Our Humanity, Naturally

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The Secular Movement Can Save Your Birth Control

Emergence of secular demographic is the Religious Right's worst nightmare

It's almost surreal that in today's America, birth control can be seen as a "controversial" issue. A serious presidential contender strongly advocates against it, and Congress recently was just a few votes away from allowing employers to deny contraceptive coverage based on vague "moral or religious" objections.

What's going on here? Has America lost its marbles? Let's try to assess the situation to see how modern America got to the point that birth control has become a controversial subject.

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Whether you are liberal, moderate, or conservative, if you step back for a moment and carefully consider the issue, there is no denying that the attack on birth control is made possible only by the growth of the Religious Right. A generation ago, such an assault would have been unthinkable, because reliable and affordable birth control was correctly seen as one of the most significant social and technological breakthroughs of the modern era, an innovation that emancipates women and greatly improves the quality of life throughout society. The basic right to birth control was even recognized by the Supreme Court in the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut.

Sure, there have always been a few conservative religious objections to contraception, particularly from the Catholic Church, but even Catholics understood the absurdity of this position, as is evidenced by the fact that 98 percent of them use birth control

Over the last three decades, however, the influence of politically active conservative religion in America has steadily grown. Starting with the Moral Majority in the early 1980s, continuing with the Christian Coalition in the late 80s and 90s, and now going stronger than ever through the activism of numerous national and grassroots organizations across the country, the Religious Right has become an insatiable behemoth, asserting itself more aggressively with virtually every election cycle. There can be absolutely no question that the threat to birth control today is directly tied to this fundamentalist political-religious movement.

If this is so, rational Americans, both religious and nonreligious, must consider why the Religious Right is so powerful and, even more importantly, how it can be effectively opposed.

Approaching the issue this way, one conclusion seems clear: The biggest threat to the Religious Right's legitimacy is the emergence of Secular Americans as a recognized and respected demographic. In fact, religious conservatives have been able to increase power for over three decades only by convincing virtually all Americans — liberal and conservative — that religion must be exalted in the public arena, which of course necessarily means that nonbelievers should be marginalized, especially in politics. The rise of the secular demographic, therefore, would necessarily weaken the religious conservative element.

Because of prevailing views in modern America holding religiosity in such high esteem, even liberal groups and liberal politicians have been quick to emphasize their religious credentials, often distancing themselves from atheists and secularity. This effort to ensure the public that "liberals are religious too" was doomed to fail as a strategy for opposing the Religious Right, because it necessarily reinforces the very premise that religious conservatives rely upon in claiming the moral high ground — that piety is a prerequisite to moral authority.

This is why all Americans who long for rational public policy — even those who are religious — should see the secular movement as the true antidote to the Religious Right. By accepting openly secular citizens and including their views in the public dialogue — perhaps even electing them from time to time — we force all parties to support policy positions with facts and reason, not vague claims of moral authority stemming from religious associations. Religion can be respected, but not exalted to the point that even its dangerous notions that threaten public health — like denying access to birth control — are taken seriously.

This does not mean that liberals must abandon their religion, nor does it suggest that the nonreligious are claiming greater moral authority than the religious, but it does mean that all sides in any debate must support their positions with reason, that allusions to faith are irrelevant if not backed by facts and evidence. This scares the hell out of religious conservatives, whose positions are often exposed as plainly irrational once the cloak of false righteousness is removed.

The value of a recognized and respected secular demographic is apparent when we consider any democracy that has such a demographic. In much of the developed world, open secularity and nonbelievers running for office are commonplace - and in such societies religious conservatives typically have little political power outside the confines of their churches. Not surprisingly, these secular democracies tend to have the lowest rates of violent crime, teen pregnancy, and other social ills.

In this light, we see that the success of the modern American secular movement is indeed the Religious Right's worst nightmare.

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David Niose is legal director and former president of the American Humanist Association.

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