In my February/March 2019 editorial “Humanism’s Chasm,” I sounded an alarm: the conditions experienced by the current generation of nonreligious Americans have become so different from those familiar to past generations that existing national humanist, secular humanist, and atheist organizations risk becoming irrelevant. Owing mostly to the rise of the Nones—an enormous growth in the number of Americans without a religious identity, particularly among the young—growing up nonreligious has been normalized in much of this nation. Many—though not all—young Nones face little cultural pushback over their unbelief and simply never experience religion as being something important enough to be an object of concern. People of that background tend not to see themselves as members of an embattled minority. Never having known religion as a focus of oppression, they tend not to feel the urgency their elders do regarding, say, opposing religious symbolism in the public square. (In surveys, young Nones exhibit dismayingly low interest in anything relating to church-state separation.)
There remain geographic regions, families, and congregations in which old-fashioned oppression of unbelievers is alive and well. For those seeking against great obstacles to escape such settings, the appeal of existing national unbeliever organizations presumably remains strong. But many American youths experienced far less oppressive upbringings—and for them, it tends not to be obvious just what those organizations, including the Council for Secular Humanism, have to offer them.
My editorial has prompted intriguing dialogue, some of it already published (see the commentaries by Sarah Myers and Fred Whitehead, FI, April/May 2019, and several letters in this issue), with more to come in future issues. In this issue’s cover story, we will focus on a different, and critically important, aspect of the Nones phenomenon. It turns out that religion isn’t the only thing about which today’s Nones are apathetic. For many of them, politics too is of dubious urgency. For that reason, Nones tend to vote infrequently—in marked contrast to Christian evangelicals, whose strong history of going to the polls (and voting as they’re told to by religious leaders) has won them disproportionate political influence.
In the most recent General Social Survey (GSS), for the first time Nones became more numerous than evangelicals (albeit by a tiny margin). But they’re nowhere near displaying the level of political organization and commitment that evangelicals do. Unless something changes, Nones face a future of being politically outgunned by their more religiously zealous counterparts. Can existing unbeliever organizations provide leadership to help right that balance? A cross-section of thought leaders from the Center for Inquiry, the Secular Coalition for America, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sound off on the subject. We also hear from social critic Mark Kolsen, who suggests that muddy thinking about terms such as spiritual and religious may lead some social scientists to undercount the minority of full-fledged atheists among the Nones, a further complication if the fully nonreligious are to enjoy fair representation in public life.