October 12, 2012 - 4:39 pm

Much is being made about the Pew Study on Religion and Public Life, the most recent study, in a growing list of surveys of the American Public that say the non-religious are a fast growing segment of the population. This survey estimates that 1 in 5 Americans are religiously unaffiliated. 

As an atheist and employee of Secular Coalition for America I’m delighted to see religion’s hold on America loosening – especially the number who agree that religion and politics are too intermingled. 

By the reactions I’ve seen, the rest of the nontheist community seems to agree that this study—and others like it—are proof of our slow march toward victory. Yet if we want to succeed as a movement and a political force, there is still much room for improvement. 

Pew made some efforts in its analysis of this survey to dissect the identity of the “nones” further, including their politics. According to the survey, the unaffiliated overwhelmingly prefer the social stances of the Democrats. In fact, “nones” are the largest “religious” bloc in the Democratic Party. It’s no wonder then, that there is increased talk our growing political weight. At the Religious Newswriters Conference, last week at which the study was first unveiled, one panelist discussing the survey suggested that both parties—but specifically the Democrats—will soon have no choice but to pay more attention to the non-religious. 

Attention from either side of the aisle is an important achievement, but is it really a certainty that as our numbers grow so will our political clout? 

When a Secular Coalition staffer asked Broderick Johnson is a senior advisor to the Obama campaign, who might be considered the liaison to the secular community, he said there is no liaison to the secular community, because we are not viewed as a constituency. Health-care questions should be directed to one person, LGBT rights questions to another, and so on. 

His response brings up a topic that has been debated within our community -- how do we successfully organize around nonbelief? I can’t give you the specifics here in this blog, and others have already commented on it better than I could, but finding a way to wield the power of growing numbers is the difference between being a part of a socially liberal coalition and being a leading political movement. What’s key in changing our potential into action is to convince nontheists to identify as nontheists, rather than social liberals who happen to be non-believers. 

I want to see more focus on what we agree on, and more action aimed at attracting the nones into our ranks. They are natural allies, but we need to make sure they realize it.  


June 13, 2012 - 5:53 pm


It was a welcome victory for secularism on Tuesday, as voters in North Dakota soundly rejected a proposal that would hand broad privileges to the deeply religious. The North Dakota Religious Freedom Amendment, nicknamed Measure 3, read:

‘The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be burdened unless the government proves it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest’

While the law is largely a reaction to the Health and Human Services Mandate, related to the Affordable Care Act, opponents claimed its language was broad and opened the door for claims of religious belief to shield child abuse, domestic abuse, and men marrying girls as young as 12-years old. Proponents say this is not the case. At the minimum the proposal sought special exemptions for religious belief, not provided to other groups. North Dakotans rightly decided that supernatural faith should not trump laws intended to solve real-life problems.

North Dakota voters have just struck a win for secular values; a stark contrast to the recent direction of so many other states. As the Secular Coalition for America continues to organize our 50 State Chapters, it’s encouraging to see the strong support for secular values displayed by North Dakota voters. The North Dakota chapter of the Secular Coalition for America is included in phase four of the chapter roll out and will hold its initial organizing conference call in mid-August. The majority of North Dakota voters showed support, Tuesday, of the chapter’s mission to protect the secular character of government. I am excited, moving forward, to see how Secular Coalition for America’s state-level efforts can strengthen defenses of secular government nation-wide.  


May 9, 2012 - 4:56 pm

On April 27, the Obama administration published its new guidelines for organizations receiving federal funds to provide services through faith-based initiatives. In an effort to increase transparency, according to the administration, the 50-page report details how organizations must separate their religious mission from their community service mission-- certainly a worthy goal. However, the report contains little significant change to the church-government partnerships initiated by President George W. Bush that provide direct taxpayer funding to religious institutions. Some of these institutions, not surprisingly, have had some problems separating the community’s best interests from their own. One especially crucial issue, which President Obama himself recognized in Zainesville, Ohio, as a candidate in 2008, is the fact that these organizations are allowed to discriminate in the hiring process based on religion.  

In his Zainesville speech, President Obama said, “First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.” There you go, that’s a wrap, folks – taxpayer money is to promote general well-being and if he gets elected those funds aren’t going to be used to further one group’s specific causes over the other – right? Not quite. Three years later the President has not kept his promise. When he was pressed on the issue, by Amanda Knief of the Secular Coalition for America, the issue of hiring discrimination by faith-based groups had become “tricky” and the President had apparently decided that the status quo struck a good balance. Fast forward 9 months, and the Administration has now confirmed in its guidelines that hiring discrimination is acceptable, if religion is a core principal of your mission.

Despite what the President said last summer, there is no nuance, it isn’t “tricky”; he had it right as a candidate. An organizational mission that serves the entire public doesn’t require employees of a specific faith. The Administration’s decision to allow this discrimination is a choice to prioritize the concerns of religious organizations over the people these programs are intended to serve.   


February 24, 2012 - 11:40 am


In Michigan, Tuesday, when asked what he would do as president to protect religious liberty, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney claimed that President Obama has not been sensitive to religious freedom, saying that the administration has "fought against religion" because those the President "hangs around with" have a "secular agenda." Romney told the audience that he would be more sensitive to the issue.

How a president would protect religious freedom is an important question, but Romney's answer sheds light on some alarming misconceptions about what religious freedom is, why it is important, and what really threatens it.


Some have already addressed the underlying assertion that secularism somehow threatens religious liberty and use of secularism as a synonym for anti-religious. It is "disgraceful" - to borrow a word from the Obama campaign - to see nominees for the presidency who distort the meaning of secularism, ignoring the importance that secular values have played in defining the United States as a nation. Secularism simply provides for religious tolerance in a pluralistic society of many faiths - and none.

Just as troubling is the confusion that Romney displayed, within a single sentence, about why religious freedom is important. While addressing the crowd in Michigan, he commented that he "[is] someone who has understood very personally the significance of religious tolerance," seemingly referring to his status as a religious minority, being a Mormon. In that moment, his reference to tolerance seemed to show a true understanding of religious freedom.

However, Romney went on in that very same sentence to remark on the importance of, "the right to one's own conscience." This has become a catch phrase, it is code used by the deeply religious to mean "we should be able to choose not to recognize certain civil liberties of others," which is an egregious misrepresentation of the intention of religious freedom. By invoking their terminology, Romney is promoting privileged exemptions to insular religious groups from participating responsibly in our diverse society.

For its part, the Obama campaign called Romney's attack "disgraceful" and shifted the conversation by focusing on how President Obama is seeking to improve the economy. Though I understand the importance of addressing the very real economic issues the nation faces, I am disappointed that the Obama campaign's response did not clarify that secular values are American values, and how they protect religious freedom.

I hate to see the discussion sidestepped this way. Does the President agree that secularism is bad, or does he think it's unpopular? Either way, allowing a distorted view of religious freedom to continue to be the only view presented is dangerous. No matter how wrong or unpopular, without opposition, this message is bound to gain more credibility and acceptance.