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« You Can Be Good Without God »: Non-Believers in 21st Century American Society

Amandine Barb

Résumés

Cet article examine une fraction souvent ignorée, mais pourtant de plus en plus visible et vocale du paysage (ir)religieux américain : les non-croyants. Dans un contexte général de désaffiliation religieuse, cette minorité historiquement disparate et mal-aimée a réussi à affirmer sa présence aux Etats-Unis au cours de la dernière décennie. Cette contribution, qui prend pour objet d’étude les non-croyants militants et organisés, vise donc à comprendre les origines, les formes et les objectifs de leur récente mobilisation, mais aussi ce qu’elle révèle plus largement de la société américaine au début du XXIe siècle. Basé sur des entretiens avec des groupes sécularistes et s’inspirant en partie de la théorie des politiques identitaires, cet article interroge, au travers de l’analyse du militantisme des non-croyants aux Etats-Unis, le statut moral et social de la religion dans une société qui semble se détourner des religions organisées, mais où la croyance en Dieu demeure néanmoins toujours exceptionnellement forte.

This article examines an often-neglected, yet increasingly visible and vocal segment of the American (ir)religious landscape: non-believers. In a general context of increasing religious disaffiliation, this historically disparate and disliked minority has managed to make its presence more assertive in the United States over the past decade. This contribution focuses on organized, militant non-believers and seeks to understand the basis, the forms, and the purposes of their surprising growing mobilization as well as its broader implications for American society at the beginning of the 21st century. Based on interviews with secular groups and relying in part on identity politics theory, the article questions, through the study of non-believers’ activism in today’s United States, the moral and social status of religion in a society apparently turning away from organized faiths, but where belief in God still remains exceptionally strong.

Este artículo se centra en el estudio de los no creyentes, un grupo a menudo olvidado, pero cada vez más visible en el panorama (a)religioso Americano. En el contexto general de descenso de la afiliación religiosa, esta minoría, históricamente diversa y poco apreciada, ha conseguido establecer una presencia más sólida y visible en los Estados Unidos durante la última década. Esta contribución se centra en los no creyentes militantes y organizados. Ayuda a entender las bases, formas y objetivos de sus sorprendentes y crecientes esfuerzos por organizarse, y su impacto en la sociedad americana de principios del siglo XXI. Haciendo uso de entrevistas con grupos seculares, apoyándose en parte en teorías sobre políticas de identidad, y el estudio del activismo de los no creyentes en la sociedad de Estados Unidos, este artículo pone de relieve la moralidad y el estatus social de la religión en una sociedad en la que, pese a que parece poco a poco distanciarse de religiones organizadas, la creencia en Dios está aún extraordinariamente arraigada.

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  • 1  Throughout the article, I mainly use the broad terms of « non-believer » or « unbeliever » instead (...)
  • 2  Levinson, Paul, « The Most Revolutionary Phrase of Obama’s Inaugural Address », opensalon.com, Jan (...)
  • 3  Hollinger, David, « How Wide is the Circle of the “We” ? American Intellectuals and the Problem of (...)

1  This article proposes a socio-political analysis of an often-neglected, yet increasingly visible and vocal segment of the American (ir)religious landscape: non-believers1. In a country where almost 90% of the population declares to believe in God or in a « universal spirit », this historically disparate and disliked minority has managed to make its presence more assertive over the last decade. It even gained a first official recognition when Barack Obama famously mentioned « non-believers » in his inaugural address, a phrase considered by some as the « most revolutionary » of the whole speech2. Starting from this observation, the main objective of this contribution is to better understand the basis, the forms, and the purposes of this surprising growing mobilization, but also its broader implications for American society at the beginning of the 21st century. Based on interviews conducted with representatives of secular organizations and relying in part on identity politics theory, it focuses on organized, militant non-believers – from the radical « atheists » to the more moderate « humanists » – and analyzes the identity strategies they have employed to overcome the « moral boundary » of religion and finally transcend their historical « otherness » in the United States. In a general context of increasing religious disaffiliation, this article examines to what extent this mobilization represents new challenges to the social and cultural influence of religion across the Atlantic, and to what extent it can actually succeed in changing the traditionally negative views Americans have had of unbelief and thus eventually lead to its inclusion within the boundaries of the US « circle of the We »3.

  • 4 Prophesies of Godlessness, edited by : Mathewes, Charles and McKnight Nichols, Christopher, New Yor (...)
  • 5 I analyze the « othering » of atheism throughout American history in the article: « “An Atheistic A (...)
  • 6  Beaujour, Félix (de),Aperçu des Etats-Unis au commencement du XIXe siècle, depuis 1800 jusqu’en 18 (...)
  • 7  Tocqueville wrote, for instance, that « in the United States, if a politician attacks a sect, this (...)
  • 8 Aiello, Thomas, « Constructing “Godless Communism”, Religion, Politics, and Popular Culture, 1954-1 (...)
  • 9  Saas, Lydia, « In U.S., 22% Are Hesitant to Support a Mormon in 2012 », gallup.com, June 20th 2011 (...)
  • 10 Edgell, Penny, Gerteis, Joseph and Hartmann, Douglas, « Atheists as “Other” : Moral Boundaries and (...)
  • 11 « The American-Western European Values Gap », Pew Research Center, November 17th 2011. In this comp (...)

