Whither American Freethinking?

Jesse Max Smith


As is well-known to readers of Free Inquiry, the nonreligious community in the United States over the last two decades has been characterized by change: change in the social and political climates affecting this community, in the composition and visibility of the nonreligious landscape, in the numbers of those adopting secular identities, and in the public’s attitude toward those embracing secular worldviews. Increasing numbers of social scientists, commentators, scholars, and laypersons—both religious and secular—have taken notice and registered the import of these changes, shining both critical and sympathetic lights on all things secular. This community, broadly conceived, includes secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and a not-insignificant portion of the rising Nones. A considerable number of the nonreligious involve the formerly religious—apostates, the disaffected, and other kinds of religious leave-takers—while another slice of this community hails from the ranks of the “always secular,” those who never had an interest in religion and those socialized, explicitly or implicitly, into a secular worldview. There are differences between all these groups, but these differences fade against the backdrop of what they have in common: a propensity for skeptical inquiry and freethought.

The diverse community of Americans who embrace a nontheistic, nonreligious life stance is expanding, evolving, and responding to other social forces. There are of course many reasons for this change—some are obvious, and some are more subtle and complicated. Demographic and generational transitions, changes in the relationship between individuals and institutions, the rise and power of the Internet and social media, and (of course) religion each bear upon these changes. For many decades in this country, systematic research on the nonreligious languished. This is mostly because unbelievers were seen as marginal and unimportant. Regarding beliefs, values, practices, and cosmology, with a few exceptions, for far too long only religion and the religious were deemed worthy of the attention of both academe and the mainstream American public.

But this too has changed. Serious investigation on all fronts into the causes and consequences of American unbelief, including the actual experiences of secular Americans, is well underway, and there is evidence that the public is slowly shifting its attitudes toward the nonreligious community in the direction of greater acceptance. And yes, this includes those who adopt the a word. I think you would agree that this is long overdue. The comments of President Barack Obama in his 2009 inauguration speech about being inclusive of unbelievers, and the pontiff’s suggestion in 2013 that atheists can be, and can do, good (imagine that!) might appear as random outliers were it not for research supporting the idea of increasing acknowledgment and acceptance of secularity as a legitimate way of living and being in the world.

Most of these broad social changes signal good news for unbelievers, although some may find this surprising. After all, studies describe the continued social stigma of—and costs associated with—open unbelief. Polls suggest that Americans feel the least warmth toward atheists compared with other marginal groups, and everyone knows that any leader of this nation, along with most of those holding positions of public office, must claim theistic belief and (at least nominally) identify with some religious tradition in order to prove that he or she is truly American. To be sure, these issues are real; most Americans do not approve of atheism, and still too many no doubt see the growth of unbelief ultimately as a reflection of moral and societal decay. But history and perspective are everything. Although the golden age of freethought in America may be more than one hundred years gone, as Baker and Smith suggest in their 2015 study American Secularism, there is accumulating evidence countervailing the idea that Americans will forever associate atheism with immorality or that the nonreligious will eternally remain a marginalized minority. This should lend a little optimism to contemporary secular humanists and others who give priority to the empirical natural world over a supernatural or spiritual dimension.

 

So, how can all this change, and the positive gains produced by it, be sustained in the coming years and decades? How can the broader secular movement keep its momentum and continue to make measurable progress with both normalizing unbelief and promoting secular values? In what sense might a “culture of unbelief” prevail in American society? A little reflection on recent developments in the unbelieving community itself offers some insights on these questions. Much has already been said about the New Atheism and the polemics and politics of the theist-versus-atheist intellectual battleground. The basic arguments for and against (a)theisms are already inscribed in the minds of readers, so there is no need to repeat them here. But it is important to note that a secular-atheist identity politics has been playing out for years now. Online and on-the-ground secular activism, billboard campaigns, public debates, godless marches, and Reason Rallies all underscore the significance of identity and the desire for a secular community in the American context where religious, political, and moral boundaries assert themselves to a high degree. Both unbeliever social groups and activist organizations that pursue specific goals (such as protecting the separation of church and state) have availed themselves of an identity politics that includes a discourse of marginalization and the employment of strategies that parallel those found in previous and ongoing movements, most notably the LGBTQ-rights movement. It remains to be seen to what degree today’s secular activism will achieve its end goals, but it is a pretty safe bet that it has played an important role in advancing the secular cause.

