Our Humanity, Naturally

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It's Time to Challenge America's 'Very Religious' Self-Image

Political psychology: how a nation defines itself means something.

Democrats and Republicans may disagree on many issues, but they are unanimous in their insistence that America is a deeply religious nation. "It is a truism that we Americans are a religious people,” candidate Barack Obama declared several times before his election in 2008, echoing a sentiment that seems nearly universal. Media pundits, like the politicians they cover, reflexively describe America as "very religious," as if devout religiosity is a defining characteristic of America and its people.

As I discuss in some detail in my book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, this national self-perception—the unquestioned assertion that we are a very religious country—is both wrong and dangerous. The sooner we debunk the myth of American piety, the sooner we will be on the road to rational public policy.

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A society’s self-image, like an individual's, will in many ways shape its destiny. At a minimum, a nation's axiomatic belief that "we are a very religious people” will lead many of its citizens to assume that their country enjoys special affection from God, perhaps even that it plays a critical role in fulfilling a divine plan. Indeed, such talk is not unusual from American politicians. This mixture of religion and patriotism not only leads to bad public policy, but at its worst it can be explosive, contributing to overzealous nationalism and militarism.

Liberals and moderates sometimes think they have little to lose by joining the "very religious country" chorus, but they are dead wrong. In fact, the national self-image created by such religious pandering marginalizes the secular demographic and validates the Religious Right. By puffing out their chests and parroting the “deeply religious country” rhetoric, liberals and moderates are doing little to further any liberal/moderate political ends, but instead they are creating a public environment that inaccurately exalts religion, to their own detriment. After all, if we put religion on a pedestal, who can claim devout religiosity louder and more vigorously than the Religious Right?

Psychologically and politically, the image of a "deeply religious" country reinforces not the mainline churches of moderate Americans (in fact, their numbers have been dwindling for decades), but the conservative views of the true believers who wear religion on their sleeve, who constantly rant about religion and so-called family values, and who ceaselessly claim to be acting with God on their side. Any religious liberal who feels that the idea of America being a “very religious country” somehow empowers candidates who emphasize peace, humility, and economic justice is either politically incompetent, delusional, or both.

Moreover, the notion that America is a deeply religious country is simply not true. A recent Gallup poll indicated that 32 percent of Americans are nonreligious. America may be a bit more religious than many other developed nations, but that religiosity is greatly exaggerated, while the degree of America's secularity is too often overlooked. Less than half the population attends religious services on a regular basis, and in a number that is rarely cited, almost one in five do not affirm a belief in a divinity, according to the most accurate study on the question, the American Religious Identification Survey. (69.5 percent state a belief in a personal God, 12.1 percent in a “higher power.”) This is hardly indicative of a deeply religious people.

In fact, if one wishes to reside in a very religious society, consider moving to Saudi Arabia, where religious texts are indeed taken quite seriously, and where, as a result, women cannot leave their homes unaccompanied by a male relative. Or perhaps consider Somalia, a devoutly religious society that puts America’s religiosity to shame.

Most unfortunately, Aisha Ibrahim Duholow – a name that should not be forgetten if we have any respect for human rights – discovered the grim reality of living in a very religious country. The poor Somalian girl, only 13 according to Amnesty International, was publicly stoned to death by a group of about 50 men who believed they were enforcing God’s law. Her crime was said to be adultery, though her father insists she was a rape victim. Are we to assume that God will sort it out? Though Aisha's story was brought to public attention, we can only wonder how much brutality occurs each day in the name of religious faith.

If such anecdotes seem grisly, perhaps you’ve just been made overly sensitive by the rampant secularism of Western culture. You see, despite the vocal claims that America is a very religious country, thankfully we fall far short of actually deserving that label, as our devoutly religious brothers in Somalia and Saudi Arabia show us. We are a somewhat religious country, but that religiosity is restrained by church-state separation, reason, pluralism, and other secular values of Enlightenment humanism.

This irritates those on the Religious Right who would prefer that we be a more godly nation. For the rest of us, however, it is cause for a big sigh of relief.

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Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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