“Are there secret atheists in Congress?”
“Is Google replacing God?”
You won’t hear these questions in the sleepy political town halls aired on CNN. But participants teed off on the topics without hesitation at the first-ever Secular Town Hall.
The event was produced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Madison-based nonprofit working to elevate the voices of America's fastest-growing religious demographic: nonbelievers.
Moderated by Emmy-awarded journalist Cara Santa Maria, the forum was held at the Monona Terrace in Madison this fall, featuring a dozen participants from a variety of states and professions.
The group included baby boomers, Gen Xers and students representing the millennial generation. Ten of the dozen participants identified as atheists, with the others identifying as agnostic or secular.
According to Pew Research, nearly a quarter of Americans nationwide identify as nonreligious, representing a huge increase over the past decade. However, 91 percent of the 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate are Christians, and no member has publicly stated his or her disbelief in God.
Santa Maria asked participants if they think atheists are secretly serving in Congress.
“It’s statistically inevitable that some of the people in elected office are atheists,” responded Chris Calvey, a microbiologist from the Midwest. “But they are too afraid to be honest about it because they want to get re-elected.”
Added Calvey, “It’s currently political suicide to be open about your nonreligious views, but I think that’s changing as the demographics are changing.”
New groups like Run for Something and Our Revolution, born of the failed campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, are recruiting thousands of young candidates to run for office, with an emphasis on supporting LGBTQ candidates and candidates of color.
If these organizations want to break the hegemony of the religious right, they could also issue a call for candidates who are open atheists.
According to Pew Research, millennials are leading the exodus from organized religion in America. A full 35 percent of millennials now identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” while three-quarters say they don’t attend church on any regular basis.
Participant Molly Hanson, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said millennials are turned off by organized religion because of its historically negative views of LGBT rights and marriage equality. She said that for millennials, the technology in their pocket is their new religion.
“Technology is answering a lot of the mysterious questions that people needed religion for in the past. Now you can just ask Google,” said Hanson. “God isn’t as necessary anymore.”
When asked if atheists face discrimination, Marie Schaub, a mom from Pennsylvania, said that sometime people confuse atheists with satanists. “If we don’t believe in God, we certainly don’t believe in his enemy.”
Schaub told a story about her campaign to remove a massive Ten Commandments monument outside of her daughter’s middle school, which was successful with support from FFRF’s attorneys.
Another UW-Madison student, Micayla Batchlor, spoke about coming out of the closet as an African-American atheist and facing tension from her family and others in the predominantly Christian black community.
“With the stereotypes that go along with (being black), who would we be if we gave into those same stereotypes?” said Batchlor. “It’s hard for people to put me into a box, which I think shouldn’t happen in the first place.”
To elevate these voices, FFRF will be pushing public broadcasting networks to air the Secular Town Hall as educational programming to balance out their many hours of dusty, religious-themed shows like "Ancient Roads: From Christ to Constantine."
"The secular demographic is the fastest-growing in America, yet the religious right controls all three branches of government," said Santa Maria. "This town hall is designed to help people learn what secular Americans are passionate about."
Alec Loftus is a Boston-based media consultant who helped produce the Secular Town Hall. He is a graduate of UW-Madison.
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