October 20, 2014

Religion & Politics: Americans see religious influence waning, think it should play a larger role in politics

We've had a lot of back and forth--arguably throughout the history of our nation--on the role that religion should play in our political sphere.

Recently, there's been a variety of arguments from secularists that seem to believe that religious belief is waning, and a recent Pew survey indicates that a majority of people feel the same:

Nearly three-quarters of the public (72%) now thinks religion is losing influence in American life, up 5 percentage points from 2010 to the highest level in Pew Research polling over the past decade.

Unfortunately, most people don't seem to view this as a good move. I recently covered the Atheist Positivity Challenge, which included this argument:

Not only should this make us less susceptible to open animosity, but it should help accomplish atheist goals which, as author and blogger Greta Christina put it, are about “reducing anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and to work towards more complete separation of church and state.” I know it seems like blasphemy to refrain from criticizing loonies like Driscoll, but we need to have “faith” that the cultural forces currently in play will accomplish what we want.

And yet, the Pew Forum found that the number of people that believe religion has a role in politics is increasing:

Perhaps as a consequence, a growing share of the American public wants religion to play a role in U.S. politics. The share of Americans who say churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues is up 6 points since the 2010 midterm elections (from 43% to 49%). The share who say there has been “too little” expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders is up modestly over the same period (from 37% to 41%). And a growing minority of Americans (32%) think churches should endorse candidates for political office, though most continue to oppose such direct involvement by churches in electoral politics. 

 We simply can't rely on cultural forces to continue to change in our favor. It's important to make positive statements about nonbelief, to call for positive changes, to point out what the benefits of a secular government are for every single citizen, whether they are a religious majority, minority or "none".

Pew did some analysis on the subject that sheds some serious light one what we need to do as a community of nonbelievers:

The findings reflect a widening divide between religiously affiliated Americans and the rising share of the population that is not affiliated with any religion (sometimes called the "nones"). The public's appetite for religious influence in politics is increasing in part because those who continue to identify with a religion (e.g., Protestants, Catholics and others) have become significantly more supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion. The "nones" are much more likely to oppose the intermingling of religion and politics. 
Analysis also shows that growing support for religion in politics is concentrated among those who think religion has a positive impact on society. And the desire for religion in public life is much more evident among Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP than among Democrats and Democratic leaners.

Leaving a positive impression of nonbelief is more important than ever. Pointing out the mutual benefits we receive from a secular government, and combating historical revisionism, are more important than ever. Even as our numbers as "nones" are growing, attitudes like those in the Pew Forum study show the necessity of continuing to pushback against the overwhelming influences of religion on our culture.

It's also important to show that we share a wide variety of political and social opinions. Recently, the Friendly Atheist profiled a member of Secular Pro-Life in a podcast. I found it incredibly interesting, because you don't typically see the perspective of people that are secular and pro-life. Even though I'm personally pro-choice (obviously), it's nice to see a different perspective offered--many times we are painted as baby-eating nonbelievers, so it's great to see a counterpoint to the stereotype.

And while it can seem like a daunting task to explain why a secular government is good for all of us, we have plenty of evidence that there are those that are religious but feel the same. Jewish students Wisconsin, for instance, recently led the charge to remove a Jewish religious display from their high school. And an Alabama columnist pointed out the perils of prayer led by public school officials. In fact, the easiest way to point out the dangers of religious intrusion on government may very well be to point out that Christianity itself is far from a cohesive belief system. Whose sect and doctrines do we govern by?

Overall, a secular government protects everyone...and that's the point that is so incredibly important to get across.

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