2  First, to better envision the general background of such a study about non-believers in today’s American society, it is necessary to understand that not to believe in God has traditionally been negatively perceived in the United States4. There seems indeed to be a historical continuity in the characterization – and rejection – of non-believers as « others », necessarily immoral and asocial, condemned to remain at the margins of public life5. Already at the beginning of the 19th century, for instance, Félix de Beaujour, a French diplomat assigned to Washington, wrote that if Americans seemed ready to accept almost « indistinctly » any kind of religious faiths or practices, « atheists alone [were] rejected ». And he explained further that « [Americans] regarded [atheists] less as the enemies of God than of society, [...] on the principle that the truth of each religion, individually, may be contested, but the utility of all is incontestable »6, an observation that would corroborate his compatriot Alexis de Tocqueville, who also noticed, during his journey in the United States, the deep popular intolerance towards irreligion7. This widespread suspicion against non-believers remained significantly pervasive throughout the centuries, reaching its climax during the Cold War, when, in the public discourse of government officials and religious leaders, « atheists » and « communists » were almost systematically conflated as anti-American ennemies8. Several decades later, it seems that a majority of the population still keeps a similarly strong distrust towards those who dot not believe in God. A 2007 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed, for instance, that 53% of Americans had an « unfavorable opinion » of non-believers, the only « religious group » that gathered a majority of negative answers (35 % for Muslims and 27 % for Mormons). A 2011 Gallup poll also showed that still slightly less than half of Americans (49%) would be ready to vote for an atheist as President (while 67% would vote for a « gay or a lesbian » candidate and 76% for a Mormon)9. As already noted by Penny Edgell & al. in their 2006 study about the negative perception of non-believers in the United States10, this persistent skepticism towards unbelief is particularly meaningful for what it reveals about the status of religion as a resilient « moral boundary » in American society. In a country where a majority of the population – 53% – also declared in 2011 that « it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral »11, it tends to confirm that religion remains perceived today as an important criterion of both individual and civic virtue.

  • 12  Lichterman, Paul, « Religion’s Reputation »,The Immanent Frame, February 2nd 2010.
  • 13 Keysar, Ariela and Kosmin, Barry,American Nones: The Profile of the No religion Population, Hartfor (...)
  • 14 Abbamonte, Angela, « One in Five Americans May be Secular in 2030 »,Religion News Service, Pew Foru (...)
  • 15 « US Religious Landscape Survey »,op. cit.
  • 16 Hout, Michael and Fischer, Claude, « Americans with “No religion”, Why their Numbers are Growing », (...)

3  Yet the « moral reputation »12 of religion in the United States is now being questioned by recent demographic, social and cultural trends. Indeed, as reported by many sociologists, one of the most striking evolution of the American religious landscape over the last two decades has been the increasing percentage of the population that does not belong to any religious denomination: 7% in 1990, the « unaffiliated » were about 16% in 200813, and could be 20% in 203014. Although the percentage of those who identify as actual « non-believers » remains low (5%)15, and a majority of these « unaffiliated » (51%) still declares to believe in God or in a « higher power », the latter seem nevertheless to attach less importance to religion in their daily lives and in society in general.Studies recently conducted by sociologists have showed, for instance, that the discontent with organized religion of an increasing number of Americans was in part linked to a feeling of dissatisfaction with the influence gained by conservative Christians in American politics and society since the 1980s16.

  • 17  « Fall Brings Record Numbers of Atheist, Agnostic Student Organizations on Campus », Secular Stude (...)
  • 18  Interview with Fred Edwords, November 17th 2011.

4For that matter, it is in this general context of growing frustration about the place of religion in American public life, that assertive non-believers – identifying themselves as « atheists », « humanists », « freethinkers » or « skeptics » – have also begun to mobilize since the beginning of the 2000s, gaining a rather unwonted visibility. Several books aggressively attacking religion, such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, published in a climate of general weariness towards religious extremism following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, have become unexpected best-sellers in the United States, establishing their authors as totemic figures of the so called « New Atheism » movement. Along with these surprising successes, and certainly to some extent as a consequence of them, there has also been a significant growth throughout the country in the number of militant secular organizations, « energized » by what appeared as an unusually favorable environment for non-religion in American society. On college campuses, for instance, between 2007 and 2010, atheist and agnostic groups affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance have more than doubled, from 80 to 21917. The main national advocacy organizations for non-believers, notably American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry and the Freedom From Religion Foundation -– some of which have existed since the 1960s – have also enjoyed a steady rise in their membership. Americans who have joined these groups for the past decade have been attracted by their uncompromising and seemingly « fresh » opposition against the influence of religious values in public life. Others see these organizations as an opportunity to meet fellow non-believers, with whom they can share their experiences and their worldviews in a friendly environment. At the local level, these groups can indeed help to provide a sense of community, almost similar to the feeling of fellowship usually brought by churches in the United States, and that the growing number of individuals who do not belong to any faith may be lacking. Fred Edwords, president of the United Coalition of Reason, explains, for instance, that secular associations such as his tend more and more to « act as a place for people to land once they leave traditional religion »18.

