THE BLOG
12/29/2014 04:16 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

The State of Secular America

Legally speaking, 2014 has not been a good year for secular Americans. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that closely held, for-profit corporations can claim religious exemptions from laws that go against their owners' religious beliefs. They also decided that it is constitutional to kick off city council meetings with explicitly sectarian Christian prayers. Even the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared that the teacher-led, God-centric language of the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't discriminate against the children of non-theists. No wonder that Tom Flynn, the director of the Council for Secular Humanism, dubbed 2014 the "Annus Horribilis."

And yet, despite these legal defeats, 2014 has actually been a wonderful year. A great year. In fact, things have never been better for the nation's non-religious.

Consider the demographics. Back in the 1950s, less than five percent of Americans were non-religious, but today, according to the latest national surveys -- for example, Pew Forum and WIN-Gallup -- it is now somewhere between 19 percent and 30 percent, and among Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 specifically -- 33 percent now claim to be non-religious. These are, quite simply, the highest rates of secularity the nation has ever seen.

Of course, not all Americans who say they are non-religious are necessarily atheist or agnostic. But according to the American Religious Identification Survey, somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent are; and around 75 percent of 20-somethings are. Thus, the rise of irreligiosity in America is also a rise of atheism and agnosticism, as well.

Organizationally, secular America is at a zenith. Groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, are enjoying record membership numbers. And secular life on college campuses has never been so well-organized: back in 2003, there were only 42 college campus groups associated with the Secular Student Alliance (a national umbrella organization), but today, there are affiliated groups at nearly 400 campuses nationwide. And even younger children are getting involved; Camp Quest, a residential summer camp for the children of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers, founded back in 1996, now has locations in 14 states, with ever-swelling participation.

Particularly fascinating has been the emergence of Sunday Assembly, the so-called "atheist church." Started in 2013 in England, the movement bloomed this year in America; there are now Sunday Assemblies in many major cities across the country, full of men and women seeking the best of religious affiliation -- community, fellowship, music, charitable-opportunities -- but without the faith and supernatural beliefs of traditional religion. Additionally, secularists of color are creating new community and organizing options; at Center for Inquiry in Los Angeles, a "Moving Social Justice" summit organized by several African American Skeptic/Humanist groups was extremely successful.

And paradoxical as it may sound, secular America is even thriving on the spiritual front: Sam Harris's Waking Up reached the New York Times Bestseller list, my own Living the Secular Life was recognized by Publishers Weekly as a best book of 2014, and many top universities are currently waking up to the spiritual and existential needs of the secular; there are currently humanist chaplaincies at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Rutgers -- and more are in the process of sprouting up at other campuses nationwide.

In truth, secular life in America is coalescing and congealing like never before. There is a growing articulation of the basic values and virtues underlying secular culture, and a stronger recognition of the principles and precepts that fortify and sustain daily life lived without God or congregation.

For example, more secular parents are embracing the humanist values of personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of "questioning everything," and far above all, an empathic morality based squarely on the Golden Rule. As USC professor Vern Bengston found in his recently published research on religion and family life:

Most of the nonreligious parents in our sample were quite articulate about their nontheistic ethical standards and moral value systems. In fact, many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the 'religious' parents in our study. The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.

Whether its the rising rate of people opting for secular wedding ceremonies and secular funerals, or Pulitzer-prize winning author Gene Weingarten writing a new children's book that is implicitly atheistic, or former Congressman Barney Frank coming out publicly as secular, a burgeoning number of nonreligious Americans are developing a greater affirmation and ownership of what characterizes their lives and worldview: reason, pragmatism, self-reliance, honesty, intellectual inquiry, valuing science, respecting human rights, cultivating creativity, soulfully appreciating the majesty of nature, living in the here and now, accepting mortality and enjoying a sense of awe and deep transcendence, now and then, amidst the inexplicable, inscrutable profundity of being.

For secular Americans, the bottom line is this: We are alive, and it is amazing, and there is work to be done. And we have no one to rely upon except ourselves and our family, friends and fellow humans. And all we can ever hope to know or accomplish will come through our reason and senses, through unbiased experimentation and rational inquiry, and through unfettered imagination and steadfast optimism.

As this year comes to an end, it is unfortunately true that many secular Americans will still have to endure Christian prayers at the start of city council meetings, employers may be able to fire their employees if the latter's homosexuality violates the former's deeply-held religious beliefs, and millions of kids will still be led in patriotic prayer every morning at the start of school. But in terms of swelling numbers, broadening organizational opportunities, increasing affiliations, spiritual innovations and a deepening sense of the values and virtues that support and sustain secular culture, things are as bright and shiny as the stars on the uniforms of the members of our Air Force who -- as of last September -- no longer have to assert a belief in God in order to serve their country with pride.

Annus not so horribilis, after all.