Nonbeliever Nation

A Review of David Niose’s Nonbeliever Nation

Regular readers of my blog will know that the interplay between politics and religion is quite important to me.  In fact, I would have to say that roughly 90% of my posts deal with politics and religion.  When I saw that David Niose had written a new book titled “Nonbeliever Nation”, I knew that I had to read it.  Today’s post will be my review of that book.

Review Summary:  Niose does an excellent job describing the rise of both the Religious Right and of Secular Americans.  The former are pulling the strings of power, the latter is growing quickly.  This is a book that all Americans should read—regardless of their religious views.  The religious will learn something about us secular Americans, and we should all learn about the rise of the Religious Right.  I believe, as does Niose, that religion, the “culture wars” that stem from it, and the wave of anti-science/intellectualism will be defining moments of this century.  Niose does an excellent job of chronicling how we got to where are today and why secular Americans will be instrumental in getting to where we need to be tomorrow.

Niose begins the book by pointing out that the number of Americans identifying has secular has doubled since 1990.  In fact, he shows that somewhere between 12-18% of Americans identify as secular today—choosing “none”, when it comes to religion.  That is a large number of people.  To put it in perspective, only 25.1% of Americans are Catholic.  Niose seeks to explore why the number of secular Americans has grown, while at the same time, he explains the rise of the Religious Right in both terms of numbers and power.   He succeeds on both counts and readers unfamiliar with these topics will find the book quite informative and fair.  Niose writes in a professional and well calculated tone, but does not shy from criticizing when called for.

One of the most important chapters of the book (at least in my opinion) deals with our religious heritage and the idea that we are in fact most certainly not a Christian nation.  As many of you know, the belief that the Founders intended that we become a nation founded on the principles of Christianity is a common statement from the Religious Right.  Niose does an excellent job of eviscerating that belief, pseudo-historian David Barton, and numerous other fallacies regarding atheists and religious periods in our history as well.  In fact, he points out (in detail) that at no time in our history has religion played as large a role in politics as it does today.

Niose writes that the Religious Right came to life in the 1970’s.  Over the last three decades it has changed it shape and name at times, but has always been on the march for power and theocratic control.  He points out that to the Religious Right government neutrality towards religion is now being seen as overt hostility.  Niose argues that not all secular Americans are hostile towards religion and that neutrality is just that:  neutral.  He illustrates quite well how the Religious Right is defining the terms of various social and political discussions, and why that needs to change.

One of the key themes throughout the book, that Niose documents well, is the feeling of marginalization that many secular Americans feel when it comes to politics.  He illustrates that this is not by accident, and in fact, is quite calculated on the behalf of the various groups that constitute the Religious Right.  Niose argues, that what most secular Americans want is to end that marginalization and to have our proper place at the political table.

Niose points out that most secular Americans live “in the closet” regarding their secularity. The reason for this is the fact that we are often discriminated against and can have some pretty harsh real world problems in parts of the country if we are known as “nonbelievers”.  Niose points out that this has had a catastrophic effect on the politics of this country over the last 30 years.  The Religious Right is running rampant, promoting insane policies, and the group that is best able to oppose them find themselves on the sidelines.  Niose promotes the idea of learning the lessons that the LGBT community has to teach secular Americans about re-branding, “coming-out”, and changing the perception that others have towards us.

Niose treats the rise of the Religious Right fairly, accurately, and harshly—all of which it deserves.  The casual reader will walk away from this book having learned a great deal about what is going on “behind the scenes” on the political right.  It is not a pretty picture, and Niose does not hesitate to criticize when necessary.  Another key theme of the book is a criticism of the Religious Right’s anti- science/intellectual/education stances.  I can think of no greater offense being committed by the Religious Right at this moment.  The ignorance they promote can be found at the center of most of our social, educational, and political problems.  Niose does a great job of pointing that out, and explaining why secular Americans are the group that is the most qualified to combat that ignorance.

Readers will find a detailed explanation of the rise of secular Americans and various groups such as the American Humanist Association, The Secular Coalition, The Secular Student Alliance, The Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, and others.  He points out three very important things about the various groups: a) why they arose in the first place and b) why they are needed and c) why they are growing.  I would argue that point (b) is the most important, and Niose treats it quite well.

In closing, as I pointed out in my brief summary above, this is a book that all Americans should read.  The role that religion plays now, seeks to play in the future, and fight against it may very well be the defining political and social battles of this century.  Niose does a great job preparing everybody for that struggle.  As I so often say at the end of my blog posts, it is time for secular Americans and religious liberals to speak up.  It would seem that Niose and I are very much in agreement on that.  In short: Read the book, you will not regret it—it is well worth your time.

Thanks for Reading.  I look forward to your comments.

—-RB

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20 thoughts on “Nonbeliever Nation

  1. TST from West Lebanon, NH, United States

    I had heard this book was coming out, but didn't think to put it high on my "Must Read" list until your review, awesome job!