  • 19  For a more detailed history of freethought in the United States, see, for instance: Marty, Martin (...)
  • 20  Phone interview with Dan Barker, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, January 19th 2 (...)
  • 21 http://secular.org/member_orgs. (...)

5Of course, non-believers in the United States did not wait until the beginning of the 21st century to defend their interests against the moral and political ascendancy of religion: in the years 1820-1830, following the legacy of Tom Paine’s deism, several freethinkers already started to organize in America. In the second half of the 19th century, a few skeptics, such as Robert Ingersoll, Attorney General of Illinois, managed to gain a significant popularity and public visibility in the United States, during a period known as the « Golden Age of Freethought ». And in the second half of the 20th century, groups such as American Atheists regularly defended the rights of non-believers in courts, while more generally fighting for a strict separation between church and state19.But long divided by their various tendencies and often weakened in the past by their disorganization, militant non-believers are now increasingly joining forces. Praising the « wonderful diversity » of their movement20, they downplay their philosophical dissentions as nothing more than just « minor differences », and have been using broader and more inclusive terms such as « non-theists » to designate the diverse audience they seek to target. As an attempt to strengthen their cooperation and to unify the current mobilization, a national lobby, the Secular Coalition for America, which now brings together ten national organizations21, was founded in 2002 to represent the interests of non-believers in Washington. The Coalition, like most other secular groups in the United States, has kept expanding over the past years, with a more professionalized leadership and a larger staff that now includes three full-time lobbyists working on Capitol Hill. Better organized and more visible, assertive non-believers are determined to take advantage of the current momentum for non-religion in American society, to finally be acknowledged and taken into account as full and legitimate members of the national community.

  • 22  Cf., for instance, Michael Newdow’s repeated attempts at outlawing « Under God » from the Pledge o (...)
  • 23  Interview with Lauren Becker, director of outreach at the Center for Inquiry, January 25th 2012.

6  Therefore, today’s assertive non-believers, if they continue to defend a strict separation between church and state22, are also seeking to overcome the « moral boundary » of religion in order to gain greater recognition and inclusion in American society. In recent years, they have resorted to various types of identity strategies to increase public awareness of their situation as a marginalized group in search of acceptance in the United States. Thus, their mobilization does not only appear as another struggle against the pervasive social influence of religion, but also, as Lauren Becker, director of outreach at the New York based Center for Inquiry puts it, as a more pragmatic « public relations issue » meant to « improve the standing of atheists in the American culture »23.

  • 24  Saguy, Abigail and Ward, Anna, « Coming Out as Fat: Rethinking Stigma », Social Psychology Quaterl (...)
  • 25  Interview of Ellen Johnson, www.msnbc.msn.com, February 20th 2006.
  • 26  Interviews with Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America (November 17th 2011 (...)
  • 27 http://outcampaign.org/. (...)
  • 28  Britt, Lory and Heise, David, « From Shame to Pride in Identity Politics », Self, Identity and Soc (...)
  • 29  http://www.ftsociety.org/menu/anti-discrimination-support-network/.
  • 30  Britt, Lory and Heise, David, op. cit., pp. 261-262.

