04/23/2013 12:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2013

We Need a Nonbelievers' Liberation Movement

Apparently, the percentage of Americans who are coming out as nonbelievers is on the rise. Almost one in five (19 percent) reported to a recent Pew Center study on religious observance that they were atheists, agnostics or of no particular belief. This is up from 6 percent in 1990 and 15 percent in 2008. Given these trends, we are overdue for an nonbelievers' rights movement, as well as liberating many of those seeking or holding public office -- from dog catcher to president -- from hypocrisy... 19 percent of them, at any rate.

In my own case -- and this might be true for other nonbelievers who responded to the Pew survey -- I was raised by nominally, but nonobservant, Christian parents -- one Catholic and one Protestant. I attended a high school where Bible study was an important part of the curriculum and every morning began with an assembly that included readings from scripture and the singing of a couple of hymns. Consequently, I became well versed in the basics of the Christian faith and ascribe my own moral compass to the teachings of the Gospel.

However, early in my adult life, thanks largely to my college and university education, as well as self-study, I began to think for myself. I found that there were many other sources of rules for living a virtuous life, besides religious texts. These included the Ancient Greeks, Enlightenment philosophers, and even some of our Founding Fathers, most notably Thomas Jefferson, who believed that Jesus was a great moral teacher but not divine. As in the case of present-day candidates for public office, he did not reveal his convictions while engaged in his two successful runs for the presidency.

Clearly, Christianity and other organized religions have not had a monopoly on the rules for living a virtuous life. In many instances, their leaders and institutions exemplified the exact opposite -- hatred, hypocrisy, meanness of spirit, and uncharitable behavior, to name but a few. On the other hand, there are many examples in my immediate circle of family and friends who exemplify Christianity at its best. To the best of their ability, they act in accordance with the teachings of the Gospel. They judge not, lest they be judged and they love their neighbor regardless of whom that might be. If, indeed, there is a God in Heaven who is just and merciful, he will take these folks to his bosom and they will rightly live in his house forever.

Liberating ourselves from the trappings of organized religion does not relieve us from the obligation to live virtuous lives. It simply means that we must do that, not because the Bible tells you so or we will burn in hell, but because it is essential if we wish to raise healthy families, live in civilized societies, and promote peace and justice among nations. This goes beyond codifying sanctions against behavior that is harmful to the common good to embracing the Golden Rule - treat others as you would be treated which includes taking care of the least among us.

I, as I am sure is the case with other nonbelievers, have no interest in attacking the beliefs of people of faith. Regardless of our personal views, that is what the Constitution requires. It also requires that Christians and people of other faiths acknowledge the right of people like me -- and a significant and growing portion of the population - to live our lives without interference. That includes attempting to impose their particular religious doctrines on the country as a whole through political means. Such behavior does not meet the Constitutional smell test. We may have been founded by a bunch of Christians who were fleeing the imposition of unacceptable beliefs on them but that does not make this a Christian country. On the contrary, to the extent that religion enters into the equation, the country was obviously founded on the principle that everyone has a fundamental right to act in accordance with one's religious beliefs, or not, as one chooses.

So, there is no reason why it should not be perfectly acceptable to be a nonbeliever in America, even in the case of those running for public office. Nonbelievers are a rapidly growing demographic -- young, college-educated and larger than Latinos and African Americans. Therefore we need a nonbelievers' rights movement that will encourage more people to come out of the closet and help free the country -- and the world -- from destructive sectarian conflict.

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