I recently met some young atheists who told me that atheists did not convert them to atheism. Christians did. Not what Christian Evangelicals intended, but a welcome example of the law of unintended consequences. As a freshman at Temple University in October 1960, I was in the audience when Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy campaigned there. I appreciated the religious diversity he had advocated the previous month when he assured Protestant ministers in Houston that he believed in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. And true to his word, as the first Catholic president, JFK gave evidence-based secular arguments for his decisions. Since then, Catholic candidates have rarely been asked if they would take orders from the Pope. However, we don’t necessarily have a change for the better. When Catholic Rick Santorum was asked during his 2012 run for president what he thought of President Kennedy’s separation of church and state speech, Santorum said that after reading it he almost threw up.
In 1979 televangelist Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority (which was neither), and it played a critical role in politicizing Christian conservatives. In his book, Listen America, Falwell listed abortion, pornography, homosexuality, divorce, and secular humanism as the major ills threatening America. (Note: Through another unintended consequence, I credit Falwell for introducing me to the “ills” of secular humanism, which I’ve identified with ever since.)
Next came the well-financed Christian Coalition in 1989, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. Though I disagreed with everything it stood for, they had a clear vision of the kind of society they endeavored to create. This Christian conservative base ignored minor theological differences, worked together on important political issues, grabbed media attention, and communicated effectively with elected representatives. Their strategy of demonizing atheists and secular humanists, while moving the country closer to a theocracy, worked all too well.
Well, I’m willing to learn from anyone who has something to teach us. I recognized that we secularists needed to get off our apathy and become better informed, involved, and organized. So, in 2002 I helped found the Secular Coalition for America, which now consists of 18 national atheist and humanist organizations. Its mission is to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government. We formed as a political advocacy group to allow unlimited lobbying on behalf of secular Americans, finally giving atheists a voice in our nation’s capital.
As time went by, just as Christian Evangelicals had rock stars like televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, so atheist rock stars appeared with best-selling books, like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). They and other authors and secular leaders showed that we can be good without any gods and convinced people that the religious beliefs with which they were raised made no sense.
According to recent studies, “Nones,” people who are religiously unaffiliated, are the fastest growing religious demographic comprising nearly one quarter of all Americans. They are not all atheists or agnostics, but a significant percentage are — especially among young adults. As our culture becomes more diverse, there is more openness toward other points of view. The Internet has played a significant role in empowering young people with inquiring minds to learn about countless religious beliefs, and many have examined the available evidence and stopped believing in any gods.
I’d like to say that atheist activists deserve the credit for people leaving religion, but lately I think conservative, white evangelicals deserve lots of credit, too. Donald Trump inadvertently exposed the hypocrisy of many White Evangelical Protestants (WEP) who support him despite his unapologetic sexual harassment, adultery, and overall dishonesty. They are driven by his attacks on abortion, gays, immigrants, taxes, science, gun control, and other social issues. Most WEP in Alabama overlooked child molesting charges against gubernatorial candidate Roy Moore in favor of his opposition to gay marriage, more fundamental to them.
I see no difference between the refusal of county clerks to grant marriage licenses to gay couples today and the refusal to grant such licenses to interracial couples in previous generations based on "Christian" beliefs. Invoking religion to refuse baking wedding cakes for gay couples is no different from invoking religion to refuse serving black people at a lunch counter. Religious freedom gives you the right to practice your belief, not the right to discriminate against those who don’t share your beliefs.
Many people, especially millennials, are moving away from the WEP “Christian values,” and they are being welcomed by atheists and humanists who support civil rights and social justice issues. Some former or present Christians now believe that our humanist positions are more consistent with the message of Jesus than with the message of the WEP. We don’t think selling pastries to gay people is worse than pedophilia. And “Nones” are hearing about how many references there are to abortion in the Gospels: None.
A secular U.S. Constitution, where the separation of church and state is absolute, helped make America great. When religion mingled with politics is no longer business as usual, then we together can make America even greater.