7First, one of the main identity strategies used by non-believers over the past decade has been to present themselves as another stigmatized, if not oppressed, minority within American society. In so doing, they have increasingly appropriated the « cultural narrative » and mobilization tools of historically marginalized and embattled groups24. A comparison they often draw, for example, is between the « taboo » of atheism in today’s United States and that of homosexuality a few decades ago: in recent years, to « come out » as an atheist has notoriously become a popular expression among non-believers, one which enables them to emphasize – while as the same time denouncing – the strong prejudices that still exit towards unbelief in popular imaginaries. Ellen Johnson, former president of American Atheists, declared for instance that « the troubles which atheists face in America are analogous to what gays face. They are discriminated in the workplace. The kids are harassed in the school. [...]. All the same things that happen to gays happen to atheists »25. When asked about the legitimacy of such an analogy, most activists do acknowledge that non-believers have never faced « the same level of violence » as gays and lesbians and that, despite the persistent hostility towards atheists in the United States, they « are not in a equivalent situation ». Yet many keep drawing a parallel between what they perceive as two similarly « distrusted » and « misunderstood » minorities, whose members have sometimes experienced being « kicked out of their families », « fired from their jobs » and deprived of « certain rights », because of the comparable « disgust » they trigger among a certain part of the population26. This rhetoric of victimization, as well as the creation of websites, such as OutCampaign.org, on which non-believers are invited to share the story of their « coming out »27, or the numerous ads stating « Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone» and the campaigns encouraging them to « stand up » and « be counted »: all those initiatives have a common objective of consciousness-raising among unbelievers in the United States. Since « the activated feeling of anger » is supposed to « propel stigmatized individuals into public space to behave collectively »28, the goal of those various strategies is to make « closeted » non-believers throughout the country – who are mostly well-educated young whites – become aware that their lack of belief in God is not socially or culturally meaningless, but actually signifies that they do belong to a prejudiced minority within a religiously hostile society, and thus that they need to mobilize to fight this « long-endured » marginalization. For instance, the Anti-Discrimination Support Network, created and hosted online by the Freethought Society, and which compiles cases of discrimination as reported by non-believers, is officially intended as « a way of bringing people closer and making the miles between us [unbelievers] disappear »29. By emphasizing the common prejudices and intolerance shared by many non-believers throughout the United States – a common experience of stigmatization to which they can relate – those reports, although their veracity cannot always be verified, are meant to elicit a « sense of alliance »and « unified consciousness » among them30.

  • 31 « Address by Ellen Johnson at the American Atheists 30th Annual Convention », San Diego, April 9th (...)
  • 32  Phone interview with Nick Lee, December 9th 2011.
  • 33  Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith analyze this comparison in their article, « Secular Humanism (...)

8Some activists, building up on this « resistance identity » promoted by secular organizations, go even further in their attempts at portraying themselves as one of the last unfairly despised and discriminated against minority in the United States, characterizing their mobilization as that of an actual « civil rights movement ». Already in 2002, when several local and national groups organized a first « Godless Americans March » on the Washington Mall, the then president of American Atheists argued that a demonstration in such a historically meaningful place in the nation’s capital was relevant and necessary for non-believers, since « every other cause group in American culture [had] marched down that Mall – the Blacks, the gays and the women - and now it [was] our turn »31. In the same way, while the Secular Coalitionfor America recently joined the nation-wide Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Nick Lee, president of the Arizona based Atheist Alliance of America, does not hesitate to claim that non-believers today are on « the same path on civil rights as African-Americans and gays [...] over the past fifty/sixty years », and that they have to « keep in mind the lessons learned from those movements » to finally become « loud and visible »32. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that this particular emphasis of non-believers on their status as a supposedly stigmatized minority actually echoes the discourse of those they usually consider their main « enemies » – conservative evangelical Christians – who also often portray themselves as a « besieged » and endangered minority in a culturally hostile American society, for the similar purpose of « enhancing the vitality of their (group) identity »33.

« We have to make it known that we are ordinary citizens »34

  • 34  Interview with Fred Edwords, November 17th 2011.
  • 35 Heyes, Cressida, « Identity Politics »,The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Zalta, Ed (...)
  • 36  Bernstein, Mary, « Celebration and Suppression: The Strategic Use of Identity by the Lesbian and G (...)
  • 37  Phone interview with Nick Lee, December 9th 2011.
  • 38 www.secular.org/files/110125%20Secular%20Decade%20Plan.pdf.
  • 39 Ibid.
  • 40  Alexander, Jeffrey C., « The Meaningful Construction of Inequality and The Struggles Against It: A (...)
  • 41  http://livingwithoutreligion.org/.
  • 42  Interview with Lauren Becker, January 25th 2012.
  • 43 Ibid.
  • 44  http://secularserviceday.org/.
  • 45  Interview with Fred Edwords, November 17th 2011.