    Reply
    1. reasonbeing from Rochester, MN, United States Post author

      I would be interested to hear your take on it. One of the important issues for Niose is to encourage people to "come out". While I agree with him that if all secular Americans came out and formed a "pride" type movement similar to the LBGT, it would be a great thing. However, I do not think that is always the right course of action for specific individuals. Niose like myself is from the Northeast (though I am now in MN). Perhaps I am wrong on this ,but it seems much easier to be "out" there than in the Bible belt. Either way, the book does a great job to encourage secular Americans to become more active in any way they can and provides us a great history of both the Religious Right and Secular movements.

      Reply
  2. Tookie Clothespin from Bloomington, IL, United States

    I'm almost done reading it, and highly recommend it. I've only lived the US 13 years but have been confused about what I learned about this country in history class (founded on idea of separation of church and state) and the reality of living here. This book clears up the reason for the mismatch. Although I can't vote as a PR it has inspired me to be more "out".

    Reply
  3. Paul Hobbs from Austin, TX, United States

    Reasonbeing,

    Would you please clarify your statement, "the Religious Right’s anti- science/intellectual/education stances". I am a high school teacher and have experienced the religious being shut out of the educational process in regards to science. I am a Christian and have absolutely no problem with simply teaching science and the results of the scientific method. I believe that science points God. Though I am not wanting to begin a debate on that here, I simply believe that all ideas and perspectives should be presented. Do you believe that?

    Paul Hobbs

    Reply
    1. reasonbeing from Rochester, MN, United States Post author

      Paul—Thanks for taking the time to stop by and leave a comment. I appreciate it.

      Before I answer your question, I would like to point out that you should read the book, it will answer your question in much greater detail than my quick response here. I think you would find it interesting, if you are interested enough to comment here.

      By "anti-science/Intellectualism/education" I am referring to the many proposed policies, laws, and the attitudes of many Christian fundamentalists. The notions that evolution is wrong, the criticism of things like Obama saying it would be great if we were all college educated, the current Republican Party of Texas platform piece that states, " We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills…."—this in 2012, the list goes on… I understand that you are Christian, and a teacher. It is my hope that you value education, and I would suspect you do. However, many of the power brokers of the Religious Right do not. Niose goes into great detail on this and provides all of his sources.

      You ask if i believe that all "ideas and perspectives should be presented". This is a tough question to answer. My initial answer is no. We do not have time in a high school curriculum to cover all possible ideas and perspectives on each subject. We should cover those that are true, those that were seen as true for a significant time period, those that led to the the true ideas even they were erroneous themselves. For example, the theory of evolution is a fact, and Creationism is not. They do not deserve equal footing. Evolution should be taught, Creationism should not. It is a false theory believed by some American Fundamentalist Christians (a small % of the world), and has been debunked by science. (At this point, we could come close to having the debate that you mentioned you did not want to have here, and I will respect that. I am not implying that you believe in Creationism. I obviously have no idea what you believe, but do want to respect your wishes as a guest on my site).
      Thanks—RB

      Reply
      1. Paul Hobbs from Austin, TX, United States

        Reasonbeing,

        You are right in saying that I should read the book and I may. I also thank you for your polite response. Perhaps I should not have said "all", I should have save two. Darwinian evolution and creationism. I believe they both should be taught and weighed against the scientific evidence. Would that not be true education and not simply indoctrination? I would challenge some ones placement of value upon education if they simply present one view. I am one that believes that truth rises to the surface when challenged and thought through. I teach at a Christian school that uses a secular textbook in its A.P. Biology class. Both Darwinian evolution and creationism are explained and measured using the scientific evidence as seen from both perspectives. I think the question of who is "anti-education" should be asked again. Perhaps the ones saying that only one perspective should be taught are in reality the ones that are anti-education".

        Further I would add that your statement, "the theory of evolution is a fact", is a logically incoherent statement. A theory is not a fact, it is a theory. Within the scientific community the theory of evolution is under great scrutiny. As I am sure we could both say more in defense of our views, I simply say that ideas and beliefs should be compared and measured.

        Have you ever thoroughly investigated the claims of Christianity by reading the Bible for yourself and investigating its validity? Note I did not ask if you have every been to church or have known any Christians. I ask again, have you ever thoughtfully considered the claims of Christianity?

        Engaged in the ideas of our world,

        Paul

        Reply
        1. reasonbeing from Rochester, MN, United States Post author

          Phil–I have to disagree with you. The use of the word "theory" in science, is not the same as the definition we use in our daily lives. Please take a moment to check this out (particularly the last sentence) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_theory . Evolution is a fact, and is not up for debate at all among the scientists who study it. I do not think that giving Creationism equal footing serves education at all. It is a failed attempt to explain the world from thousands of years ago. That is all that should be said about it. Evolution has been proven over and over again, as have the studies related to it that date the age of our planet. In science, a theory is factual, once it has been validated and proved to work—in many instances.

          To answer your question, yes I have read the bible and have given thoughtful consideration to Christian claims.

