Ten years ago, thousands of atheists, humanists, and skeptics descended by the busload upon the National Mall in Washington to attend the Reason Rally, the largest-ever gathering of nonbelievers. “We’re here, we’re godless, get used to it,” chanted the crowd, estimated to have between 10,000 and 30,000 people. For America’s growing non-religious movement, it was a jubilant coming-out-of-the-closet party.
“For so many people who attended the rally, it was the first time they had been around other atheists who are open about it,” recalls Hemant Mehta, a top atheist blogger who spoke at the rally. “It’s the first time they could be themselves without having to put up a filter … We were like, ‘Wow, we’re on the cusp of something huge.’”
Billed as a “Woodstock for atheists and skeptics,” the rally seemed to be a watershed moment for atheist and humanist political representation. But even as the number of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated has grown steadily—Pew’s polling shows a jump from 19 percent in 2011 to 29 percent this year—a follow-up rally held on the Mall in 2016 saw lackluster turnout.
What happened to America’s promised atheist political revolution?
“They were delusional,” said Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University professor who researches secularism and politics. He points to early “manifestos” written by leading atheist thinkers in the aughts, in which they predicted a force of more than 27 million non-believers who would take American politics by storm. “They see this data on the ‘nones,’ and they assume that all these people in that category are fellow travelers.”
Now, a decade after that first rally, the under-resourced non-religious voting bloc seems no closer to competing with the so-called Religious Right, which so many Reason Ralliers had sought to overpower. Growing atheist backlash against Christian nationalism has proven impotent in the face of President Donald Trump’s ascent to power, the January 6 insurrection, and a slate of pivotal Supreme Court decisions that undermine church-state separation. These verdicts include overturning federal abortion protections, allowing public funding for private religious schools, and gutting the Lemon test in its ruling in favor of a coach who prayed on the football field after games.
Critics say that today’s atheist movement is asleep at the wheel. “What secular America needs now is policies to push back as opposed to policies to push forward,” said Berlinerblau. “So how do you defuse this legislative and judicial juggernaut, this Death Star, that is the Christian right? Using laws and using statehouses.” But the atheist movement’s legal apparatus and energy, which are often focused on local school districts and Christian cross displays, lack the ability to take on well-funded, well-connected right-wing think tanks, let alone a Supreme Court stacked with conservatives. The movement’s crown jewel, Berlinerblau said, may well be the Satanic Temple’s legal project for religious freedom, which critics accuse of mocking religious liberty claims.
Observers say that the movement’s current impotence is in part due to atheist and humanist leaders’ inability in the 2010s to unite and mobilize the religiously unaffiliated. Some of these so-called “nones” identify as atheists and agnostics; but about one in five Americans identify as “nothing in particular.” The individuals—as they can hardly be called a “group”—have particularly low levels of social and political engagement.
“The demographic shift is shifting away from organized religion, but not to organized anything else, which makes it all but impossible to ask them to do anything,” Mehta said. “Because most of them are apathetic. They’re not atheists.”
While religious conservatives are shrinking in numbers, the Religious Right maintains a strong, politically active core. The number of religiously unaffiliated Americans may be rapidly expanding, but they lack that core: Their identities are hard to pin down, their interests are disparate, and they are often politically disengaged. “So we’re still fighting an uphill battle—and we will for a while,” Mehta said. “Because it won’t matter even if we’re 75 percent of the population, because it’s really hard to get them to care about this stuff.”
That political apathy hasn’t been helped by atheist and humanist leaders’ failures in the aughts and early 2010s. Some were hoping to build strategic alliances with religiously moderate voters and religious minorities, such as Muslims and Jews, over central issues such as religious freedom.
In that period, American atheism and humanism were popularly linked to Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the other so-called Four Horsemen of New Atheism. Their hyper-intellectualism and brash anti-religious polemics left an unpleasant taste in the mouths of many non-believers and moderate believers. It became difficult to disrupt the longstanding image of atheists as angry white men in their 50s.
While these failures have crippled the movement’s political power, much of that has begun to change in recent years. Many of the old guard atheist leaders have faded from the mainstream spotlight—some in disgrace, like American Atheists’ firebrand former president David Silverman, after facing #MeToo-era sexual misconduct allegations. Their downfall heralded a broader split between right-wing reactionary atheist circles and atheist organizations explicitly committed to social justice issues. Recently, more atheist and humanist groups have moved away from anti-religion evangelism.
“They’re not doing the work to convert you out of your religion to become an atheist, because even they kind of acknowledge that, ‘well, we wouldn’t win anything if you’re an atheist,’” Mehta said. Instead, they’re shifting their focus to organize around issues that matter to their membership: church-state separation, reproductive rights, racial equity. They’re also increasingly working to engage people of color, women and LGBTQ people in their efforts, working with racial and ethnic affinity groups such as Black Nonbelievers, which runs an annual Women of Color Beyond Belief conference, and the Latinx Humanist Alliance to do so.
