Political psychology: how a nation defines itself means something.
Democrats and Republicans may disagree on many issues, but they are unanimous in their insistence that America is a deeply religious nation. "It is a truism that we Americans are a religious people,” candidate Barack Obama declared several times before his election in 2008, echoing a sentiment that seems nearly universal. Media pundits, like the politicians they cover, reflexively describe America as "very religious,"as if devout religiosity is a defining characteristic of America and its people.

As I discuss in some detail in my book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, this national self-perception—the unquestioned assertion that we are a very religious country—is both wrong and dangerous. The sooner we debunk the myth of American piety, the sooner we will be on the road to rational public policy.

To read the rest of this article from Psychology Today, click here.

Tags: america, democrat, election, nation, nonbeliever, obama, religious, republican, secular, self-image

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Replies to This Discussion

With the two big secular events in the last while, it IS time to try even harder to keep the secular momentum up. If we become complacent, we lose the ground we've gained.

There are two separate issues here.  The first is whether repeatedly referring to America as a "deeply religious nation" harms the public discourse by exaggerating the influence of religion in American society, by effectively giving free air-time to the religious Right.  I agree with the article's author, that such references to America as overwhelmingly religious, are ultimately deleterious.

But the second issue is how America compares in its religious zealotry relative to that of the rest of the developed world.  This is merely a statement of fact, and not a rhetorical position.  Unfortunately, the facts are against us.  As compared to the developed nations, West and East, America is indeed inordinately religious.  Statistics are notoriously slippery.  I recall reading a data point that 78% of Americans self-identify as Christians.  Presumably none of that 78% is atheist or even agnostic, and presumably adherents to other faiths (Judaism, Islam, etc.) would not be part of that 78% either.    If that statistic is true, then it's an astonishingly high percentage of actively religious people in America.

Further, American religiousity happens to be particularly militant.  Europeans often view their Christianity as a sort of fashion, or ethnic identity.  The hold weddings in churches and observe religious holidays not as testaments of worship or communion with their deity, but as social rituals, as something to do to identify themselves as French or Austrian or whatnot.  They cherish the symbols of Christianity as means of connecting with their heritage, and not as outward manifestations of personal religious conviction.  Americans are precisely the opposite.  They view a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" as the main objective of their religiousity.  So in other words, mere percentages of self-identified religious practitioners don't tell the whole story.  The nature of the religious belief matters even more.

The Somali and Saudi examples in the article are rather strained.  Yes, there are far greater zealotries and far more horrendous examples of religious terrorism in the Middle East and in various underdeveloped countries, than in the US.  Compared to stoning 13 year old girls for "adultery", American religious fanaticism is enlightened and mild.  But should we really be comparing ourselves to Saudi Arabia and Somalia?  Or should we be basing our standards on the Western Enlightenment tradition that was after all ultimately responsible for noblest statements and our brightest contributions - our Constitution, for example? 

For all of the excesses of the Puritans who settled 17th century New England, in 1776 America was almost certainly a more pluralistic and more open society than anywhere in Europe, with the possible exception of Holland.  And yet, 236 years later, the tables have turned.  In that sense, the American self-image of "very religious" is unfortunately well-justified.

I think the author, the president of the American Humanist Association, was looking at our self-image, not the way we are seen by others, although that is obviously important.

The numbers don't show us to be as religious as members of the Religious Right would like us to accept. There is a vehemently hardline religious strain, for sure, but the often unchallenged claim by them that we are a "Christian nation" is simply not true in the way they wish to  have that phrase portrayed.

While a large majority call themselves Christians, not anywhere near a large majority of that number would be considered members of the Religious Right that wants government and religion to openly link up. Many people who the evangelical crowd likes to count among their own do not want a country based on any religion. What's seems important is to not remain silent about this fact.

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