Ryan Burge is the longtime pastor to a small church of aging Baptists in Mount Vernon, Ill., a manufacturing hub in the deindustrializing rural Midwest, where he has lived since birth. Raised an evangelical by a father who drove the church bus and a mother who taught Sunday school, he makes an unlikely champion for nonreligious Americans in US electoral politics. But Burge, also a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, has recently gained a following among atheists like me.
Americans with no religious affiliation, according to essentially every major demographic study of US religion, now make up approximately a third of the country’s population. As Burge points out in his new book, “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going,” there are roughly as many nones in this country as there are evangelical Protestants or Roman Catholics.
Burge argues that the nones are an underappreciated group of voters in several ways, and that our support helped deliver Joe Biden to the White House. In Religion in Public, a website Burge created with fellow political scientists, he points to preliminary findings from the 2020 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, suggesting that atheists, agnostics, and other nones were each several percentage points more likely to choose Biden than Hillary Clinton in 2016. Atheist votes for Trump, according to this still incomplete but nonetheless significant data, slid from 15 percent in 2016 to 10 percent in 2020; agnostics went from 25 percent to 18 percent, and “nothing in particular” 46 percent to 39 percent. Such shifts, given the size of the groups in question, represent millions of votes.
Attributing presidential election results to any demographic or social group is tricky business, and several communities — from Black women in Georgia to Indigenous voters in Arizona and Wisconsin to, perhaps, faith voters in Michigan — earned greater claim to Biden’s gratitude. Still, Democratic strategists take note: Nones have become an influential part of your base, and our votes cannot be taken for granted. Alongside important outreach to the so-called “religious left,” represented radiantly by new Georgia Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock, Democrats should ask whether liberal secular and religious “values voters” could unite into a consistently winning coalition. Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell, an expert on religious demographics and values, says the answer is “unequivocally yes.”
Unfortunately, however, many progressive political leaders seem to harbor a fear of being tarred with the godless brush by the right. I would know: I work as a humanist chaplain, long serving communities of atheists, agnostics, and other religiously unaffiliated people in a clergy role, and I’ve worked closely with lobbyists and government officials for many years to represent the interests of secular people, including as national chair of “Humanists for Biden.” I was even vetted for six months by the White House and the FBI in 2015-16, in preparation for becoming the first-ever humanist leader to serve on the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The Obama administration ultimately decided not to make such an appointment, but throughout those months, I anxiously feared becoming the target of a Ted Cruz or Donald Trump speech.
Today, nonreligious people or beliefs come up in mainstream political speeches primarily when we’re being attacked. Alabama Representative Mo Brooks, after stoking the Capitol Hill attack that has been called “as Christian nationalist as it gets,” described the Democratic Party as “anti-Christian socialists” bent on “godless dictatorial power.” It would be nice if Democrats and progressives pushed back harder on the use of so-called godlessness as a slur, not to mention give nonreligious Americans more positive acknowledgment in a political environment in which identity and representation matter.
The Biden presidency has already involved several prayerful events. Some of the most prominent such occasions have essentially ignored our existence. President Obama mentioned “nonbelievers” in his 2009 inaugural address when he was talking about American religious pluralism, but there was no such mention in this year’s inaugural. Calls for “unity” framed largely around religion not only erase nearly one-third of the country but ultimately denigrate us by suggesting traditional faith is necessary to cope with the nation’s problems. This is a loss for all of us, because in the wake of the Trump presidency, the notion of true inclusiveness — and President Biden’s obvious passion for it, albeit imperfectly executed at times — are among the most compelling aspects of this new administration.
I have been moved as Biden repeatedly stressed that his faith impelled him to build the most unifying presidency in US history, promising to restore the “soul of America” by coalescing diverse faith voters, social justice activists, racial and ethnic groups, and LGBTQ, disabled, and young people. Still, you can’t restore an inclusive spirit, while excluding — or ignoring — large groups under your big tent. And Burge’s work indicates that there would be a huge political cost to failing to motivate and turn out voters in the secular base.
My two decades of work representing the nonreligious in interfaith work have convinced me that we so-called “nonbelievers” share core common values with progressive and moderate people of faith. We are more alike than not in our commitment to racial, gender, and economic justice; in our sense of shared responsibility to steward nature and fight climate change; in our trust in science as humanity’s best tool for solving problems and achieving understanding; and in our belief in empathy, compassion, and the kind of common decency that, to paraphrase Voltaire, is not so common.
Burge’s book stops short of pointing out this enormous potential for common ground between the “nones” he has studied so thoughtfully and believers like himself. Instead, he turns in his concluding chapter to speak directly to people of faith, seemingly offering them pastoral comfort about the decline of mainstream religion. Atheists and agnostics are extremely unlikely to convert, he warns readers, though some Christians will doubtless make the attempt. But Burge’s primary motivation as a writer seems to be sincere social science. As the ranks of secular people grow, so will the need for us and traditional believers to understand one another.
“Think about the rise of the nones,” Burge writes, waxing homiletic, “the same way as globalization. In both cases, the same cold, hard fact is true: We cannot stop it.”
Greg M. Epstein is the humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT, and author of “Good Without God.” Follow him on Twitter @gregmepstein.