What is perhaps most politically significant when it comes to the rise of irreligiosity is the strong correlation in the U.S. between being nonreligious and being left-leaning politically. Of course, as Ayn Rand fans know, many secular Americans are conservative or libertarian. But most are not.
According to the Pew study, nonreligious Americans are about twice as likely as religious Americans to describe themselves as politically liberal, rather than conservative. And they are much more likely to vote Democratic; 63 percent of nonreligious Americans support the Democratic Party, with only 26 percent supporting Republicans.
In the 2008 presidential election, three-fourths of the nonreligious supported Obama, with only 23 percent supporting Republican Sen. John McCain. A related study recently conducted by the Council for Secular Humanism found that rates of left-leaning political orientation are even higher among those Americans who affiliate themselves with secular groups. For example, among subscribers to the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry, 75 percent label themselves as liberal, progressive or socialist, with only 7 percent self-labeling as moderate, and 3 percent as conservative.
Numerous additional studies reveal the contours of the secular-liberal connection: Nonreligious Americans, when compared with their religious peers, are more supportive of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, more interested in protecting the environment, and more supportive of creating paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants. They are less likely to support the death penalty.
Yes, you could have guessed this already. And why should political operatives care, since these voters are concentrated in uncontested blue states? As the microtargeting boom has demonstrated, small subsets of voters in swing districts and states matter, and if secularism is on the upswing, then those subsets might be growing too. It is unclear how strong a wind this is for the political left.
The rise of the "nonreligious" is partly a result of the decline of liberal Christianity. People who might have considered themselves mainline believers a generation or so ago don't want to be associated with a belief system that they think has been hijacked by the religious right. The religious liberals have become nonreligious liberals.