9  Yet if « identity politics start from analyses of oppression », they also « further recommend, [...], the reclaiming, redescription, or transformation of previously stigmatized accounts of group membership »35, in order for the minority to « challenge [the negative perception] of the dominant culture » and « gain legitimacy »36. Thus, some of the organizations that have appeared and/or grown since the beginning of the 2000s, beyond emphasizing their position as a prejudiced minority to draw greater public attention to their situation and interests, have also undertaken the deeper task to change the historically negative image of atheism in the United States, as part of what could be construed as a broader process of « mainstreaming » of unbelief within American society. Nick Lee argues, for example, that non-believers « have to pragmatically come along with the rest of society », not only in order to be accepted, but also to strategically appeal to a broader, more moderate, audience within the increasing number of « unaffiliated » Americans37. The « Secular Decade Strategic Plan » released by the Secular Coalitionfor America in late January 2011, also expresses this objective of « normalization », as it proposes a vision of a 2020 American society in which « secularism is an influential, respected force in civic life, and in which there are numerous openly non-theistic elected officials »38. Therefore, as another step in their identity strategy, non-believers, « rather than accepting the negative scripts offered by [the] dominant culture about [their] inferiority »,are now also trying« to transform their own sense of self and community » in the United States39. Following Jeffrey Alexander’s idea that in order to be included and recognized, « outsiders » must prove« [their] civil capacities, dispute polluting constructions, [and] demonstrate the qualities of fellowship, civil depth and reliability »40, it appears that the new generation of non-believers is precisely trying to prove – through various actions, such as the now famous bus and subway posters stating « You can be good without God » – that one can indeed be moral without religion. This generation thus aims at turning its perceived « stigma » and « civic vice » – its absence of belief in God – into a positive attribute that can be compatible with being a « good American ». For instance, the Living Without Religion campaign launched in 2011 by the Center for Inquiry, and whose offical motto is « We don’t need God to hope, to care, to love, to live »41, was specifically designed, in the words of Lauren Becker, « to show them [other Americans] that we are moral and good citizens »42. And it is also for this very purpose that the Center for Inquiry regularly encourages its members to provide some kind of « civic community service », by volunteering in food kitchens, feeding the homeless, raising money for charities,cleaning roads and parks, etc43. Rather than simply emphasizing their lack of belief in God, they tend to draw a greater attention to what they do believe in, i.e. to the (positive) moral and social values they embrace, as a way to finally « overcome the stereotypes of the angry atheists » in American society44. As Fred Edwords points out, « people who do things that others admire need to come out more as non-theistic. [...]. People haven‘t yet gotten that association [between charitable work and unbelief] strongly enough. We need to keep informing the public about it and bringing it out. [...]. It’s a massive education task »45.

  • 46  Barna, Mark, « Groups Want Atheists Included in DNC Interfaith Service », The Colorado Springs Gaz (...)
  • 47  Interview with Fred Edwords, November 17th 2011.

10But today’s unbelievers have also become aware that getting rid of the negative and stigmatizing prejudices historically associated with atheism in the United States also implies that they have to adopt a softer and more open public attitude towards their eternal antagonist, i.e. religion. Far from the aggressive anti-clerical caricatures traditionnaly published in the American Atheists magazine, some non-believers now aim – in the continuation of their public relations campaign – at downplaying their supposed animosity towards religious groups and individuals. Hence, for example, in recent years, the rather atypical requests from atheist and humanist associations to be included in official interfaith councils or celebrations alongside representatives of « traditional » religions46. Even if they are still fighting against their influence in public life, reaching out to – and even sometimes actively cooperating with – faith-based organizations and churches seems to have become a part of the normalization strategy of non-believers, since it can enable them to promote a more benevolent image of themselves. That is precisely what Fred Edwords seems to suggest with an anecdote he tells about the billboard campaign recently launched by his group throughout the United States : « When we learned, to our surprise, that our Northwest Arkansas ad was part of a “double billboard”, shared with Central United Methodist Church, we played up the theme of atheists living in peaceful coexistence with their religious neighbours »47.

  • 48  Farred, Grant, « Endgame Identity? Mapping the New Left Roots of Identity Politics », New Literary (...)

11  Furthermore, as one goal of identity politics is also « the re-creation of group histories in a public sphere that had long been [...] indifferent to narratives of that self and community »48, non-believers have also tried to assert their presence within the American « collective memory ». Some activists such as Susan Jacoby, author of the best-seller Freethinkers. A History of American Secularism, and program director at the Center for Inquiry, want their compatriots to rediscover the role played by atheists, agnostics, and other skeptics in the history of the United States, as well as their important contributions to the building of the American national community, which, according to Jacoby, have been deliberately neglected in the past by “religiously correct” historians. Hence the insistence in her book on the crucial influence of prominent freethinkers on various progressive causes that helped transform American society, such as the anti-slavery movement and the battle for women’s rights.

  • 49  Alexander, Jeffrey C., op. cit.
  • 50  McKinkey Jr., James C., « Atheist Ads on Buses Rattle Forth Worth », The New York Times, December (...)
  • 51  In the early Republic, for instance, atheism was often linked to Revolutionary France, and more pa (...)
  • 52  Alexander, Jeffrey C., op. cit.
  • 53  Glaeser, Kathy, « Atheists Flying Ad Campaign Meets Strong Resistance », religion.blogs.cnn.com, J (...)
  • 54  Interview with Fred Edwords, November 17th 2011.

