By Audrey Kingstrom
The “nones.” You’d never know there were so many of us because, as a recently designated demographic cohort, we go by many different names and identities – humanist, atheist, agnostic, the “unaffiliated,” skeptic, freethinker, lapsed (insert former religious identity), “spiritual but not religious,” or nothing at all. Hence, our political leaders don’t pay attention to us. It’s time we change that!
Some months ago, I participated in a volunteer citizen-lobbyist training. We were encouraged to tell our own stories and share why we cared about an issue personally. Naturally I mentioned that I was a humanist and, in fact, president of Humanists of Minnesota to suggest that I represented many others as well. I shared some of my experiences with regard to the issue and how my humanist values informed my perspective.
A former legislator, who was helping with the training, provided feedback. It was mostly positive, but I couldn’t have been more disheartened when he told me that identifying as a humanist was fine, but I would have much more clout if I were speaking for other Catholics, or some other religious group. In short, acknowledging my humanism was immaterial.
Such is the reality we face as humanists. Religious voters count a lot more than those of us who are not. Statistically we are insignificant, even though humanist values are far more widespread than our organized numbers reflect.
But we could have more political clout than we do. We are members of that larger demographic, the “nones,” and organizing this growing segment of the population could be a game-changer. Being “religiously unaffiliated,” however, is not an identity to organize around politically. But being “secular” has a lot of potential. It defines our civic lives. It is a well-understood term in society and reflects the important all-American value of separation of church and state.
The renewed efforts throughout the land to privilege certain religious views in our society should be a call to action for those of us who care about maintaining secular government.
As concerned humanists we can lead the charge in organizing around secularism. Not only are the “nones” more likely to identify as secular voters in significant numbers, so too might some mainstream “religiously affiliated” who do not share the agenda of the Religious Right. Many liberal religious activists rally with progressive interfaith groups to advance humanistic social policy goals because it’s the faith community writ large that gets listened to in the halls of government. And, they know how to organize.
“People of faith” like to note that Martin Luther King Jr. organized the black community through the church. His message and goals, however, were entirely secular. After all, it was the civil rights movement – in which Blacks demanded to be included in the promise of American democracy – not a religious rights movement. Nonetheless, a couple decades later, the Religious Right took a page from that history lesson and began organizing themselves. Not as aggrieved citizens who lacked equal rights, but as a sectarian cohort that wanted to thwart the design of our secular government. For several decades now, they have been making inroads in further privileging their religious beliefs within our country.
It’s time to change that trajectory. The Religious Right has an outsized influence on the political landscape. The secular community and secular-leaning people, by the numbers, should have the advantage. That fact has not been lost on the Secular Coalition for America. Founded in 2002, this coalition brings together 19 secular organizations (including the American Humanist Association) to represent secular Americans in Washington, D.C. In addition, they are intensifying their grassroots efforts to encourage secular people around the country to “out” themselves – especially to their political leaders – locally and nationally.
That’s where we come in. We need to help launch the secular citizen lobby in Minnesota. Yes, we are a nonpartisan group, but that does not preclude us from being civically engaged and advocates for our values. We can be committed voters and register other people to vote. Each of us can identify as a “secular values voter” and encourage others to do so as well. Our legislators and leaders must see us as a sizeable constituency if we are to have any clout. Therein lies our power.
Once we have their attention, we must implore them to use reason and naturalism in their deliberations. Naturalism, inherent in the humanist worldview, provides a common source of knowledge – accessible to every citizen – by which to construct our public policy and laws. Through its rational, scientific, and evidence-based approach to knowledge, pragmatic naturalism is the best option for implementing shared secular values.
Finally, we need to advocate for humanism itself. Throughout our society and around the world competing values vie for legitimacy and endorsement. Some based on religious beliefs, some not. Some bigoted and authoritarian, and others less so. The humanist outlook goes beyond individual self-interest and sectarian tribalism to accept responsibility for the well-being of all people and the sustainability of the planet. Humanism is at the vanguard of a global secular meta-ethic that can serve vastly diverse societies and a wholly interconnected planet.
This election season let’s make ourselves visible as secular values voters.
Audrey Kingstrom is president of Humanists of Minnesota.
Related Story: Let's Build the Power of Secular Voters