Nontheists Go to Washington: The White House Gives Us a Seat at the Table

On Friday, February 26, I had the privilege of attending the Secular Coalition for America’s Briefing with the Obama Administration for what was a truly a remarkable moment in our movement’s–and the nation’s–history. Of course, the Obama administration routinely holds many such briefings with other groups. But this particular briefing was singularly important. It was the first time a presidential administration has held a national policy briefing with the nontheist community.

“We are very pleased to have had this opportunity to talk with the White House about issues that are important to the nontheist community,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, in a statement to the press. “Too often, nontheists have been disregarded by politicians and the public only because we don’t happen to believe in a god. But by President Obama giving us a seat at the table, he has sent a powerful message that we hope others will also embrace: What unites us is that we are all Americans–not that we all share a belief in the same god or any god. There is no faith prerequisite in wanting what’s best for our country.”

Some radically conservative groups slammed President Obama for inviting us to the White House, arguing that the policy briefing indicated an anti-religion bias in the Executive. But they have it completely wrong. The briefing did not indicate an exclusion of anyone–only the inclusion of a group that had previously been left out of the political discourse. Moreover, the issues discussed at the briefing should be of importance not only to nontheists, but to all Americans. The issues we presented included how to reform the Faith-Based Initiative, the importance of ending proselytizing in the U.S. military, and the need to restore government oversight over faith-healing treatment providers. (To read the official statements presented to the administration click here.) These are aspects of our national policy that affect all of us, regardless of faith.

And that’s where I see a particular triumph in the Secular Coalition for America’s Briefing with the Obama Administration. It indicates in an impressive way that nontheism is not a fringe movement–as some no doubt wish we were–and that we are gaining relevance in society and in government. And why shouldn’t we become a major player? After all, the “nones”–those that don’t declare any religion–make up a full 15 percent of the American population. That’s more than the number of Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews in the U.S. combined.

Of course, although impressive, the briefing isn’t the only indicator of the growing acceptance of nontheists. President Obama has often mentioned nontheists in a positive and inclusive way when speaking about the broad religious spectrum in America. In 2007, Representative Pete Stark came out as the highest-level government official who doesn’t believe in a higher power. And nontheist groups continue to make gains in numbers and in influence.

Friday’s briefing was the first such meeting of its kind with the nontheist movement–but I think it’s safe to say that it certainly won’t be the last.