“We are a nation”, proclaimed Barack Obama in his Inaugural, “of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” I am sure those who count themselves among the non-religious were heartened by that nod given them; one rarely afforded in recent years. The irony of this neglect is that, according to both the just released ARIS and the 2008 Pew surveys on religion, the “nonbeliever” group is the fastest growing in the nation (having doubled since 1990) and now outnumbered only by Catholics and Baptists. There are five times as many of them among us as there are Muslims, Jews and Hindus combined. They represent at least 15/16% of the population and if you add the 5.2% non-committal ARIS respondents perhaps closer to 20%. Moreover, Pew found that number rises to 25% among those 18-29. ARIS reports that 70% of the non-religious are under 50 compared with 59% of Catholics and only 49% of Jews. Neither of these studies really measures the depth of active participation among the religiously identified, which is often minimal. But even taking their numbers at face value, and especially the trend both suggest, one wonders if what De Tocqueville characterized as “a religious nation” may endure as such in the future.
That hasn’t happened yet, and there are many thoughtful people who think religion has always been, and will always be, deeply embedded in America. Perhaps that’s why the non-religious are a minority that gets little respect and indeed is marginalized, including by the loaded words that have crept into our discourse. First among them is the term “nonbeliever”. For sure the President simply meant nonbelievers as those who don’t believe in God. Whether even that is a fair characterization of all those who no longer identify with religion is open to considerable question. Professed atheists remain only a small (though growing) number of that group. But, in the context of our current political and social milieu, the important point is that nonbeliever suggests something pejorative. Those so named are implied to have no beliefs. That may account for the fact that a large majority of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for a nonbeliever as president – no belief in God equates with no belief at all. Of course, that’s a fallacious assumption and always has been. Thomas Payne, without whose pen our democracy might never have come into being, probably didn’t believe in God but could hardly be called someone with no belief.
Words do count and where religious-speak prevails, and is accepted as “gospel”, some have been co-opted and given a proprietary and loaded meaning. When words are used for our exclusive purposes, or turned on others, language is transformed from being the instrument of free discourse into a tool of arrogant self-confirmation. That’s precisely what’s happened to the word belief but also to others like values, morality and life itself. Religion has long seen these words as their domain, but since the 1980s they have also been politicized. Their definitions have been loaded to meet specific ideological objectives. Just as those who don’t believe in God are deemed to be nonbelievers, only those who follow religion are considered to be people with values – the famous “value-voters” obsessed about by pundits during the Bush years. While a growing number of neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers now believe morality to be innate, religion still claims that word as its own, seeking to be its ultimate arbiter. But no word has become more politicized, manipulated or loaded with ideological meaning than life. The religious, of all stripes believe that life is ultimately under God’s control, but some have taken upon themselves to impose their particular read of that on everyone else. They use life as a manipulative slogan. It has become a proprietary brand, accepted and reinforced by the press and public officials who have ceded its “right” to those “speaking in God’s name”. Not only does that give the religious extreme the upper verbal hand in a debate drawn as one between “life” and “choice”, this loaded branding suggests an opponent who promotes death, murder as they blatantly call it. Again, as with nonbeliever, the implication transcends the issue of abortion. It reared its loaded head in the infamous Terry Schiavo spectacle as it does in the stem cell debate. The embryo has become the “unborn”, a life with seemingly greater rights than those of the real living – the child fighting leukemia, the adult with a spinal injury or facing a tortuous Parkinson’s existence.
You don’t have to read the results of surveys to know that religion has lost its grip on many of us, perhaps vastly more than simple identification numbers would suggest. When CNN’s Jack Cafferty asked listeners why that’s so, many attributed it to an alienation with organized religion, an institution often disconnected from our daily lives. Others blame the kind of religion that has taken center stage; that controls the microphone and the public agenda or that sponsors acts of terror. What about words? Perhaps it’s true that “sticks and stones can break my bones” but not so that “words will never hurt me”. Words alone can’t drive us from religion, but loaded words can hurt and they do turn us off. We are, as the President said, a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and increasingly we are also a nation of the non-religious. All are believers.