — which results in a conglomeration of “believers” with nothing in common and many of whom are in fact secularists.

Second, most attempts to measure religion in America do not adequately take into account the well-known problem of social desirability: Respondents may be reluctant to give a socially unacceptable or unpopular answer. We know that many people do not want to appear prejudiced when asked whether they would be willing to vote for an African American. Likewise, many people do not want to appear insufficiently religious.

John Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Research Center, says those conducting these surveys “worry a great deal about social desirability effects and seek to minimize them with careful question wording and the order in which the questions are asked.” Green also defends Pew’s tallying Americans’ belief in God together with spiritual beliefs as yielding a “kind of information (that) is valid in its own right.”"The basic issue is this,” says Green: “What does one want to know?”

This is exactly the point, which suggests that depending on the purposes of the study — and how the questions are posed — religion can appear more or less widespread, and secularists can be made to virtually disappear or to appear as a major component of contemporary American life. A Financial Times/Harris Interactive survey in 2006 surveyed Europeans as well as Americans and accordingly — perhaps because Europe is far more secular than the U.S. — treated disbelief with greater care. They allowed respondents the opportunity to identify themselves by explaining the possible choices: “Believer in any form of God or any type of supreme being,”"Agnostic (one who is skeptical about the existence of God but not an atheist),”"Atheist (one who denies the existence of God),”"Would prefer not to say” (important for counteracting social desirability) and “Not sure.” The results are striking: 73% of Americans are believers, 14% agnostics, 6% preferred not to answer, 4% atheists and 3% were not sure. This represents an arguably secularist response of nearly one in four. The point is that there are vastly more non-believers than usually show up in American surveys.

Why do the numbers matter? As gays struggled to overcome invisibility and gain respect in the 1970s and ’80s, they too found it necessary to call attention to the real figures about their presence in American society against the prevailing common sense that made them a tiny (and despised) minority. Similarly, a close reading of the statistics on religious belief reverses the conventional wisdom: The intensely religious who have dominated the conversation turn out to be a minority, a moderately faithful mainstream that lives largely secular lives has kept quiet, and an unexpectedly large group of secularists has been ignored.

In this far more complex picture, one-third are extremely religious, and secularism has penetrated deeply, sometimes astonishingly so, into the lives of everyone else. Respondents of the Pew Survey were asked: “When it comes to questions of right and wrong, which of the following do you look to most for guidance?” The options: religious teachings and beliefs, philosophy and reason, practical experience and common sense or scientific information. Only 29% of the total sample chose religion.

Life as a secularist

The myth of a nation of believers reached a kind of psychological and political high point when President Bush gave his first major public response to the 9/11 attacks. Declaring a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, he gave the equivalent of a sermon at the National Cathedral flanked by religious representatives, with no one to represent America’s secularists. Unbelievers were made to feel as outsiders in their own country that day. This is what life is often like for secularists outside a few major urban or university centers. In the vast heartland of suburban and semirural America, they grow accustomed to new acquaintances greeting them by asking what church they go to. At work, they get used to God-talk as an unstated norm, having to decide again and again whether to “out” themselves or to just remain silent. In the news media, they get used to reading or hearing that the appropriate response to stressful situations is to turn to God. They also grow accustomed to putting up with offhand insults, news anchors reporting on combat sagely declaring that “there are no atheists in foxholes,” would-be presidents criticizing them for trying to keep religion out of public places.

Called immoral, invisible, publicly insulted when they are noticed — this is the lot of secularists, in Susan Jacoby’s apt phrase, in “religiously correct” America. In an America where other minorities have mobilized themselves to demand their rights, when will our largest, most invisible minority “out” itself in daily life? When will they demand that the spirit of multiculturalism be extended to those who do not pray, instead of the widespread assumption that religious values, norms and practices apply to everyone?

When will they realize that secularists, along with spiritualists and non-traditional believers, make up a good chunk of Democratic votes — and demand that secularists be included among the caucuses at Democratic Party conventions? And, because contrary to their carefully fashioned image, not all Republicans are believers, that secularists become visible in the GOP as well? When will secularists demand recognition for their enormous contributions to American history, culture, science, education and public life? When will this sleeping giant begin to rouse itself and make itself heard?

Ronald Aronson is author of the just-published Living without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided. He is Distinguished Professor of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University in Detroit. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>