          Reply
          1. Paul Hobbs from Austin, TX, United States

            I accept that the word theory is used as the, "most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge?. I disagree that this is equal to a fact. Throughout the history of science some theories have been proven false or have been modified is some way. I stand by my thought that both should be taught. I complete my line of discussion by saying, with all due respect and kindness, that if anyone believes that scientist no longer debate or scrutinize Darwin's theory that person would simply be turning a blind eye to what is taking place.

            Thank you for the platform of discussion, I appreciate the opportunity to voice my opinion,

            Paul

          2. Hausdorff from Troy, MI, United States

            Paul,

            You say you would like to teach evolution and creationism in the science classroom. In my mind, creationism is religion rather than science and therefore should not be taught in the science classroom, obviously you disagree. I know you said you don't want to get into a debate, but I was wondering if you can point me toward any resources that would show me the kind of things that would be taught in the creationism class?

            Thanks in advance

          3. Paul Hobbs from Austin, TX, United States

            Hausdorf,

            You say, "In my mind, creationism is religion rather than science and therefore should not be taught in the science classroom, obviously you disagree." I would not disagree that my faith in creation was initially based of my religious convictions as a Christian. However because of the ongoing discussion within Christian educational institutions concerning creationism and theistic evolution I have begun to do further reading. Here are a couple of resources.

            Meyer, S.C. and Keas, M.N. (2003) "The Meanings of Evolution" in Darwinism, Design and Public Education,

            DeWolf, D.K, Meyer, S.C. and DeForrest, M. (2003) "Teaching the Controversy: Is it Science, Religion or Speech?" in Darwinism

            I have also watched several debates atheist debate Dr. William Lain Craig. His debates with Harris, Atkins and Millican are very good you can find them at (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/debates/latest).

            Thanks again,

            Paul

            Meyer, S.C. and Keas, M.N. (2003) "The Meanings of Evolution" in Darwinism, Design and Public Education, John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, edts., (Michigan State University Press: Lansing, Michigan), pp. 135-156.
            DeWolf, D.K, Meyer, S.C. and DeForrest, M. (2003) "Teaching the Controversy: Is it Science, Religion or Speech?" in Darwinism, Design and Public Education, John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, edts., (Michigan State University Press: Lansing, Michigan), pp. 59-132.

          4. Hausdorff from Troy, MI, United States

            Thanks for the references. I'm not so keen on the debates, they can be fun to watch, but in my experience, they never go into enough detail and usually at the end both sides just declare victory. I did google stephen meyer and found a paper that has the full pdf available (http://www.discovery.org/a/7471 if anyone else is interested) I'm gonna check that out when I get the chance.

            With regard to the paper I picked, I imagine one is as good as another, but if there is a different one you think would be better let me know, I picked it semi-randomly (clicked ones that seemed to have a good title until I hit one that had the pdf up)

          5. Paul Hobbs from Victorville, CA, United States

            Hausdorff

            If you are interested you may also wish to read "There Is a God" by Anthony Flew. As you may know Flew is a noted scientist and a former spokesman for Atheism.

            Paul

          6. Hausdorff from Troy, MI, United States

            I'd rather start with things that are free. I am assuming that there are plenty of free resources available, I'd rather start there. Both to save my own money, and if there is anything I want to blog about it is nice to be able to link to things where people can check out the source material

  4. Infidel753 from United States

    Thanks for reviewing this book — I hadn't heard about it, but it sounds worth reading. I've followed the history and character of the Christian Right in some detail, and it sounds like the book is accurate.

    I have an academic background in Islamic studies, so I'm familiar with the kind of dangers that militant religion with political power can pose. Interestingly, even the Iranian theocracy allows evolution to be taught in Iran's schools (unlike most Islamist regimes), so in that sense the Christian Right in the US is more anti-science than the ayatollahs.

    This is the first time I've seen your blog — found it via Republic of Gilead — I'll be checking it out further.

    Reply
  5. fester60613 from Binghamton, NY, United States

    "I believe, as does Niose, that religion, the “culture wars” that stem from it, and the wave of anti-science/intellectualism will be defining moments of this century."
    I am reminded of Frank Herbert's "Dune" and his vague history of the destruction (many thousands of years previously) of computers and the technology of artificial intelligence. (I don't remember what historical name he gave it in the book, sorry.) I suppose it is rather silly to try to imagine what might happen if a theocracy ever does take control of the federal government, but I do wonder if it might not plunge western civilization (such as it is) into a new dark age.
    Just as the scientific and mathematical and humanistic writings of the Greek and Roman civilizations were preserved throughout the dark ages in the Arabic libraries of Spain, which when "discovered" gave rise to the humanistic facets of the Renaissance, where might the trove of current technical knowledge be discovered at the end of some new dark age?
    Religions are very good at destroying history through revisionism or even destruction – witness the lost religion of the Hawaiian islands. Temples stand in ruins, but the theology and lore is gone – forever!
    Just an idle supposing on a boring day at work. :)

    Reply

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