The most significant, most overlooked story of the 21st century is the meteoric growth of the nonreligious, also called the “nones” (as in “none of the above”). Our numbers are rising every year, to the point that for the first time ever, Americans without membership in any house of worship constitute a majority.
The Millennials were the least religious generation in American history, until their successors, Gen Z, broke that record and set a new one. In many other Western countries, these trends are even further along.
The “nones” don’t all share a philosophy or belief system. Some are atheist, some are agnostic, some simply don’t care for organized religion, and some find the whole question irrelevant to their lives. What we do have in common—more so than you might expect—is a value system: a morality that puts human needs and human happiness first.
This is in contrast with traditional religions, which teach that the highest virtue is obeying the rules they claim to be God’s will. This might align with human well-being, such as charitable giving or aiding the poor. But it might not, as with blasphemy laws that punish people harshly for speech which supposedly offends God; or natalist theologies which demand that women bear as many children as possible, regardless of whether they’re capable of caring for them; or violent theocratic dogma which demands that believers subjugate or kill the infidels.
I’m not arguing for a simplistic dichotomy of “secular values good, religious values bad.” People whose morality comes from religion can be perfectly kind and decent. The key difference is that secular values, followed consistently, will always be good for humans; whereas when religious values are good for humans, it’s only by coincidence.
Why we need secular values now
We live at a perilous moment in history. The world is facing a multitude of crises that secular values are uniquely well-suited to handle, while religious values either have little to say about these problems, or are actively making them worse.
Thankfully, the nonreligious surge has arrived at precisely the right time. Secular values could be our salvation. But as we hurtle towards the tipping point, it’s more urgent than ever that nonbelievers speak out and assert our power.
Secular values: COVID
On top of any list of crises is the coronavirus that’s blazed across the world for more than two years, leaving a trail of death and suffering in its wake.
But if history books remember this as the era of the pandemic, they’ll also remember our response. We rolled out an arsenal of safe and effective vaccines in record time, especially RNA vaccines that were created with revolutionary new technology. This is a scientific triumph on par with the moon landing.
Although we have the tools to end this pandemic in our hands, we’re not making use of them. Instead, because millions of people refuse the shot and then predictably get sick, hospitals are swamped, doctors and nurses are exhausted and burned out, people with other medical needs can’t get care, and the immunocompromised are at risk from rampant community spread.
Anti-vaccine ideology springs from many sources, but the biggest one is religion. In the US, many believers, especially white evangelical Protestants, refuse the vaccine because they believe it’s the mark of the beast, because they hold the fatalistic belief that God sets the time of everyone’s death and no one can change that, because they’re confident in faith healing if they get sick, or simply because it aligns with their near-lockstep political convictions.
People with secular values don’t look to the heavens for deliverance or believe our fate is out of our hands. We trust science to determine the best way forward, and our behavior bears that out. According to Pew data, atheists are the most vaccinated demographic in the U.S. If more people shared this secular value system, COVID would have been vanquished already.
Secular values: Climate change
An even bigger crisis is looming. Climate change is cresting like a tsunami, and in the next few decades, it’s going to come crashing down on humanity. Mitigating and adapting will be a more severe test of all the qualities needed to fight COVID: our trust in scientific guidance, our willingness to cooperate, our empathy to care for the most vulnerable.
But while some religious leaders teach that caring for creation is a sacred value, many others sneer at science and dismiss climate change as a liberal hoax, because destroying the Earth is God’s prerogative, and this isn’t how he’s said he’s going to do it:
“I mentioned sea-level rise, and I was treated to a 15-minute lecture on Genesis by one of the [hazard response] commissioners. He said, ‘God destroyed the Earth with water the first time, and he promised he wouldn’t do it again. So all of you who are pushing fears about sea-level rise, go back and read the Bible.'”Jeff Goodell, “How Rising Sea Levels Endanger South Florida“, Rolling Stone, June 2013
It’s not too late to prevent the worst-case scenario for climate change. But we urgently need massive, coordinated effort to transition to renewable power and stop burning fossil fuels—a Green New Deal, if you like.
And just as with views on vaccination, the nonreligious overwhelmingly support necessary measures to protect the world where we all live, whereas religious believers are much less likely to say the same. In some states, religious-right elected officials have sought to prevent people from even mentioning climate change.
Secular values: Democracy
There’s no nice way to say it: democracy is threatened in the West. The January 6 Capitol riot, led by extremists who waved Christian flags as they battered down the doors of Congress, was shocking evidence of religion’s sharp anti-democratic turn. It was an eruption of ugly sentiments that have bubbled among the swamps of the religious right for a long time.
Christian nationalists failed to steal the 2020 election, but they’re gearing up to try again, and there’s no guarantee they won’t succeed next time. At the same time, the courts are packed with right-wing judges prepared to bless voter-suppression laws, curtail reproductive choice and grant unprecedented privileges to religion. They’ve embraced a vision of permanent minority rule, where white Christian men hold power regardless of what the ballot says.
In contrast to this theocratic vision, secular values offer a fierce defense of democracy—real democracy, where everyone has an equal vote, not America’s archaic system which grants disproportionate power to tiny states and thinly-populated rural areas.
Secular values assert that no one has privileged knowledge of the will of God, and so the only fair way to govern is for all of us to reason together. We have to steer our course through democratic consensus, not an arbitrary assertion of power by one person or sect. We have to make decisions on the basis of reasons which anyone can examine for themselves. And we have to reform—or overthrow—any system of government that’s designed to prevent this.
Will secular values win?
It would be comforting to believe that secular values will inevitably win out in the end, but history has no foreordained outcomes. We could triumph over the darkness of the past and ascend into a bright future of compassionate humanism and advanced science. Or we could fail, and sink back into the bloody mire of superstition we took so long to escape from.
But because history has no guarantees, it’s equally premature to say that religious fundamentalism is sure to triumph. The future is a book that we’re collectively writing every day, and the ending remains to be written. I firmly believe that secular people have more power than we realize. If we awaken to ourselves and use our power for good—if we speak out and march and vote—we can create something glorious.