FEBRUARY 16, 2004
Tracking the Nones
Martin E. Marty
For exactly fifty years I have been tracking the "infidel" (also "free-thinker," "atheist," "secular humanist") in America, beginning with a dissertation on "The Uses of Infidelity" and an early book, The Infidel. I had expected to find a large but suppressed intellectual tradition of anti-Christian thought. No, churches exaggerated the significance of infidelity and "used" it, sometimes against each other and often against "liberal" dissenters; always to advance their cause.
Thus the intellectually insignificant Madlyn Murray O'Hair never lacked militant Christian debate opponents who, with her, put on a good show but did not change the world. More significant in my reading for five decades has been quiet agnosticism, mild disdain, indifference to religion, and casual, on-the-side arguments by people who were in the main about other business. A few notable scientists lead their camp today. But together they do not make up a "secular humanist conspiracy" as described by those who "use" infidelity these years.
The best place to track intellectuals among the small minority of Americans who tell poll-takers they do not believe in God is Free Inquiry (www.secularhumanism.org), a magazine which prints lively arguments in defense of free-thought. Sometimes the authors swing wildly, as in Gregory S. Paul's recent series, "The Great Scandal," on Christianity and the rise of the Nazis. Thus, "Hitler [was] a nominal Catholic who neither disavowed his faith nor was excommunicated, his mature beliefs included Christ as his Savior … [H]e saw himself not as Christianity's enemy but its ultimate reformer."
More intellectually serious and helpful are articles like those in a series in the same December/January and February/March issues by Otis Dudley Duncan on "The Rise of the Nones: A Paleostatistical Inquiry." When a recent survey reported that the proportion of "Nones" (respondents who chose "No religion" instead of stating a religious preference) rose from eight percent in 1990 to fourteen percent in 2001, the news was received with enthusiasm in the community of reason."
Duncan shows how hard it is to isolate them, even by definition. A take-out: "Appreciable numbers of Nones … do not believe in God but do think the Bible is divinely inspired." "People reared as Nones are more likely to stay that way than their predecessors were." "While the numbers of Nones grows, the number of Catholics and even Fundamentalists shrinks." "While only a minority of the Nones can be described as the fully committed secularists we wish they were, the evidence suggests that many more would be susceptible to some of the appeals that the community of reason can offer." (Articles like those by Gregory S. Paul won't represent "the community of reason" or be of much help.)
Duncan says of that community as it read the statistics, "enthusiasm outran discernment." Evidently the self-described "community of reason" has the same problem as does the "community of faith:" overcoming indifference and attracting definition and commitment. The outspoken secularists still serve the purpose of rallying Christian troops who "use" them to raise funds and consciousness in efforts to advance themselves. It's a free country.