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For years, we’ve heard how the world is much less religious than America, and that America is a bit of an outlier when it comes to the relationship between economic development of a country and the religiosity of its citizens.
Well, the world has only gotten less religious, and it appears as though America is finally mirroring this godless trend according to two recent Pew surveys. The first survey, released Dec. 17, shows that one of every six people worldwide has no religious affiliation, which makes the “nones” the third-largest religious group worldwide (behind Muslims and Christians) with 16 percent of the global population. This survey is consistent with previous studies on global religiosity, which often find that the number of religious people is about 80-90 percent of the global population.
The second survey is a bit more interesting in that it shows a marked change in religiosity. According to the survey, about 20 percent of the American public has no religious affiliation, making it the second largest “religious” group after Christians. This is a huge development for a country whose nonreligious population during the 1980s was only 5 percent. This change in American religiosity finally puts the country in line with the rest of the developed world, and it is likely to have an enormous impact on our society and government.
The “nones” in America are a powerful group, with nearly 12 percent of the electorate in the 2012 elections identifying as religiously unaffiliated, nearly double the number that participated in the 1980 elections. What’s more, this group is solidly Democratic and socially liberal. Seventy percent of the “nones” voted for President Obama in the 2012 elections, and the “nones” are very supportive of gay marriage and a woman’s right to make her own reproductive health choices.
So what does this all mean for this country and the world at large? Well, as the American nonreligious population continues to grow and unify, politicians will be forced to listen to this influential voting bloc and will finally address the political desires of the nonreligious community. This means that the government’s position on issues like gay marriage, church-state separation, and vouchers for religious schools are likely to reflect the growing nonreligious opinion that faith shouldn’t dictate public policy.
That doesn’t mean that faithful people and faithful representatives can’t act on their values, but it will increasingly make legislators cognizant of the fact that they represent a diverse society, and that it’s inappropriate for them and the government as a whole to endorse a sectarian viewpoint on any serious policy initiative. Politicians will be forced to realize that secular government is the most neutral playing ground for various religious and philosophical viewpoints. That’s because the absence of a faith-based viewpoint isn’t an automatic endorsement of atheism. Rather, as with evolution or with comprehensive sex education, it’s simply an endorsement of the best of modern knowledge.
Looking overseas, as America becomes more like the developed world in relation to religiosity, it’s likely that this country will begin to mirror the secular politics of our global allies. Under such a scenario, the Religious Right will be greatly diminished, and in its place would be groups that demand a tolerant and religion-neutral government. Religious objections to teaching evolution and sexual education in schools won’t be afforded the same weight as they currently receive by government officials. And perhaps most importantly, gone would be the religious litmus test for public office that assumes one must believe in some sort of deity in order to be elected and be representative of the people.
Secular government isn’t a new thing in America, but it is a concept that has been under attack for decades. Now, with changing voter demographics here at home and across the world, it looks like its supporters are well-equipped to defend it in the future.
Roy Speckhardt is executive director of the American Humanist Association.