One has to wonder, though, about the ultimate effectiveness of antireligious billboards, atheist conventions, debates over God’s existence online and in university auditoriums, and other forms of public discourse based on the “to believe or not to believe” question. This can all be good fun of course, and it has its place. But consider another development in the unbelieving community: the Sunday Assembly (SA), a transnational network of self-described, “radically inclusive secular congregations” devoted to “celebrating life” in a communal context from a nontheistic platform. Actually, as Tom Flynn argued in “Religious Humanism: Alive, Dead or Bifurcating?” (Free Inquiry, October/November 2013), the SA might best be construed as a form of congregational humanism, not simply a “secular” version of a religious congregation (since many secular humanists and other unbelievers eschew this model). Dubbed by the media as “atheist mega-churches” (which, by any informed measure, they are not) the growth and popularity of the SA in the United States is an interesting development in the unbeliever community and speaks to broader issues about the state and future of unbelief.

SA began in the United Kingdom in 2013, the product of a reportedly half-joking conversation between founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, two British comedians who wanted to create an organization that offered the social benefits of religion sans theism and the supernatural. As SA’s website declares, if with tongue in cheek, “It’s the best bits of church, but with no religion.” As a sociologist, I do not consider the Sunday Assembly “a religion” in much the same way I do not consider secular humanism—be it a life stance, moral disposition, worldview, philosophical outlook, or even set of practices—a religion. Save proponents of the idea of “implicit religion,” most sociologists require some kind of orientation to the supernatural or divine to register as religion per se. However, based on my two years of studying the SA through fieldwork (in London, Chicago, and San Diego) and interviews with Assemblers, I think it can reasonably be viewed as a functional alternative to certain kinds of religious behavior.

However, how much the SA resembles religion is not my concern here; nor do I think it is the most interesting question. Nontheist-friendly congregations have existed for many years in the form of Unitarian Universalist and Ethical Culture congregations (which tend to include theists as well). But the SA points to something more directly about sustaining the current growth of unbelief—primarily in that it suggests a collective desire to move beyond the polemics and politics of unbelief. Whereas the New Atheists seek to influence the public through rational argument and a generally antireligion disposition, SA’s inclusive, expressive nontheism focuses on celebrating normative cultural values and finding common ground. Like secular-humanist groups, it hopes to cultivate a positive secular ethics that gets noticed by the wider public. Assemblies offer congregational services, but they also work at connecting individuals to their communities through volunteer work and charitable activity and through promoting social justice through working groups within local Assembly chapters. At the cultural level, I think this approach, rather than one focused on the politics of belief and unbelief itself, is a good way of sustaining and promoting the movement.

But this is not an advertisement for the Sunday Assembly (my own participation has largely been motivated by my research agenda). The point is that in terms of community-building possibilities (not the content of religious claims), the activities of the SA parallel those of many successful religious groups in America. This is particularly relevant in a society where religious organization and participation is based on pluralism, competition, and voluntary association. Moreover, I think the SA, along with secular-humanist organizations, are proving that the old trope about atheists and “herding cats” is false. Yes, America’s unbelievers, more than believers, tend to be antihierarchical, and they do not benefit from the entrenched institutional framework that the latter have long enjoyed. But normalizing and advancing a wholly secular worldview will require not an “accommodation” of any religious claim or tenet but local, community-based, communal, and collaborative behavior that goes beyond religious criticism alone. Instead, it develops “unbelief” through the kinds of social endeavors that pluralist religion in America is known for. Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith suggest that in order to achieve long-term success in the secular movement, unbelievers should look to the organizational efforts of religious communities. I think I agree with them, as long as the empirically based, ethically attuned, dogma-rejecting, hierarchy-eschewing principles of freethinking are firmly in place as we do so.

