Dr. David Orenstein is a Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York, and author of “Godless Grace: How Nonbelievers are making the world safer, richer and kinder.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us take a look back at 2017, which is already over a month and a half has gone into the ether, what seems like the major trend in the United States for the non-religious – pluses and minuses?
David Orenstein: I think we, that the nontheist community in the United States finds itself in a period of ongoing social, political and legal resistance which is in direct response to the current administration in Washington, DC. Nonbelievers are not a monolithic group, and I know there are atheists who are politically conservative. I and most atheists conclude that the Trump presidency has exposed itself to be allied with theists, evangelicals, and a host of anti-humanistic and overtly racist people and organizations which deeply conflict with the worldview of secular freedom and empathy.
We are fighting against an anti-truth, anti-pluralist, and anti-science agenda with deep ties to the Evangelical movement which itself started more than 30 years ago. This movement is repulsed by the accumulation of scientific knowledge and wisdom. and by any philosophy which rejects god while also producing common understanding.
On the plus side, I also think this is the last gasp of the white disaffected working class. I understand their pain as they feel they’ve been left behind by globalism. I also acknowledge that not enough has been done to rectify some of their real fears and loss of jobs and community. Yet, diversity is our natural strength and it builds empathy. I think this is why the non-belief community is so easily allied to other growing resistance groups such as the #MeToo movement, many Pro-Choice groups like Planned Parenthood, immigrant rights groups and human and environmental justice groups who are also pulling and pushing our politics forward under the banner of greater personal freedom, some without the need for a personal god.
Also on the plus side is the increasing number of Nones in the U.S., Gen-X and Gen-Z are markedly churchless and the number of growing nonbelievers is actually frightening organized religion across all quarters as numbers of worshipers and dollars diminish. Certainly the number of Colleges and local nontheist organizations celebrating of Darwin Day and the Day of Reason are growing as well. These are really, really good things.
Jacobsen: When you reflect on the contributions to the non-religious community, who have been outstanding individuals in that? What organizations have been leading the way as well?
Orenstein: Well, there have been so many people involved in helping to support the secular humanist and atheist worldview. I think everyone who links to another skeptic on social media is making a difference by creating more connections in an ever-greater community of nonbelievers from all over the world. We are certainly no longer cowering in the shadows. The force of many lay leaders has to be considered the oil that greases the nonbeliever machine and propels the movement forward both intellectually, actively and via fundraising.
But absolutely there are specific people, advocates and agitators like. We can reflexively go to the Four Horsemen, but so many other modern authors, activists and thinkers are contributing. Both past and present, certainly Carl Sagan is a perennial personal favorite, and as I read and write my next book on Charles Darwin, I’ve been reading about the naturalists and freethought activists of the 19th Century (Bradlaugh; Ingersoll, McCabe, etc) that paved the way for the freethinkers of the 20th and 21st Centuries.
From an organizational point of view, there are the stalwarts of course, like the Secular Coalition for America, the Richard Dawkins Foundations, American Atheists, Inc. the American Humanist Association and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. The International Humanist and Ethical Union also plays a supportive role, as do organizations like the National Science Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. All these organizations protect knowledge, human rights and work towards environmental and other justices.
Jacobsen: What have been the bigger areas of regression for the rights of non-religious people in the United States?
Orenstein: There have been many areas that I’d consider regressive. The overt need to link patriotism with godliness; the attempt by certain states and school boards to enact or attempt to legislate Creationism or Intelligent Design into the public school science curriculum; a re-emphasis on prayer in public schools. Also, attacks on journalism and threats against journalists. The denial of LGBT or transgender rights is also a huge issue, as is the ongoing attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade. All these lead to an atmosphere that leads nonbelievers to feel as though their rights and beliefs, essentially their way of life in a civil secular society, aren’t as valued or important as others. Certainly under this administration “religious freedom” – that is protecting the rights of the religious – is especially allied to the President and both Houses of Congress. But hopefully this year and in 2020, with mobilization, this will change and more disaffected groups, which include atheists, will register and vote wisely.
Jacobsen: What story or stories in 2017 made you laugh surrounding religious and non-religious issues?
Orenstein: For me, I’d say the saga of former Judge Roy Moore really scared me at first but also made me laugh, at least in the end. Moore is the former Chief Justice from the state of Alabama who was suspended in 2003 for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments statue on public grounds. Last year, Moore ran to for the Senate to replace Jeff Sessions, who now serves at Attorney General. First Trump backed Moore’s opponent, but when that person lost the Republican primary, Trump quickly deleted all his tweets favoring the candidate. Then, as Trump put his advocacy behind Moore, he essentially backed into supporting a man accused of multiple counts of sexual misconduct – So much for religious piety. Moore has been known for decades as a guy who “liked them young.” Moore lost the election and thus placed the state into the hands of the Democrats, something that hasn’t happened for 30+ years. The loss by Moore and the collateral damage to his and Trump’s reputation is, in my mind, irreparable. And also highlights a deep religious hypocrisy found mainly in those who claim the mantle of morality based on their religious faith.
Jacobsen: What are some areas of activism for the non-believing population in the United States, e.g. the Pledge of Allegiance, etc.?
Orenstein: Right after the U.S. election, the Women’s March occurred. Since then, other activism has invigorated the civil and human rights movements within the United States. Many freethought organizations are focusing on the ongoing attempt to lessen the wall between Church and State. That’s very important. Trump tried to end the Johnson Amendment, which would have allowed Houses of Worship to make political contributions and advocate for candidates. That failed to happen. The real emphasis should be registering and then getting people to the polls to vote. The more people who participate in democracy (or at least America’s version of it) the more we can avoid political disasters like the Trump administration. As I’ve written before, America was founded as a secular nation. Remember that the separation between Church and State is in our politics, policies and god was left out of the government by our Founding Fathers. They couldn’t know Trump’s name three hundred years ago, but they certainly saw this coming.
Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?
Orenstein: I am an optimist and believe in the “American Experiment.” I also believe that when American is at its best that we can be the shining city on that hill. But I’ve come to accept that those who are still Trump supporters have nearly deified the man. As with all religion, once a believer accepts their beliefs there’s little, if ever, any turning back. But what comes with accepting this “package” is the amount of energy one needs to normalize the sad and vile actions and comments of the man/king/god, which those beliefs are projected. Trump is the David Koresh or Jim Jones for about 25% of the nation that has become disaffected with the economics and politics of a world system in which they (in some cases) rightly feel is leaving them behind. I do not know how to change their minds, but I do know that surviving this period in American history will require VOTES to change the current political dynamics of our nation. Don’t burn out but turn on. Don’t become disaffected by the onslaught of this administration. Become vengeful in the voting booth in 2018, 2020 and beyond.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, David.
Image Credit: Dr. David Orenstein.