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National Journal Cover Story: Rise of the Godless

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Rise of The Godless

National JournalIn the March 6 issue of the National Journal, writer Paul Starobin examines the growing force of nonbelievers in the political arena. The National Journal Group is the leading source of nonpartisan reporting on the current political environment and emerging policy trends, based in and focused on Washington, D.C.

The article reports that the numbers of self-identified nonbelievers is growing: 5.3% of Americans in 1988 up to 12% in 2008, according to exit poll data. That translates into about fifteen million individuals - a larger bloc than the Hispanic, gay or Jewish votes.

So why aren't these views explored? Starobin writes that "in the past, politicians in Washington and elsewhere could largely ignore the Godless, whatever their numbers. Nonbelievers lacked the consciousness of a political movement; to the extent they were organized at all, it was mostly as members of an intellectual club, reflecting on the meaning of a life without God (and the patent absurdity, as many of these folks think, of a life with God)."

Now, however, the "Godless" are organizing, inspired in part by Bush-era abandonment of sound policy in science and other domains in favor of faith-based initiatives and evangelical influence. In a growing struggle to earn recognition and respect, America's nonbelievers want "to be viewed no longer as an offbeat and safely marginalized counterculture but as part of the diverse mainstream of American life."

As part of this trend, leaders from the Secular Coalition of America (an umbrella lobbying group for leading atheist, humanist and related groups) have obtained meetings with over half the members of the U.S. Senate, and, more recently, have met directly with White House officials to represent their Godless constituents.

The numbers of the "Godless" are difficult to pin down - in large part due to the social stigma attached to a lack of belief in a higher power - but are definitely growing. Roger FInke, a professor at Penn State University, says that "people are more comfortable than ever saying they do not have a religious affiliation." This shift is most pronounced among young adults: at least one-quarter of adults in the 18-29 age group claim no religious affiliation (as opposed to only 8% of people 65 and older). This number may be even higher, given hints from studies like the American Religious Identification Survey that the number may be closer to 30 or 40% of young people.)

Becky Robinson, Secular Student Alliance board member, appears as an illustration of the atheist story. She "stopped believing in God in her late teens. She did not become an activist in the movement until her early 20s, when she left Pittsburgh, where she had grown up, to attend school in the Dallas area. She found, to her dismay, that the religious climate 'permeates everything' there -- starting with being asked what church she attended whenever she met someone for the first time. 'I am not one to hide how I think,' she said in a recent conversation. 'Here I felt I had to be an atheist with a capital A.'"

Becky went on to found the University of Texas (Arlington) chapter of the SSA, with high memberships levels since its first meeting in 2006 and tackling issues such as an instructor's offer of extra credit for attending Bible studies. She is also active in opposing creationists on the Texas Board of Education (critical in the U.S. educational system due to textbook distribution).

Starobin goes on to explain some of the challenges faced by nonbelievers. "On the surface, the Godless might not appear to face a problem. The military doesn't ban atheists from serving, just as it doesn't ban homosexuals (fudged by the "don't ask, don't tell" policy). But as a practical matter, the Godless say, they are often made to feel unwelcome in an environment that, despite the Constitution's insistence on a separation between church and state, favors the religiously fervent."

The article wraps up on a note of hope, however, in quoting Obama's inaugural speech: "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers."

You can read the full article on the National Journal's online archive.

Please support us. The Secular Student Alliance is an independent organization that relies entirely on the generosity of the secular community to continue providing services that are vital to campus organizations for non-religious students. We are building a movement - join us!


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