12In the same way, and going even further in their « struggle for better placement in the symbolic boundaries »49 of the American « circle of the We », organizations advocating on behalf of non-believers also try today to insist on the compatibility of unbelief with what are commonly perceived as the nation’s core identity and values. Thus, in their various campaigns, for instance, they increasingly employ patriotic symbols as a way to reaffirm that non-believers not only do exist in the United States, but that they are also proud and legitimate members of the national fabric. In 2010, for example, an ad posted on Dallas buses by the local chapter of the United Coalition of Reason displayed the slogan « Millions of Americans are Good Without God » in front of an American flag that covered the whole background50. More than just a normalization strategy, these types of initiatives could therefore almost be construed as attempts at « Americanizing » unbelief: indeed, even though a majority of non-believers do not have a recent immigrant background, the atheist, as stated earlier, has often be thought of as an « other » in the United States, regularly associated, if not confused, throughout the centuries, with the figure of the alien or of the anti-American enemy51. Thus, these new strategies, as the one pursued by Susan Jacoby, intend to « reconcile » unbelief with American history and values, so that non-believers can finally be fully « (re)inscribed in the national narratives » of the American « imagined community »52. This process appears even more obvious through a campaign launched by American Atheists on the 4th of July 2011, when the group had several planes fly a banner with the concise and very explicit catchphrase « Atheism is Patriotic »53. In some states and cities across the country, a few non-believers have also been lobbying – sometimes successfully – to be allowed to give the invocation at the opening of municipal or congressional sessions, a task that for centuries has traditionally been performed by religious leaders. Unbelievers, who used to challenge the constitutionality of these invocations in courts, now argue that their contribution to such an important civic ritual can help to show that they are full members of the American national community and that they do have a « place at the table »54.

13  Even though it is still too early to precisely assess the impact of these various strategies, it nevertheless seems that in recent years, the mobilization of non-believers has already been efficient in the United States. Although the polls mentioned earlier still tend to reveal a persistent popular distrust towards atheism, the increasing number of people who keep joining secular organizations could be considered as a first sign of their growing appeal in American society. This assumption is reinforced by the fact that, as most of the interviewees pointed out, the profile of their members is also evolving in a meaningful way : whereas before the movement started gaining momentum, the typical adherents used to be mostly « social outcasts » or « embattled atheists », they are now more « mainstream », moderate and diverse, which would tend to confirm that the image and reputation of unbelief has indeed started to change over the past decade in the United States, losing some of its historical « stigma » and otherness.

  • 55  Quoted in Stedman, Chris, « Atheist Student Find Their Place in the Interfaith Movement », The Huf (...)
  • 56  Franz, David and Hunter, James Davidson, « Religious Pluralism and Civil Society », A Nation of Re (...)

14Symbolyzing this positive evolution of their status in American society, non-believers have also been acknowledged several times by elected officials in the last few years. Besides Barack Obama, New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg has invited for the first time in 2010 a group of New York atheists to his annual Interfaith Breakfast, traditionally attended by religious groups. Several young secular humanists were also permitted to take part in the Interfaith Leadership Institutes organized in Washington DC in October 2010 and sponsored by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. A member of the Secular Student Alliance declared in respect to this participation that « hearing repeated language specifically including nonbelievers – such as “people of all religions and no religion” – made it clear that atheists and other secular worldviews are welcome [...], at the table »55. Therefore, these various official recognitions can be understood as a first symbolic inclusion of unbelief and non-believers within the boundaries of the American « imagined community », as a first sign that « the [contours] of American civic life are progressively normalizing » around them56. In that sense, those public acknowlegments and the fact that not to believe in God seems to have become more acceptable, may more generally signal that religion itself has lost some of its strength as a moral “boundary” in the United States over the past decade.

  • 57  Dao, James, « Atheists Seek Chaplain Role in the Military », The New York Times, August 26th 2011. (...)
  • 58  Epstein, Greg, « Non-Believers Are Believers Too », The Washington Post, January 23rd 2009.
  • 59  Landsberg, Mitchell, « Religious Skeptics Disagree on How Aggressively to Challenge The Devout », (...)
  • 60  Interview with Tom Flynn, executive director of the Center for Secular Humanism, February 14th 201 (...)
  • 61  Bender, Courtney, « God Help the Atheist », Trans/Missions, July 19th 2010.

