This Fourth of July, those who identify themselves as non-believers, or humanists, or atheists — or a whole host of other names which signify a nontheistic worldview — have much cause for celebration. After eight years in the Bush wilderness — and an even longer period of ostracism by the Washington political establishment — a rising demographic of like-minded Americans and a new president are guiding us back to our roots as a secular nation.
“We have generally been a pariah group in America,” says Woody Kaplan, Advisory Board Chair of the Secular Coalition for America.”Pretty much unrecognized by the political establishment. Yet there’s almost no religious group in America as large as us…. We were that third rail that politicians failed to touch.”
Indeed when the Obama Administration invited the Coalition to the White House for a meeting in May it marked a stark departure from recent history.
“Joe Lieberman famously talked about the constitution providing for freedom of religion but not freedom from religion — and questioned the possibility of non-believers to be ethical human beings,” Kaplan says. “Suffice it to say we were never invited as an identity group into the Bush White House. But interestingly enough… we were only invited into the Clinton White House under the rubric of core civil rights or civil liberties interests, and not as an identity group of nontheists.”
Things began to change shortly after then-Senator Obama announced his candidacy for president.
“He was on one of those talking head shows,” Kaplan says. “And he was talking about Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe bending towards justice. He followed that with ‘no matter what your belief system’ — and he made a list, a litany — ‘whether you’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim or have no religion at all.'”
Within a week the Coalition approached Obama. They let him know they had never been part of that “list” before — never had had a seat at the table — and they would appreciate it if he would continue to include them whenever appropriate.
As Herb Silverman, the Coalition’s President says, “Lip service is better than no service at all.”
“It’s helpful in bringing us out of the closet,” Kaplan says.
Obama agreed and remained true to his word. And then came the moment approximately 50 million Americans— who identify themselves with terms like agnostic, atheist, materialist, humanist, nontheist, skeptic, bright, freethinker, agnostic, naturalist, or non-believer — will never forget. In his inauguration speech, Obama said, “…Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Two weeks later he talked about “non-believers” and “humanists” at the National Prayer Breakfast.