Recently, a spate of articles, newscasts, books, and other media have focused on the “New Athe¬ism,” bringing attention to some fine best-selling books by FREE INQUIRY contributors such as Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Susan Jacoby, and Richard Dawkins. Many of us feel it is high time that our worldview gets some limelight, following what seems like a decade of public emphasis on faith. Bill Clinton rolled to resounding reelection in 1996, based in part on his support in the South, fueled, no doubt, by his open appeals to Bible Belt “values” voters, by his proclaiming his Baptist roots, and first proposing “faith-based initiatives.” (The Clinton administration never pursued them, in part due to counsel from advisors and the attorney general that such programs would not pass constitutional muster.)
Rabbi Michael Lerner and others counseled “progressives” not to abandon the religious in running for office. A few Democrats who prevailed this past election cycle adopted points of view typically associated with the Religious Right, among them opposition to abortion. Representatives Harold Ford and Bob Corker ran “holier-than-thou” campaigns. Corker claimed he prayed twelve times per day, and Ford distributing campaign cards with the Ten Com¬mandments on the back. Joe Lieberman, who calls himself an independent Demo¬crat, courted evangelical preachers in his campaign, and in his victory speech, “God Is My Campaign Manager,” he thanked the true architect of his victory: God himself.
Democrats jockeying for presidential runs in 2008 will likely follow the success of red-state Democrats who position themselves also on the “Left Hand of God,” as Michael Lerner suggests. They will risk alienating those of us who value the separation of church and state as a fundamental and necessary component of truly free inquiry. They may also be misinterpreting the lessons of the 2006 midterm elections.
The exit polling for this past cycle shows a couple of interesting trends. First, the Christian Right showed up at the polls in nearly the same numbers as in the past few elections. They are still a motivated and powerful part of the electorate and should not be ignored. Moreover, they still voted overwhelmingly for Republicans and conservatives, though the percentage was down by some seven points to a mere 70 percent. The “values voters” of 2002 and 2004 are not shifting in large numbers, despite their ideological abandonment by the Republican Party. Neither gay sex scandals nor a lack of any real new legislation targeting their issues of concern sufficed either to keep them home or to persuade them to vote for Democrats or liberals. It is unclear that wooing fundamentalist Christian voters won the day for red-state Democrats. What seems more likely, given other exit-poll results, is that voters were sufficiently fed up with Republican hegemonic control of all three branches of government that they were willing to hold their noses and vote for Democrats in order to send a message. Sick of U.S. failure in Iraq and congressional corruption, voters chose collectively to simply “throw the bums out.” Some evidence for this seems to be the passage of a ballot measure that supported stem cell research in Mis¬souri and the defeat of another that would have banned abortion in South Dakota.
Fundamentalists will arrive loaded for bear going into the next election cycle. Having lost their direct political influence that they had through the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, and with ballot-measure losses in places like Missouri and South Da¬kota, they will come out swinging again in 2008. Expect more gay-marriage-ban amendments and concern over Supreme Court nominations to be trotted out to mobilize their core voters as never before, history of inaction and hypocrisy be damned.
Brace yourselves for 2008. Misinter¬preting the results of 2006 will no doubt lead to significant challenges for secular progressives who worry about the continued encroachment of religion into public policy. In fact, while evangelicals and other pro-theocratic voters seemed to show up in nearly the same numbers as before, secularists and friends of science voted in relatively greater numbers than in previous elections, perhaps energized in part by the war in Iraq and political corruption. Whatever the motivation, this illustrates a great new hope that is well-supported by the demographics—that we are a growing force in a coalition of secular progressives and conservatives who are sick of the alliance of religion and government and able to influence policy through elections. The challenge for us is to get our politicians to recognize this. The question is: how?
I think we can learn a lot from other minority groups that have made themselves more visible, injecting themselves into the popular culture and public conversation. Transforming a de¬¬spised minority into an accepted minority is absolutely necessary if our ideas are to enter the American mainstream. Given the fact that fewer people would accept an atheist or secular humanist president than a homosexual one indicates that we have a long way to go. But it also suggests a path toward acceptability. Homosexuality has be¬come mainstream, while atheism, un¬belief, and everyone’s favorite scapegoat—secular humanism—have lagged behind on the very fringes of public acceptability. No open agnostic, atheist, or secular humanist has won a major public office yet, and this must change. Meanwhile, open homosexuals have been elected to numerous offices.
Significantly, homosexuality has be¬come more acceptable as it has en¬tered the public consciousness through popular culture. Artists, academics, film¬makers, and musicians who had the courage to come out and to interject homosexual themes into songs, art, film, and television and radio productions have done much to break down barriers. All of the debates, studies and reasoned arguments regarding homosexuality would never have made the impact that the pop-culture representation of homosexuals has done. More than anything else, television shows like Will and Grace have helped make homosexuality mainstream in the culture, even as politicians continue to push for gay-marriage prohibitions. Ultimately, as public attitudes shift, those politicians will fail. We need to learn from this example. We must capture the attention and appreciation of the public through popular culture before we can make political gains.
While we are certainly involved in defending the rights of secular humanists and in maintaining the integrity of science through efforts such as the Center for Inquiry/Office of Public Policy, political efforts alone will not accomplish our aims, and we cannot bet the farm on it. The last election cycle has illustrated how little we can depend on any one political party to defend secularism. We cannot dismiss popular culture as base or low, or we will cede the largest avenue for dissemination of ideas in the world today, we would cede this ground at our peril.
Best-selling books that cite our philosophy and bring atheism to light as a prominent worldview are certainly a good start. The fact that Richard Dawkins’s new book, The God Delu¬sion, has remained on the best-seller list for many weeks has definitely increased public awareness, at least among those who still read books or who check The New York Times Book Review. How¬ever, much more has been accomplished, in my estimation, by the fact that Dawkins was satirized on a recent episode of South Park. That show is watched by people of all ages, by the literate and highly educated as well as those who may be less so. People who may never have even heard of Richard Dawkins were suddenly ex¬posed to him and his viewpoints, albeit by way of satire. This is a much more promising way to get us past the general problem we face of “preaching to the choir,” whereby most of our publications only reach those who already agree with us. We should take more note of these opportunities and their potential for lasting impact.
In sum, we need to work on all fronts. As a think tank, the Center for Inquiry may be able to influence opinion makers, but we need to do much more. Most people still don’t know us, and even fewer like us, and all the position papers and CNN appearances in the world aren’t going to change that.
David Koepsell is the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, an associate editor of FREE INQUIRY, and Adjunct Instructor and Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy, State Univ¬ersity of New York at Buffalo. He is currently a Donaghue Initiative Visiting Fellow at Yale University.