Freethought and the Search for Identity

    Those Not Affiliated with Religion Need a Name to Rally Around


    At a time when we are free to adopt multiple identities and do so with passion and enthusiasm, why don’t more of us come out and identify as freedom-loving Americans who want to make their own decisions about religious faith? Where are the Nones who don’t identify with any organized religion in 2020 polling at levels approaching one-third of registered voters?

    Part of the answer, of course, is that Nones comprise an amorphous grouping defined by what they are not. It is natural for groups to seek out positive terms for self-identity. It’s hard, for example, to rally around the term non-White, which has all but disappeared to be replaced by Persons of Color. Pollsters consistently tell us that the term atheist, commonly used to describe a broad range of non-believers in revealed religion, evokes today, as it has for centuries, fear and distrust.

    From a marketing and branding perspective, some suggest that None move beyond a polling category to a term of identity for those not affiliated with organized religion. In its favor, None is a term lacking the history of so many pejoratives used to call out non-believers; for example, pagan, infidel, kafir, heathen.

    Looking into stories about labeling and branding of social movements, I came across reports of how survivalism has evolved, becoming more accepted, and growing into a multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S. during the past decade. The coming out narrative of the survivalists resonates with the stories of so many who struggle with finding and embracing a new identity. In a radio story interviewees told about how they had hidden this activity from their family and neighbors for years. Only recently did they feel confident enough to reveal their survivalist identity, despite fears of being misunderstood and shunned. Activists told how they sought to normalize the behavior by adopting a more acceptable term — prepper — for those embracing the growing movement.

    This left me thinking: Why, at a time when people identify as everything from animal rights activists and vegans to gun rights activists and preppers, do so few come out and identify as proponents of freedom from religion? What best to call a group that believes in adherence to the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state, a belief foundational to religious freedom? And if they wanted to identify in this way, what would they call themselves?

    One answer to this question can be found in members of the United States House of Representatives who in 2018 came out as the Congressional Freethought Caucus. Freethought is not a word that appears in the popular press nor one that I was familiar with. Its history includes use by and against prominent American revolutionaries like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a freethinker as “a person who forms their own ideas and opinions rather than accepting those of other people, especially in religious teaching.”

    I believe that America needs our leaders of all stripes to come out in support of policies, programs, and institutions that support our faith in democracy. I’m talking about a faith that brings us together across the divisions of revealed dogmas and makes possible our work to achieve the common good despite our differences on questions about religion’s role in society. The Congressional Freethought Caucus’s coming out publicly and demanding equal rights across the full spectrum of religious beliefs and non-beliefs signals, I hope, a start in this direction.

    The LGBTQ movement has transformed public opinion and subsequently laws and institutions over the past 50 years. Different researchers and political activists are trying to find out whether a similar playbook can work for a movement to revive and strengthen our faith in American democracy. One thing seems sure, the LGBTQ movement offers a guide to successful branding with the change from homosexual to gay. An old word, freethought, has found a new career in Congress for those representing the fast-growing group of Nones.

    Could freethought find broader traction at this time when the need for a positive term of identity is needed?


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