Do Growing Numbers Equal Political Clout for Nones?

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.  


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