Thomas S. Kidd quoted in USA Today article
Group’s stance revives debate on atheism as religion
By Bob Smietana, USA TODAY
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A growing number of Americans couldn’t care less about God.
About 19% of Americans are part of the “Nones,” or people with no religious affiliation, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. That’s up from 16% in 2008 and from 6 percent in the 1990s.
The growth of the Nones is one reason the Secular Coalition for America is organizing local chapters to lobby states.
The coalition wants to raise the public profile of nonbelievers and push to keep religion out of public policy. But their critics say that atheists and other nonbelievers are part of a new secular religion that’s pushing for special privileges. GO TO THE USA TODAY ARTICLE
Nick Curry, 24, of Nashville, Tenn., who calls himself a secular humanist, hopes to join the local Secular Coalition chapter. He grew up Lutheran but dropped out as a teenager because he stopped believing what his church taught about God.
Curry said he’s not hostile to people who believe in God. But he’s concerned about politicians who want to bring their religious beliefs into politics and about religious groups that get money from the state.
“Secular humanists don’t care what you believe,” he said. “That’s on you. But don’t bring that into public policy.”
‘One less god’
Curry said he doesn’t think atheism is a religion because a religion implies belief in God.
David Fowler, head of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, disagrees.
Fowler argues that atheism or secular humanism, like other religions, is a set of beliefs that shape people’s morals.
“The atheists don’t want beliefs about God to influence public policy,” he said. “But they do want their own beliefs about God’s nonexistence to influence public policy.”
Thaddeus Schwartz, the leader of Secular Life, a social group for Tennessee-area nonbelievers with about 800 members, said atheists have moral and ethical principles, but those principles are different from a religion.
Calling atheism a religion is “like calling bald a hair color,” he said.
Schwartz does worry that society thinks nonbelievers are bad people because they don’t believe in God. He said he doesn’t need God to tell him what is right and what is wrong.
“I teach my kids the same things that you do about how to treat other people,” he said. “I simply believe in one less god than you do.”
The debate over the role of religion in American politics dates to before the United States was founded.
Today both sides appeal to Thomas Jefferson, who first used the phrase “a wall of separation between Church & State” in a letter to Baptists in Connecticut in 1802.
Then, a few days later, he went to a church service held in the U.S. House of Representatives, said Thomas Kidd, associate professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and author of “God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution.”
“Jefferson has a very pragmatic position,” Kidd said. “He doesn’t want any more established churches, but he doesn’t think that separation of church and state means religion will cease to have a role in public life.”
A diverse group
Getting a more public voice for nonbelievers won’t be easy.
The Nones are a diverse group. Only about 5 percent identify as agnostic or atheist, while 13 percent identify as “nothing in particular,” according to the Pew data, which was collected in 2011.
Robert B. Talisse, professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of “Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief,” said nonbelievers need a better public profile.
Talisse said nonbelievers tend to split into at least two camps. One, highlighted by best-selling authors such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, is hostile to religion and sees religious people as stupid.
Talisse is a part of a second group of nonbelievers, who simply want religion to stay out of public policy.
“When the government forces us to do something, it’s got to be able to explain to us why we have to do those things,” he said. “The government can’t say ‘The Bible says this’ or ‘Jesus says do this.’”
Bob Smietana also reports for The Tennesseean in Nashville.