By Bob Smietana, The Tennessean
A growing number of Americans couldn't care less about God.
About 19 percent 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 percent 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 in Tennessee and other states.
coalition, which had 15 people join an organizing conference call last
week, wants to raise the public profile of nonbelievers and to 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.
Nick Curry, 24, of Nashville, who calls
himself a secular humanist, hopes to join the local Secular Coalition
chapter. He grew up Lutheran in Franklin but dropped out as a teenager
because he stopped believing what his church taught about God.
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.
organization is one of about 10 Tennessee nonprofits with religious
ties that are registered to lobby with the state. He 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 local 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.
said he's supportive of the Secular Coalition because of its emphasis
on the separation of church and state and because the group is not
openly hostile to religion.
He 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.
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."
Debate predates founding of U.S.
The debate over the role of religion in American politics dates to before the United States was founded.
both sides of the debate 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
"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.
For one thing, they tend to be independent thinkers who are wary of institutions, said Hemant Mehta, who runs the Friendly Atheist blog at the spirituality website Patheos.com and is author of "I Sold My Soul on eBay."
"It's not like someone can say, 'Vote for this candidate,' and we will do it," he said.
Nones are also 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 and author of "Reasonable
Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief," said nonbelievers need a
better public profile.
He said they are still seen as suspect by
the public in general. Even simple things, like the Pledge of
Allegiance, show atheists as outsiders.
"If you are somebody who
doesn't believe in God and who doesn't believe that a nation can be
under God - then you can't pledge allegiance to your country," he said.
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
Talisse said he doesn't think religious people are dumb. He says they are just wrong.
He's part of a second group of nonbelievers, who simply want religion to stay out of public policy.
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.' "