15  Yet if non-believers have undoubtedly managed to increase public awareness of their particular situation, partially « breaking » the taboo of atheism across the Atlantic, it is also perhaps necessary, as a conclusion, to reassess the current achievements of their mobilization and what it could actually mean for the status and importance of religion in American society. Fred Edwords acknowledges, for instance, that some of the new strategies used by secular organizations are deeply controversial and divisive among their members. Some activists fear that in trying to adapt unbelief to the perceived expectations of the mainstream – still predominantly religious – American society, they are compromising their distinctiveness and the essence of their non-theistic and irreligious worldviews. And indeed, the normalization tactics employed by non-believers and the change in their rhetoric and actions over the past few years – the fact that they insist on what « they do believe in », that they participate in official interfaith activities or give invocations at the opening of municipal or congressional sessions – have come to resemble more and more the identity politics of minority faiths also in search of official recognition in the United States. In another telling move, for instance, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers has recently asked the Department of Defense to allow atheist chaplains in the army, alongside the thousands of traditional religious counselors, so that they can « cater to the spiritual needs » of non-believing soldiers57. Greg Esptein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and author of a book entitled Good Without God: What a Billion Non-Religious People Do Believe,epitomizesthis purposely ambiguous boundary between non-religion and religion, writing, for example, that« the non-religious will have to affirm that we are in fact believers, though not in a traditional sense [...] »58. This type of discourse, which makes many activists uncomfortable, has sparked debates between secular organizations59. Some members argue that they should focus on advocating greater « public acceptance of atheists and humanists as they really are, not as religious Americans wish they would be »60. More broadly, this rhetoric reveals the difficulties of asserting one’s unbelief in American society while all the more highlighting the still overwhelming social and symbolic power of religion. Indeed, the fact that some non-believers increasingly feel the need to resort to these kind of strategies in order to gain recognition, illustrates that they cannot really be accepted and included through their actual lack of belief in God – by simply asserting and emphasizing their unbelief – but rather by almost behaving as just another (a)religious minority « embedded in the pluralistic grid » of the wide American confessional landscape61. We can thus wonder if, in the end, this new attitude of non-believers does not actually all the more testify to the resilience of religion as a strong moral « boundary » in the United States.

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Notes

1  Throughout the article, I mainly use the broad terms of « non-believer » or « unbeliever » instead of the more common « atheist », as not all the 5% of Americans who declare that they do not believe in God actually identify themselves as « atheists » (the word has a particularly negative connotation in the United States, especially since the Cold War). (Cf. « US Religious Landscape Survey », Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2008).

2  Levinson, Paul, « The Most Revolutionary Phrase of Obama’s Inaugural Address », opensalon.com, January 20th 2009.

3  Hollinger, David, « How Wide is the Circle of the “We” ? American Intellectuals and the Problem of the Ethnos since World War II », American Historical Review, vol. 98, n° 2, April 1993, p. 317-337.

4 Prophesies of Godlessness, edited by : Mathewes, Charles and McKnight Nichols, Christopher, New York, Oxford University Press, 2008.

5 I analyze the « othering » of atheism throughout American history in the article: « “An Atheistic American is a Contradiction in Terms”: Religion, Civic Belonging and Collective Identity in the United States », European Journal of American Studies, 2011/1.

6  Beaujour, Félix (de),Aperçu des Etats-Unis au commencement du XIXe siècle, depuis 1800 jusqu’en 1810, Paris, L.G. Michaud, 1814.

7  Tocqueville wrote, for instance, that « in the United States, if a politician attacks a sect, this may not prevent the partisans of that sect from supporting him; but if he attacks all the sects together, every one abandons him and he remains alone ». From Democracy in America, London, Regnery Publishing, 2002, p. 243.

8 Aiello, Thomas, « Constructing “Godless Communism”, Religion, Politics, and Popular Culture, 1954-1960 »,Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, vol. 4, n° 1, Spring 2005.

9  Saas, Lydia, « In U.S., 22% Are Hesitant to Support a Mormon in 2012 », gallup.com, June 20th 2011.

10 Edgell, Penny, Gerteis, Joseph and Hartmann, Douglas, « Atheists as “Other” : Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society »,American Sociological Review, vol. 72, n° 2, April 2006, pp. 211-234.

11 « The American-Western European Values Gap », Pew Research Center, November 17th 2011. In this comparative survey between the United States and Western Europe, only a minority of Europeans linked religion and morality (33% of Germans, 20% of British and 15% of French).

12  Lichterman, Paul, « Religion’s Reputation »,The Immanent Frame, February 2nd 2010.

13 Keysar, Ariela and Kosmin, Barry,American Nones: The Profile of the No religion Population, Hartford, Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture, 2009; « US Religious Landscape Survey »,Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, February 2008.

14 Abbamonte, Angela, « One in Five Americans May be Secular in 2030 »,Religion News Service, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, September 25th 2009.

15 « US Religious Landscape Survey »,op. cit.

16 Hout, Michael and Fischer, Claude, « Americans with “No religion”, Why their Numbers are Growing »,American Sociological Review, vol. 67, n° 2, April 2002, pp. 165-190.

17  « Fall Brings Record Numbers of Atheist, Agnostic Student Organizations on Campus », Secular Student Alliance, September 6th 2010.

18  Interview with Fred Edwords, November 17th 2011.

19  For a more detailed history of freethought in the United States, see, for instance: Marty, Martin E., The Infidel: Freethought and American Religion, New York, World Publishing Company, 1961; Jacoby, Susan,Freethinkers. A History of American Secularism, New York, Owl Books, 2004.

20  Phone interview with Dan Barker, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, January 19th 2012.

21 http://secular.org/member_orgs.