 

As I have suggested, part of sustaining the growth of unbelief in America is to work to outgrow a public discourse centered on unbelief. When a defensive antireligious disposition and a narrative of an embattled minority is outweighed by a do-good, lead-by-example, collaborative secular movement, a cultural transition can continue to (slowly) unfold; unbelief can shed its stigma and become a normalized part of pluralist America. It will become less and less compelling to the religious public to see unbelief as a threat to morality, to social cohesion, or to anything else. Broader acceptance sets the stage for broader secularity. This is how “unbelief” can hope to “grow.” This might be a bit sanguine, I know. But I am also realistic and under no illusions that secular values are not under ongoing attack on many fronts. The marriage of unbelief with social justice might seem strange to some, and advocating alliances with the religious will in some cases be plainly unworkable. We live in a global society, which comes with global threats to free inquiry, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience. The twenty-first century realities of fundamentalism, religious violence, blasphemy laws, religious and secular oppression, and other world problems related to the secular-religious/believer-unbeliever question remain profound challenges. But progress starts at home, and the changes to the religious/nonreligious landscape we have witnessed so far in this country should inspire further change in a positive direction for freethinking America. If my thinking is wishful, then so too is that of many Assemblers, secular humanists, atheists, and secular activists who hope for a brighter future for unbelievers. An interview I had in 2014 with an Assembly organizer was, for me, illuminating. In response to my question about her own unbelief and why she puts so much time into the SA, secular activist groups, and working with religionists, she stated, “Well, [eventually] I’d like to see us not be needed anymore, because secular spaces are so numerous.” I did not need to press her on defining exactly what she meant by “secular spaces” being “numerous” to understand that her sentiment reveals an optimism about the future and growth of unbelief and a sense of how best to get there.

As with religion, it is increasingly obvious there are multiple forms and meanings of “the secular.” We live not necessarily in a post- but rather in a poly-secular situation; the SA is a recent reminder of this. Believers in the United States get to select from an impressive array of religious choices, and present cultural conditions seem to suggest a similar trajectory for the unbelieving community. Americans can connect with more atheist and secular-humanist groups than have ever existed in this country before. Now, atheists who desire congregational life—whether they come from a religious past and want to recapture some of the social benefits of religion or they have always been unbelievers but seek the expressive, communal dynamics of congregations—have more options. The growing variety of organizational and personal identity choices, I think, is ultimately a good sign. To be sure, the politics of identity can be exhausting, and many of us have a love-hate relationship with labels. They strike me as both annoying and necessary. In writing this article, I revisited the question of what labels I could string together to define my own “unbelieving” self. Am I technically agnostic; socially secular, morally a humanist; philosophically an aspiring apatheist and warm materialist? I suppose I can be all of the above.

Playfulness aside, this is not just (or only) a game of labels or semantics. Different groups and identities meet and express different wants and needs, and this is no less the case in the freethinking community. The change I have been going on about, and the increasing diversity in the unbelieving community it reflects, indicate the pluralistic—and yes, embattled—conditions that gave rise to it. But this diversity and complexity can be seen more as an indication of health and vitality than as a sign of sectarianism or an inability to cohere as a broad social movement. Studies such as Phil Zuckerman’s Living the Secular Life (2014) suggest that the changes I have outlined can mean good things for the actual lives and experiences of more and more people.

I began my training as a sociologist after the close of the twentieth century. As such, I know better than to make specific or sweeping predictions about the future of unbelief in any part of the globe, let alone in the United States. It was not that long ago that nearly all sociologists predicted the demise of religion via the secularizing forces of modernity. Obviously, things have not quite gone in that direction. But they do not need to. A diverse and vibrant freethinking population will open further vistas for secular identity and community and increase opportunities to influence the American public in just the ways we hope for.

Further Reading

  • Baker, Joseph O., and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: New York University Press.
  • Cimino, Richard, and Christopher Smith. 2014. Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Sherkat, Darren. 2014. Changing Faith: The Dynamics and Consequences of Americans’ Shifting Religious Identities. New York: New York University Press.
  • Zuckerman, Phil. 2014. Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. New York: Penguin Press.

Jesse Max Smith

Jesse Max Smith is an assistant professor of sciology at Western Michigan University. He has published research on nonreligion in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Sociology and Religion, and Secularism and Nonreligion.


The future of unbelief may lie in greater diversity—and less rhetoric about unbelief.

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