Racial Diversity and the Future of the Secular Movement

Juhem Navarro-Rivera

In this essay, I discuss how increasing racial diversity among the secular population can influence the future of the secular movement. I argue t hat to experience real growth—not just of potential allies but of rank-and-file members—secular organizations must address the needs of the growing “intersectional” identities in the secular population. Recent opinion polls offer some evidence that it is possible for the movement to address the needs of the growing secular population of color. The question is whether the movement is willing to make the necessary adjustments to become a major force in American society.

The secular population is growing at an amazingly fast pace. Between 1990 and 2014, the percentage of Americans with a secular identity such as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular has tripled. According to the National Survey of Religious Identification, in 1990 less than one in ten (8 percent, roughly fifteen million) American adults were nonreligious. Today, according to the latest Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center’s Religion in Public Life Project, nearly one quarter (23 percent) of American adults identify as nonreligious, the equivalent of fifty-six million people.

The secular population of 1990 looked very different racially compared to the new secular cohort, as the racial diversity of the secular population has increased as well in the intervening years. In 1990, four in five secular Americans were white. Just three million of the fifteen million secular Americans were people of color. In 2014, nearly one-third of secular American adults are people of color, such as African American, Latino/a, or Asian American, roughly eighteen million persons—a sixfold increase.

This expansion of racial diversity in the secular population bodes well for a movement primarily known for its mostly white (and male) composition and leadership. Still, the growth of people of color among the secular poses several challenges to the movement as it thinks of its future. The first of these challenges consists in determining the priorities of the movement so that it can attract diverse newly seculars and turn them into rank-and-file members whose contributions to the movement are equally valued as those of its white members.

The question is, how can the secular movement attract (and keep) a membership of color? This is what I call the “issue of priorities.” The secular movement as it currently stands caters to a particular group of people. They tend to be white, male, and highly educated. In fact, all of the so-called “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism embody all of these characteristics (though the late Christopher Hitchens was the only one without a PhD). But those who make up the growing secular population are not solely concerned about the issues of church-state separation or matters of science in the public interest. Their backgrounds and experiences have taught them that their irreligion is just another facet of their lives. This means that their secular identity may not be the main identity on which they act when they are mobilized socially and politically.

People of color, religious or secular, live in a world where whiteness is the dominant identity. Their struggles and their identities are often defined by their interactions as subordinates in this social order. This does not necessarily change because they now have a secular identity. Secular people of color live in a country where their secular identity is subordinate in a nation dominated by Christians. Their secularity is often secondary to racial or gender identities that are more visible and have more direct repercussions in everyday life.

Thus, if the secular movement wants to base its politics in terms of facilitating an inclusive secular identity, it needs to rethink how it will approach and reach out to the new secular population. Sexism, racism, and classism are not issues that are going away. These are important matters for many people coming from subordinate identities. It is imperative that the secular movement starts acting in a way reflecting racial equity internally and externally. That is, of course, if it wants to maximize the population gains of the past quarter-century among the general public and among Americans of color for political leverage.

Today, one of the major issues discussed in the media is the rampant racism in our society, particularly as it relates to policing, incarceration, and our racially biased immigration laws. These are issues that have been at the forefront of discussions in communities of color for generations. In the 1960s, there were efforts to address these issues with civil rights legislation and more open immigration laws. However, in fifty years, we have seen that the end results have not matched the lofty goals with which they began. As a result, today’s movements, such as Black Lives Matter, are fighting the systemic racism endemic in our body politic. Public opinion on issues of race, such as addressing police brutality and the disparate sentencing that African Americans and other Americans of color receive, shows that the secular population favors addressing the issues of racial injustice in our political system. On surveys, secular Americans empathize with the plight and yearning for justice of communities of color.

The good news for the secular movement is that many people in the movement sympathize with the issues of racial and economic inequality that members of the new secular population are likely to care about greatly. There is evidence that secular persons, especially self-identified atheists and agnostics, are more likely to be active in secular membership organizations. Surveys by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Pew Research Center consistently find that secular Americans tend to be more liberal on political matters than the general American population. This is important because many of the major political issues of the day are related to the plight of communities and people who are rapidly joining the ranks of the secular.

This is the crucible facing the secular movement: How to become an ally of the population groups that are now becoming increasingly secular? This does not necessarily mean abandoning the historical concerns of the movement. After all, many secular people of color care about issues of church-state separation, science and education, and human rights.

Given the history of oppression of religious institutions, it is no surprise that more people are leaving behind their religious identities. The fact that so many people of all races are having bad experiences with religion speaks loudly of the need of a secular movement that can accommodate the interests of many constituencies. This way we will be doing more than paying lip service to a “diverse” community in which we keep the societal hierarchies embedded in our nation. We will build a movement where people regardless of race are comfortable and willing to make America safer for secularism.

Juhem Navarro-Rivera

Juhem Navarro-Rivera is a political scientist and an expert in the political behavior of secular Americans. He blogs about secularism, race, and politics at The LatiNone.com.

Seculars of color are more numerous than ever, but movement groups may need to offer broader programming to attract them.

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