One of the demographic aspects of the nones (Americans who answer “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular” when asked their religious affiliation) that’s been well covered in the media is how the group’s growth is fueled by young people, particularly those under the age of thirty. What’s not necessarily known is how much younger secular Americans are compared to religious Americans.
Data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) shows that in 2018 nearly three in ten (28 percent) of nones were under thirty. This is almost double the number of Protestants in that age group (15 percent) and well over the number of young Catholics (18 percent). This bodes well for the future of secular Americans in politics; as older, more conservative groups continue aging and the nones start entering their prime years, their impact in elections will increase, hopefully leading to policymaking that is more respectful of science, critical thinking, and expertise.
Secular Americans are Racially Diverse and More Politically United
The main Christian groups in the country have racial and ethnic breakdowns that are very different from the nation as a whole. Latinx Americans, for example, are overrepresented among Catholic identifiers while white and Black Americans are overrepresented among Protestants.
The nones’ racial and ethnic breakdown is very similar to the country as a whole, but the politics within the group are more similar across race than among Catholics or Protestants. The CCES survey shows that a majority of nones, regardless of race, identify as Democrats
The political agreement by race shown by the nones contrasts with the religious political polarization of Christians. Among Catholics, a majority of whites identify as Republican (51 percent) while a larger majority of Latinxs identify as Democrat (60 percent). The partisan gap is even wider among Protestants; 65 percent of whites identify as Republican, whereas 78 percent of Black Protestants identify as Democrat.
Secular Americans Care About the Issues of the Future
Healthcare has been near the top of Americans’ concerns for years, an issue exacerbated by the current pandemic when access to affordable healthcare is needed more than ever. The emergence of the pandemic does not put the urgency of addressing climate change on hold. Yet, among all religious affiliation cohorts, a PRRI survey last fall found that only secular Americans had both climate change and healthcare as their top-two issues, each selected by two-thirds of the group. These results are in line with secular Americans’ trust in science and suggest that a future with science-based policymaking could be possible if secular Americans flex their political muscle.
Secular Organizations Must Play a Role
A recent piece by Ryan P. Burge at the blog Religion in Public shows that atheists are the most politically active group in the country. And an article I published last year in the Humanist reported on a Socioanalítica Research poll of secular Americans which found that nonreligious people who have participated in secular organizations are more politically active than those who have never belonged to movement organizations.
Though we don’t know if atheists or secular Americans participate in politics as part of their secular advocacy, the fact that they’re so politically engaged bodes well for the future of the movement. Secular organizations must work to engage their membership bases in electoral politics and build from people’s eagerness to be active citizens.
Winning Office: The Next Frontier
According to the Center for Freethought Equality (CFE), only five elected officials in the country identified as nonreligious prior to the 2016 elections. In less than four years, and thanks in great part to CFE’s work and its Freethought Equality Political Action Committee, there are over seventy elected officials identifying with the secular community. Though secular Americans are still grossly underrepresented in elective office, more people are running and winning. That’s good!
Current elected officials are less fearful of open secularity than in previous generations. The Congressional Freethought Caucus formed in 2018, the first of its kind in the national legislature. Voters are less afraid of atheists. Gallup shows attitudes changing as a majority of Americans now say they would be willing to vote for an atheist candidate for president.
Though the present looks tough, the future looks bright for secular Americans. This cohort has the chance to change the direction of American society for the better. If they can flex their political muscle.
On Thursday, April 23, Juhem Navarro-Rivera presented more of his research on why secular Americans are poised to become a major force in US politics as part of the AHA April Speaker Series. Watch a video of this talk here.