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Q: What is the place of religion and nonreligion in our society?

When judged by its citizenry's statements of belief, the United States comes across as an overwhelmingly religious nation. Of the adult population, only 14.1% self-identify as adhering to no religion.1 (ARIS, 2001)  Also, when data are looked at in a broad brush way, it appears that one faith holds sway in the country's adult population.  Christianity's 76.5% figure significantly overshadows the 3.7% grand total of all other religious groupings combined.1  (ARIS, 2001)

Majority overrules?  Religious oppress nonreligious? Prevalent faithful get the power? Christianity prevails over civic pluralism? 

Despite the religiosity of the American public in general and the cultural authority accorded religion, that's not "the plan" for the United States of America.

 

 

 

 

 

Our Founders created a secular government. The United States Constitution contains no reference whatever to the Deity, and the original documentís only reference to religion is in an exclusionary rather than endorsing context. This reference is the prohibition against religious tests as a qualification for public office (quoted above), at a time when eleven of the thirteen states had such tests for state officeholders.

With adoption of the Bill of Rights (the first ten Amendments to the Constitution) came a fortification of protection for personal liberties as well as a strengthening of state/church separation. The new guiding words about religion form the opening of the Federal Constitutionís First Amendment. They comprise what is now known as the amendmentís "establishment clause" and the "free exercise clause." Together these assertions, ratified in December 1791, would serve to define the realms of government and religion in the newly "united states." Together, they determined that the country would be constituted of a free people who could not be compelled to accept or to live by any given set of religious beliefs.

It was out of a combination of deism and reason that recognition of the importance of a free society had emerged in America by the time of the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The language of the First Amendment reflects the Framerís deep concerns for individual liberty. These concerns emanated from awareness of English and European edicts, which often had imposed on the general populace religious beliefs and interpretations of morality that had to be adhered to on pain of punishment.

According to historian Henry Steele Commager, the U.S. decision to separate church and state was "perhaps the most important decision reached in the New World. Everywhere in the western world of the eighteenth century, church and state were one; and everywhere the state maintained the established church and tried to force conformity to its dogma." 2

Everywhere? No longer!

In the United States, an exception to the rule was in the making. Religion and government would not be one. Our forefathersí commitments to religious freedom had found full expression in the supreme law of the land. By way of a momentous declaration made in late 1791, our country commenced a significant journey.

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Ü This section consist of extensive excerpts from Chapter 2 of Freethought Across the Centuries, by Gerald Larue. Amherst, NY: Humanist Press, 1996 (concentrating on pp. 11-17, with slight rearrangement of material) 

1 These data are reported in the American Religious Identification Survey, 2001 by Barry Kosmin, Egon Mayer, and Ariela Kayser, Graduate Center, City University of New York. For the complete study, go to: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/studies/aris.pdf

2 Commager is quoted in Menendez, Albert J., and Edd Doerr, The Great Quotations on Religious Freedom. Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 21f.

 

 

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