Demographers are already salivating ahead of the upcoming U.S. Census, which will no doubt show just how different 2010 America is from 2000 America. When it comes to the religious breakdown of the country, though, the waiting game is over. Try this pop quiz:
What is the fastest-growing religious group in our country?
A. Southern Baptists.
B. Roman Catholics.
C. Non-denominational Christians.
D. None. As in, no religion at all.
The answer is D, but fear not. This isn't the end of the world or of religiosity in America.
First the numbers: According to the recently released 2008 American Religious Identification Survey by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., the percentage of people who identified themselves as having no religion has almost doubled since 1990, from 8.2% of the population then to 15% today, the largest gain in any group. And that number may be low because some Americans still prefer to give no answer, and others identify with a religion, even if they no longer really believe in it. That "no answer" number grew as well, from 2.3% to 5.2%, meaning that just over 20% of the population has no overt religious identity. Simply put, that means more people are willing to identify themselves as being outside of religion or without belief in a supernatural being. If this trend continues, expect even more atheists to come out of the closet in the years ahead.
This isn't to say we're taking over the nation, and that God-fearing Americans now have something else to fear. On the contrary, atheists like me are just content to be able to be religion-free without the social stigma that has been attached to "my kind" -- the irreligious minority in this country. Of course, the simple math shows that 80% of you do believe in God or some greater being, so the numbers still run heavily in the faithful's favor.
My great hope, though, is that the 80% will have a greater understanding of the 20% of which I am a part. I am hoping that this new survey will help bring much-needed changes in the relations between the faithful and those who are outside of the established faiths.
A reviled minority
For years, non-believers have been considered undesirable, untrustworthy and essentially reviled. I mean, in a country where "In God We Trust" is printed on every dollar bill, would you expect anything less? A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll in 2007 found that more than half of Americans 53% -- would not vote for an atheist. No category fared worse. A University of Minnesota study taken a year earlier found that Americans rank atheists as the most disliked minority group in the country. But surely our elected leaders see all citizens as equals, right? Well, President Obama reached out to non-believers in his inaugural address, but just over 20 years ago while campaigning for the presidency, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush said, "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots." Atheists can tell you that they have faced problems -- some at work, some with family members or friends -- once their non-belief is stated publicly.
That's enough of the bad news. Now the good: All of this can change. Now that we of no faith are more willing to come out and be counted, we can start to change the perceptions that others have of us. As we speak out and make it known that we are atheists (or non-believers or any of the other names we can call ourselves) who can also be good people who care about our families, our communities and our country, we can start to change those negative perceptions. Some atheists out there might wish to de-convert believers, pull them away from their faith or disprove their gods, and it is true that those are the atheists who write the books that make the best-seller lists. Indeed, Richard Dawkins and his The God Delusion ilk have made a pretty penny stirring this controversy. But many of us -- dare I say most of us -- would prefer coexisting over combat.
But is that really possible? To read the blogs that discuss such issues, you'd be tempted to say no. In fact, when I wrote a piece about raising my children without a specific religion -- published in this newspaper -- readers on the website responded with some support as well as some lacerating condemnation, such as "you are abdicating your role as a parent," and worse, "without God, we are nothing." In fact, whenever I have published anything about being an atheist, I have had to stop reading my e-mails from people of faith who -- oh, the irony -- say things that are very hateful.
Yet as anyone in my shoes knows, the discomfort and challenges of not believing are most difficult in your own family. I'm no exception. But here is where my hope for the growing pool of non-believers grows. I have this hope for two reasons: the new study and the newfound peace in my own family.
The survey means that those of us without religion can feel strength in those numbers. That 20% of the population outside of faith translates into more than 61 million Americans. (About 67 million people voted for Barack Obama in 2008, while 58 million voted for John McCain.) Knowing this, we might begin to feel less marginalized, ignored or alienated. Candidates -- who always "find religion" in time for a political run -- might have to talk to my minority group on the campaign trail, too.
In the real world
And though the survey's numbers provide heft to our arguments, what happens in real-life exchanges is what really matters. I have had a struggle with some relatives in my husband's family about religion and my not having one. But I am happy to say that after a few years of upheaval, we are all trying to get along. Instead of fighting, arguing or not speaking at all, we had a conversation about differences, limits and points of shared interest. We faced our problems and laid them to rest. Then we decided to go in a new direction -- civil, even warm -- where we can focus on being a family and simply enjoying each other's company.
Perhaps my family's reconciliation can serve as a very small model for the country's. We all need to face one fact: We are not going to change people with arguments for or against religion. Nothing a devout person tells me is going to change my mind, and I know that those with faith are devoted to their beliefs and do not want to be swayed.
The extremes of both sides -- the staunchly atheistic and the religious fundamentalists -- will likely still stoke the embers of the culture war. That is to be expected. But for the rest of us, perhaps it's time to turn the page while leaving the anger, resentment and misunderstandings behind us. If such an approach worked in my family, perhaps it will work for the American family, too.
From USA Today April 6, 2009