Since 2017, California Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman has publicly begun identifying as a humanist agnostic (his religion is listed as “other,” according to Pew Research Center). In 2018, Huffman founded the Congressional Freethought Caucus with the aim of upholding the church-state separation and advance policy rooted in reason and science. It now has 16 members, all Democrats.
Mehta said, “I know they don’t have power. But the idea that you could openly say, ‘Yeah, I’m part of the Freethought Caucus, we represent the interests of atheists’—that is unheard of, that’s insane and amazing.”
The same phenomenon is playing out in state and local politics. Take Arizona, long a bastion of deeply Republican politics intertwined with conservative Christian culture. In the early 2010s, atheist activists in the state began laying the groundwork for a movement of political representation and engagement for atheists and the religiously unaffiliated.
Nine years ago, Democratic State Rep. Juan Mendez ignited a furor in the Arizona House of Representatives when he delivered the daily invocation without any mention of God. “This is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration,” Mendez said during the House meeting on May 21, 2013. “As my secular humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences.”
Rather than asking them to bow their heads, Mendez asked his colleagues to look around at one another. Rather than citing Scripture, Mendez quoted agnostic astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Rather than calling for divine assistance in their proceedings, he called upon his fellow lawmakers to root their policymaking “in gratitude and in love, in reason and in compassion,” values “relevant to all Arizonans regardless of religious belief or nonbelief.”
A few years before, the Secular Coalition of Arizona had become the country’s first organization with a full-time lobbyist advocating for the state’s non-theists. Arizona humanist James Woods’s 2014 campaign as the only openly atheist candidate running for Congress in the country, though unsuccessful, made national headlines. And in 2012 the state voted Democrat Kyrsten Sinema into Congress, where she became the first member to list her religion as “none.”
Leaders of the statewide movement for secular political representation believe they’ve largely fulfilled their aims.
“Did we win the presidency? No, but that wasn’t the goal,” said Evan Clark, co-founder of Spectrum Experience, a Tempe-based political communications firm that has represented Wood and other humanist and atheist candidates. “The goal is to build a political system in which candidates of divergent secular identities, of many different religious identities, can feel welcome and equal in the process.”
While Woods’s campaign was unsuccessful, by the 2016 primaries, nine openly atheist or humanist candidates were running for office in Arizona, more than in any other state. All nine were working with Spectrum, then the country’s only communications strategists focused on humanism and non-religious movements.
“But by the next election cycle, we weren’t feeling it needed to be a priority anymore, because candidates weren’t feeling like they had to come to us to figure out how to be atheist politically,” Clark said. “We had trailblazed to the point that you didn’t need groundbreaking anymore.”
While closeted atheists, agnostics, and skeptics have long held political power in the U.S, as the stigma of identifying as atheist wanes, “they’re just not as scared to talk about it,” he said. From state house races to school board elections, “what we have seen is a radical uptick in atheists, non-religious, and secular identification in candidates running for office, and a willingness and excitement to connect themselves with organizations that lobby for those issues,” Clark said.
The Center for Freethought Equality, the American Humanist Association’s political advocacy arm, has identified more than 90 elected officials who openly identify as atheists or humanists, including Jewish humanist Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Massachusetts State Rep. Tram Nguyen, a spiritual-but-not-religious Buddhist. The center’s PAC, the Freethought Equality Fund, helps bankroll many such candidates’ campaigns in Arizona and across the country.
Organizations have emerged nationally to help guide, fund, and support secular candidates. In 2020, the Center for Freethought Equality’s political and PAC director Ron Millar—who worked with Huffman to announce his non-theism and launch the Congressional Freethought Caucus—co-founded the Association of Secular Elected Officials as a network for local secular elected officials around the U.S.
Dedicated secularist lobbying agencies are also beginning to emerge, too. Sarah Levin, who used to serve as a lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for America, has begun her own firm called Secular Strategies. She also helps lead OnlySky Media, a newly launched news site focused on non-religious communities.
The rise in religiously unaffiliated Americans has also pushed lawmakers, religious and non-religious alike, to offer their support to secular causes and communities. Ahead of the last presidential election, the Biden campaign collaborated with the Secular Democrats of America to launch the Humanists for Biden initiative, touted as “the first time secular Americans have been invited to participate in a coalition of communities of faith and conscience” on a presidential campaign.
That organizing may become more common in coming elections. In the days after the Supreme Court eradicated federal abortion rights protections, 78 percent of Americans said the ruling made it more likely that they would vote in the fall. The post-Roe backlash, then, may make it easier for left-leaning constituencies, including the non-religious, to fundraise and politically mobilize going forward.
The atheist-humanist movement will also benefit from demographic shifts, as young voters and politicians come of age. “Now, you can’t deny that if young people run for office, about one in three of them are just going to naturally be non-religious,” Clark said, pointing to recent survey data. “It’s happening naturally, so representation is no longer our top priority.” Clark added, “You cannot expect to have young voter participation and ignore that most of them are not religious these days.”
Aysha Khan is a journalist covering religion and justice. Follow her @ayshabkhan.