September 7th, 2012

_Nonbeliever Nation_, David Niose

Published by Palgrave Macmillan. I got it as a library book.
Subtitled: The Rise of Secular Americans

The thesis of the book is straightforward: the United States has a substantial and growing segment that answers polls indicating no religious affiliation. They may or may not explicitly identify as atheist, agnostic or secular, or know the specific meanings of those terms, but organized religion plays no part in their lives and they have no supernatural beliefs. This group is marginalized in American politics (and to some degree, society as a whole, but that depends on region) and their absence from public debate is a loss.

I like all of that. I think the book could have been strengthened and made to appeal to a broader array by the classic rhetorical appeal to secularity as a way to keep sectarian differences from poisoning public policy, however I do not believe Niose accidentally left that out. I think Niose believes that the big monotheisms (Xtianity, Judaism and Islam) in this country are prepared to leave their sectarian differences alone as long as they can gang up on non-monotheists, thus the classical appeal to secularity has run its course, having nothing to offer us today. I sort of wish he'd made _that_ case (because you can really see it in action right now, with the Right coalescing around an LDS'er, however unenthusiastically, and the most rabid Protestant Evangelicals more enamored of Santorum than most Catholics, also R. tells me that Catholic colleges enrollment is only slowing its decline because conservative Muslims find the atmosphere congenial, and the colleges are desperate enough to adapt), but this isn't an academic work (it _really_ isn't), and Niose is not an intellectual: "in fact, some in the AHA like to remind me that they made me president after they decided they wanted the organization to be less intellectual" (p 213-4).

The problem, as with almost everything, lies in the details. Niose and the Secular Movement as a whole is pursuing an "identity politics" approach, since judicial use of the Establishment Cause has run up hard against a religiously conservative/states' rights oriented Supreme Court. They have instead adopted a due process/equal protection approach, arguing that the presence of God-speak in public discourse (such as "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance) damages Secular Americans. It's an interesting strategy, altho the early results are not looking good (the Massachusetts case he was so hopeful about in the book has since concluded and not in the way he had hoped). Figuring out which aspects of a group's identity are part of the Identity for political purposes and which ones are accidental (do all gay people love musicals? Are issues involving children Feminist Issues?) or better served by a separate political identity. I think that this is still being hammered out.

Unfortunately, what I hope are accidental aspects of Secular American identity are presented as central to the argument that Secular Americans must be included as full participants in the American political process. I've already mentioned the "Atheists Can Fight Overpopulation Denial" problem, which any amount of googling suggests is going to be a huge PR problem for Secular Americans until they figure out that they need to sit on their members who (a) think a one child policy makes sense, (b) allow their rhetoric to slide over to countries other than our own, (c) talk about clamping down on immigration as a way to keep our consumption patterns from spreading, etc. Niose might actually be well positioned to help this process along, only he weasel-worded his way through the page-ish on what Secular Americans have on offer: "The rational approach to the overpopulation dilemma would be to make sensible population growth policies a high priority around the world".

Further, there is a huge Identity surrounding Reproductive Freedom, and it is an identity which could be a natural match for Secular Americans -- but not as long as the group is talking about "population growth policies". The shared space includes education and access to resources, the equal participation of women in family policy and public policy. The non-shared space includes coercive or even incentivized attempts to pre-empt women's decision making about whether, when and how many children to have.

But really, Niose's biggest error occurs on page 202, and it isn't a factual error per se. Under the heading "The Need for Popular Support", he produces a long paragraph essentially throwing women's right to abortion under the bus.

"Prior to 1973, the general trend in America was toward the liberalization of abortion laws [that actually is a factual error, but never mind that now]. With the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade, however, the social and political dynamic changed dramatically, and there is little doubt that the court decision helped to enable the formation of the Moral Majority later in the decade. In those formative years of the Religious Right, it was the abortion issue, and the Roe ruling in particular, that energized many, and in fact the issue continues to be the main obsession of many conservative activists. In hindsight, it is uncertain whether the Religious Right would have mushroomed into the force it became if the liberalization of abortion laws had been allowed to continue gradually, and democratically, through legislative measures. Though a comprehensive analysis of the abortion issue is outside our parameters, the question is raised here because it is an example of an unintended consequence -- one, in fact, that has direct relevance to the secular community, since that unintended consequence was the formation of the Religious Right."

Thanks for identifying the Supreme Court's recognition of women's right to an abortion as responsible for the Woes of Secular Americans. Under the heading "The Need for Popular Support". It is tremendously easy to forget the actual context of the 1973 decision, because, well, we all have. But what actually happened was the US was made up of a whole lot of women who already had a couple kids and who were pregnant with their third or fourth or whatever. Then a round of Rubella hit, and all those women, all those families and all their doctors were horrified at the prospect of what would happen if all those severely disabled children were born (cf. Gene Tierney's child). The school systems were already under severe stress, as was the medical system. We Could Not Afford That Crisis, so a bunch of Reality Based Doctors were willing to provide needed medical care, regardless of whether the state laws where they were operating thought that medical care was even legal. It was in this social context that the push for legalized abortion occurred, and asking people to wait any longer so that some hypothetical decades later Secular Americans aren't in there dealing with the Religious Right is NOT as bad as people arguing we shouldn't have had a Civil War but instead have waited longer to gradually get rid of slavery.

It's Not As Bad. But believe me, that argument was made, too. And it's been made every time activists are successful and a quiescent group gets pissed off because the status quo changed and They Like It The Way It Was.

I believe that a person is Mature Politically when they start to realize that there will be some negative effects of Getting What They Want. It will not all be Cake. When you Win, you have to Defend. I am not convinced that Niose is there yet. He seems like the kind of person who thinks you can just talk people 'round, and once you get your way, relax and it'll all be just fine. Politics does not work that way.

p 203: "Progressive policy victories, whether judicial or legislative, are not safe so long as there is a massively powerful, organized segment of the population working to overturn them. As such, with Secular Americans being a potent answer to politically active religious conservatism, popular recognition of the legitimacy of the secular demographic should be seen as a necessary prerequisite to long-term progress." Progressive policy victories are not ever safe, and Secular Americans who actually _are_ a potent answer to politically active religious conservatism have yet to manifest themselves. The heavy lifting right now is being done by groups who refuse to identify as Secular, and who probably are not even Secular.

I'm happy books like this are starting to be written, published and available in libraries. It is a breath of fresh air, after staring at shelves populated by people with shows on Fox News. I hope that the problems with this first batch are ironed out by a future, larger batch of books that are Much, Much Better.

(Also, there's this minor issue with the having-three-kids-in-the-US and talking about the need for population growth policy.)