By Tom Krattenmaker
On a recent Sunday in New Haven, a few blocks from the Yale campus, two-dozen people listened intently as a political scientist from Washington gave his expert perspective on the role of the religiously unaffiliated in U.S. politics today.
If you’re thinking “no role” it would be understandable, especially in view of the fact that none of the more than 500 members of Congress identify as atheist, and all the major candidates in the presidential race tout some or a lot of religiosity. And, as was discussed at this recent edition of Humanist Haven — a public, non-church Sunday gathering hosted twice a month by a nonprofit called the Yale Humanist Community — the religious unaffiliated are not an organized voting bloc or political force.
Don’t let surface appearances deceive you, though. The religiously unaffiliated are growing in numbers and beginning to develop organizational muscle, especially in blue states like Connecticut. The “none” vote is coming — and in some ways is already here.
As the Humanist Haven participants explored at their recent discussion, the religiously unaffiliated — aka “nones,” as in “no religion” — already populate many progressive movements and organizations, whether the cause is advancing racial justice, fighting for the rights of LGBT people and women, or protecting the environment.
What are “secular values,” you might ask? A lot more than the anti-religion efforts that the highest-profile atheists and affiliated organizations are most known for, such as fighting prayer in public schools or exclusively religious holiday displays in public spaces. Secular values emphasize respect for science as a way of understanding the world and shaping public policy (although not the only way) and a commitment to the dignity and well-being of people.
There are a lot of seculars in the United States. The most recent polling data show the religiously unaffiliated have risen to some 23 percent of the population, placing them virtually in a tie with Catholics and just behind evangelicals on the list of the largest religious categories. The “nones” comprise an even higher percentage in the young-adult demographic and in the Northeast and Northwest corners of the country — very much including Connecticut, which has among the lowest church attendance rates in the country.
Chances are, if you were to drop in and do a religious affiliation poll at a meeting of an environmental organization in these parts, or a gay or women’s advocacy group, you would find a high percentage of participants identifying as secular. If you probed, many would say their secular or humanist values fuel their activism, even if they do not label them as such.
Same for voting. Although large percentages of Republicans indeed are conventionally religious (sometimes to a ferocious degree), Democratic voters are far less so in the aggregate. Truly, part of what it means to be progressive these days is to be “secular” — not only in the sense of living outside of religion, but of supporting candidates and policies upholding the mutual independence of government and churches.
In this way, there already is a secular vote. It’s just that it usually goes by other names.
But that, too, is changing. A decade out from the anti-religion manifestos of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, the secular movement has shifted its focus away from its disagreements with religion and toward a positive articulation of living an ethical, meaningful secular life.
With this has come development of a more coordinated and robust infrastructure — including the creation of new organizations like the Yale Humanist Community, launched just two years ago to provide a home for humanist and other secular students at Yale and in the surrounding community. Among other projects, the group (on whose board I serve) hosts discussion groups and sends volunteers to a New Haven school once a month to provide after-school STEAMM mentoring for middle-schoolers — “STEAMM” referring to the fields of science, technology, engineering, art, math and medicine.
The Yale Humanist Community is one of the newest additions to a network of humanist and otherwise secular organizations dotting the Connecticut map, including such groups as Hartford Humanists and Connecticut Atheists.
As the secular movement gains steam, you can expect the “nones” to become more than a source of people and energy for progressive movements. Increasingly, secular values will not only be tucked away in the pockets of nonreligious activists and voters, but proclaimed on banners, too — an explicit and named political force in and of itself.
Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of the board of directors of the Yale Humanist Community. His most recent book is “The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.”