22  Cf., for instance, Michael Newdow’s repeated attempts at outlawing « Under God » from the Pledge of Allegiance and « In God We Trust » from the dollar coins and bills: Williams, Carol J., « Pledge of Allegiance’s God Reference Now Upheld by Court », Los Angeles Times, March 12th 2010.

23  Interview with Lauren Becker, director of outreach at the Center for Inquiry, January 25th 2012.

24  Saguy, Abigail and Ward, Anna, « Coming Out as Fat: Rethinking Stigma », Social Psychology Quaterly, vol. 74, n° 1, March 2011, pp. 53-75.

25  Interview of Ellen Johnson, www.msnbc.msn.com, February 20th 2006.

26  Interviews with Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America (November 17th 2011), Nick Lee, president of Atheist Alliance of America (December 9th 2011), and Lauren Becker (January 25th 2012).

27 http://outcampaign.org/.

28  Britt, Lory and Heise, David, « From Shame to Pride in Identity Politics », Self, Identity and Social Movements, edited by: Owens, Timothy J., Stryker, Sheldon and White, Robert W., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p. 257.

29  http://www.ftsociety.org/menu/anti-discrimination-support-network/.

30  Britt, Lory and Heise, David, op. cit., pp. 261-262.

31 « Address by Ellen Johnson at the American Atheists 30th Annual Convention », San Diego, April 9th 2004.

32  Phone interview with Nick Lee, December 9th 2011.

33  Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith analyze this comparison in their article, « Secular Humanism and Atheism Beyond Progressive Secularism », Sociology of Religion, vol. 68, n° 4, 2007, pp. 407-424.

34  Interview with Fred Edwords, November 17th 2011.

35 Heyes, Cressida, « Identity Politics »,The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Zalta, Edward N., Spring 2009 Edition.

36  Bernstein, Mary, « Celebration and Suppression: The Strategic Use of Identity by the Lesbian and Gay Movement », American Journal of Sociology, vol. 103, n° 3, 1997, p. 538.

37  Phone interview with Nick Lee, December 9th 2011.

38 www.secular.org/files/110125%20Secular%20Decade%20Plan.pdf.

39 Ibid.

40  Alexander, Jeffrey C., « The Meaningful Construction of Inequality and The Struggles Against It: A Strong Program Approach to How Social Boundaries Change », Cultural Sociology, vol. 23, n° 1, 2007, pp. 23-30.

41  http://livingwithoutreligion.org/.

42  Interview with Lauren Becker, January 25th 2012.

43 Ibid.

44  http://secularserviceday.org/.

45  Interview with Fred Edwords, November 17th 2011.

46  Barna, Mark, « Groups Want Atheists Included in DNC Interfaith Service », The Colorado Springs Gazette, August 15th 2008.

47  Interview with Fred Edwords, November 17th 2011.

48  Farred, Grant, « Endgame Identity? Mapping the New Left Roots of Identity Politics », New Literary History 31, 2000, pp. 627-648.

49  Alexander, Jeffrey C., op. cit.

50  McKinkey Jr., James C., « Atheist Ads on Buses Rattle Forth Worth », The New York Times, December 13th 2010.

51  In the early Republic, for instance, atheism was often linked to Revolutionary France, and more particularly to the Terror and its murderous outcome (see The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, edited by: Dreisbach, Daniel, Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).

52  Alexander, Jeffrey C., op. cit.

53  Glaeser, Kathy, « Atheists Flying Ad Campaign Meets Strong Resistance », religion.blogs.cnn.com, June 30th 2011.

54  Interview with Fred Edwords, November 17th 2011.

55  Quoted in Stedman, Chris, « Atheist Student Find Their Place in the Interfaith Movement », The Huffington Post, November 12th 2010.

56  Franz, David and Hunter, James Davidson, « Religious Pluralism and Civil Society », A Nation of Religions. The Politics of Pluralism in Multireligious America, edited byProthero, Stephen, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2006, p. 266.

57  Dao, James, « Atheists Seek Chaplain Role in the Military », The New York Times, August 26th 2011.

58  Epstein, Greg, « Non-Believers Are Believers Too », The Washington Post, January 23rd 2009.

59  Landsberg, Mitchell, « Religious Skeptics Disagree on How Aggressively to Challenge The Devout », The Los Angeles Times, October 10th 2010.

60  Interview with Tom Flynn, executive director of the Center for Secular Humanism, February 14th 2012.

61  Bender, Courtney, « God Help the Atheist », Trans/Missions, July 19th 2010.

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Amandine Barb, « « You Can Be Good Without God »: Non-Believers in 21st Century American Society », Amnis [En ligne], 11 | 2012, mis en ligne le 26 septembre 2012, consulté le 17 avril 2014. URL : http://amnis.revues.org/1787

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Amandine Barb

Sciences Po Paris/CERI, France, amandine.barb@sciences-po.org

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