Required Reading for Seculars

Phil Zuckerman

Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of the Secular Americans, by David Niose (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, ISBN 978-0-230-33895-1) 240 pp. Hardcover, $27.00.

One of the classes that I teach within the secular studies program at Pitzer College is called “Secularism: Local/Global.” A major goal of the class is to understand and analyze the political and cultural aspects of various contemporary secular movements, both within the United States and around the world, in such diverse societies as India, Turkey, Britain, Israel, Mexico, Scandinavia, the former Soviet Union, and others.

I’ll be teaching the class in the 2013 spring term, and the first book that I will be assigning as required reading is David Niose’s Nonbeliever Nation. It is an excellent, straightforward, accessible articulation of what contemporary American secularism is all about: its goals and aims, as well as its quite reasonable gripes and grievances. Niose clearly explains what American secularists want: government neutrality when it comes to religion, more secular Americans to “come out” and proudly assert their secularity, a stronger secular presence in politics, and more. He astutely decries the forces that prevent such a state of affairs (the religious Right, the Congressional Prayer Caucus, widespread stereotypes that equate atheism with immorality, anti-intellectualism, a mainstream media that panders to religious Americans, politicians that fear upsetting their religious constituents), and he then forcefully articulates what organized American secularists are against (fundamentalism, faith-based initiative programs, “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, David Barton, and Antonin Scalia, for starters), as well as what they are for (building greater public awareness and acceptance of secularity, the separation of church and state, democracy, rational debate concerning public policy, and more).

The book is a sound, lively, intelligent, conversational, and at times passionate statement presenting the raison d’etre of groups like the American Humanist Association, of which David Niose has been the president since 2009. Reading it as a reviewer for Free Inquiry was a little awkward, perhaps because it was simply too fun and easy. For one thing, I share Niose’s fears and criticisms of the religious Right. I also share his general secular orientation and cultural outlook, and furthermore, I deeply admire his social and political activism. He is fighting to make America a better, more rational country, and I am inspired by his efforts.

Thus, being a genuine fan of the man, I read his book with a general sense of glee, finding almost nothing to critique, rebut, or rebuke. Instead, I just kept saying “right on!” and “yes!” and “that’s so true!” throughout—to the mild bemusement (annoyance?) of my wife and children, who wondered why I kept uttering such things as I was reading the book. But even on that front, the book was successful: it led to a long discussion with my wife about the important historical significance of the Treaty of Tripoli, as well as an equally long conversation with my kids about the phrase Under God in the Pledge of Allegiance. The point: I liked this book a lot.

So let me sing some specific praises. First off: the tone/style is laudable. It is knowledgeable and authoritative and yet highly accessible, and it is flavorfully peppered with interesting anecdotes, vignettes, court cases, current events, and compelling examples that serve well to illustrate a given point or argument. Second, the scope/breadth of the discussion is impressive. Niose may not be a historian, but he does a very nice job of conveying important historical antecedents and developments of American secularism. He may not be a sociologist, but he competently discusses key sociological trends and processes concerning the rise of the “nones” and their increased activism. He is a lawyer by training, and his discussion of the legal aspects of church-state issues is solid. Third, the personal passion infusing every page makes the book really come to life. Niose cares deeply about the issues he writes about and that makes the book feel all the more engaging.

Do I have any criticisms? Well, if I must, sure, I can offer a few—although I am doing so not so much because I find these flaws significant but simply to strive for some evenhandedness. For one thing, there were times when I felt that the book was focused too much on the religious Right. There were several long stretches where Niose talked about what we need to fight against, what we need to be wary of, and what we need to condemn. While I generally agreed with his assertions, I sometimes felt that these passages overshadowed a more positive message of what secular Americans are for, what we should be supporting, and what we should be valuing and pursuing. In other words, this book sometimes seemed to spend more time critiquing conservative religious fundamentalism and its political and cultural presence than voicing, outlining, and defending a positive vision of a progressive secular agenda.

Also, there were other times when I paused and asked myself: Who is this book for? Who is the intended audience? On the one hand, I doubt that those who are strongly, conservatively religious or are sympathetic to the religious Right will be swayed by Niose’s arguments. And as for strongly secular Americans, Niose’s book may simply be preaching to the choir. However, I eventually realized who I think would most benefit from this book: those millions of mildly or passively secular Americans out there—or secular-leaning Americans—who don’t think too much about church-state issues, who underestimate the power of conservative religion in America, or who are unaware of the growing potential of organized and active secular Americans. To such men and women, I can see this book being a wake-up call. I hope they will read it, and I hope it will spur them to get involved.

Ultimately, this is an optimistic book. Niose is convinced that as more and more Americans disaffiliate from religion, and as more and more of these secular Americans “come out” and get active and organized, real change—political and cultural—will take place in America, change that engenders reason over faith, skepticism over credulity, science over special interests, and human rights over religious dogma.

Highly, happily recommended.

Phil Zuckerman

Phil Zuckerman grew up in Southern California, but has lived in Oregon, Israel, and Denmark. He is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California. He is the author of several books, including Society Without God (NYU Press, 2008) and Faith No More (Oxford U. Press, 2011).

Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of the Secular Americans, by David Niose (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, ISBN 978-0-230-33895-1) 240 pp. Hardcover, $27.00. One of the classes that I teach within the secular studies program at Pitzer College is called “Secularism: Local/Global.” A major goal of the class is to understand and analyze the political and …

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