It's not unusual to hear commentators, especially religious conservatives, dismiss secular activism by citing numbers, pointing out that only one or two percent of Americans identify as atheists.

Though technically correct, such numbers only tell half the story.

The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS)—probably the most comprehensive study of American religious demographics—confirms that only about 1.6 percent of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic. This may seem like an insignificant group, but even just 1.6 percent outnumbers the population of American Mormons (1.4 percent), Jews (1.2), Episcopalians (1.1), Muslims (0.6), and many other groups. Much more importantly, however, we should realize that the 1.6 percent figure is deceiving, because ARIS also shows that the actual number of nonbelievers is much higher.

We see this when we compare the ARIS numbers relating identity to the corresponding ARIS numbers for religious belief. That is, although just 1.6 percent of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic, only 81.6 percent of the overall population affirms a belief in God. (Some 69.5 percent said they believe in a personal God, and 12.1 percent in a more vague "higher power.") Thus, 18.4 percent of Americans—almost one in five—do not claim a belief in God.

This inconsistency between identity and belief leads to the inescapable conclusion that millions of Americans, despite their disbelief, simply do not feel comfortable openly identifying as nonbelievers. The "atheist" identity is so stigmatized that even most atheists avoid the label.

The numbers can be analyzed and debated, but there is no escaping the clear disconnect between identity and belief. One could argue, for example, that some of the 18.4 percent who do not affirm God-belief are nevertheless believers (since about one-third of them refused to answer the question). But even assuming that all of those who "refused" are believers (highly unlikely), we are still left with over 12 percent who either affirmatively state disbelief or who are agnostic, a number incompatable with the mere 1.6 percent who openly identify as such. 

What nonbelievers are increasingly discovering, however, is that their reluctance to openly identify as secular only plays into the hand of the religious right. By not standing openly as nonbelievers, via the identity of atheist, agnostic, humanist, skeptic, freethinker, or some other identifier that clearly places them outside the umbrella of believers, they are creating the appearance of unanimity on the question of theism: Of course, everyone believes in God, right? 

This, in turn, fuels the engine of the religious right, for if there is virtual unanimity on the issue of God, nobody can claim authority easier than those who cling to traditional religion most ardently and most visibly. Oh sure, one can argue that Jesus was a liberal, but the argument is being made on the religious right's home field, that of traditional theism, so the game is over before you start.

This doesn't mean that believers can't fight against the religious right. Obviosuly, if you happen to be a believer and you oppose the political agenda of the religious right, make your arguments. But those who are in fact skeptical of theistic religion are increasingly discovering the importance of identifying openly, of humbly suggesting that claims of theistic belief convey no moral authority and should carry no weight in public discourse.

Today, secular identity can be asserted easily, even by simply utilizing the "religious preference" category on social media to let friends and family know about one's secularity. By casually stating "atheist," "humanist," "agnostic," or even "none" on their Facebook profiles, for example, millions in recent years have helped normalize religious skepticism and challenge the notion that "everyone" conforms to traditional belief.

Some go even further, using branding mechanisms such as the Darwin fish, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the scarlet "A" (pictured, initiated by The Out Campaign) to convey their secular worldview in a public way. When you see these items on someone's profile, you know they are making a statement: this person has little use for conservative religion, supernaturalism, and superstition.

In recent years, the secular movement has learned from the gay rights movement the importance of identity politics. A group cannot gain acceptance when its members are closeted, accepting marginalization. This partly explains the success of last month's Reason Rally in Washington, where thousands of seculars took to the National Mall.

As the movement gains momentum we can expect more identity-based activism, more reminders from the secular community that nonbelievers are part of the American landscape. Seculars are demanding recognition, speaking out against religious-based public policy, and opposing the vilification of secularity, and they are finding that "coming out" is a powerful means of achieving these ends. It's unlikely that they will stop until open atheists, like open gays and lesbians, are routinely being elected to office.

Join Nonbeliever Nation on Facebook

Follow David Niose on Twitter

Nonbeliever Nation can be ordered here.


Coming in July - Pre-order via most booksellers

You are reading

Our Humanity, Naturally

Boy Scouts Still Shut the Door on Some Kids

Girls are in now, but a religious test applies

Ignorance Isn't Bliss—It's Frightening

How dangerous is American anti-intellectualism?

Blood Spills Over a Statue of Lee

The psychology and politics of public displays