Atheist group joins Iowa scene

The Secular Coalition for America organizing chapter in state

DES MOINES — The Secular Coalition for America is working to bring a new voice to the Iowa Capitol, on behalf of atheists and non-theistic residents who want to see a strong separation of religion and government.

The Iowa push is part of the coalition’s nationwide effort to organize chapters in every U.S. state by the end of 2012, said Lauren Anderson Youngblood, communications manager for the non-profit organization that serves as the national lobby for atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and other non-theistic Americans. She said the coalition comprises 11 diverse groups that work to protect and strengthen the secular character of government as the best guarantee of freedom for all.

Youngblood said the Washington-based group began work in July to establish a presence in Des Moines because “some of the most egregious examples of religion being inserted into government are happening at the state level and it’s really impossible for us to keep track of everything that’s going on in all 50 states.”

She declined to say how many Iowans have expressed interest in the Secular Coalition for Iowa chapter because it is still in its formative stages. But she said she expected an announcement before the 2013 legislative session starts in January.

“In general, people who choose not to identify with a religion don’t want other people’s religion imposed on them. We really see what we’re doing as advocating for all Americans whether they realize it or not,” she said.

“There are plenty of people who do have a belief in God that recognize that the place for God is in their church or in their home or within their private lives, but not within our public secular government,” she added.

Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political science professor, said interest in keeping religion and government separated is not new, but having a high-profile atheistic group lobbying in Iowa is.

“For a long time being atheist was kind of not considered to be a good thing and so it was not politically a very active point of view,” Schmidt said. He and several others said they viewed the Secular Coalition for America’s interest in the state as a response to the increased political involvement of religious and evangelical conservatives.

“I think it’s symptomatic of the fact that we are a really divided country and everybody is screaming at everybody so, if there’s a lot of religion in politics, it’s not surprising that one more group wants to get in on the action defending whatever their views are,” he said.

Bob Vander Plaats, president and chief executive officer of the Pleasant Hill-based Family Leader, an influential conservative organization, said he did not believe Secular Coalition for Iowa would be very effective as a lobbying force. He added it probably would be a liability for politicians to become associated with a “far-left fringe group.”

“I don’t think Iowans embrace that whatsoever,” he said. “They can talk separation of church and state, but what we recognize is that if civil law is out of concert with the law of nature and the law of nature’s God, it’s going to be a train wreck.

“It’s coming down to world views: either our rights come for God with certain unalienable rights endowed by our creator or our rights come from government,” Vander Plaats added.

Youngblood, though, pointed to a Pew Forum study that indicated that 30 percent of Iowa residents do not express an absolute belief in God, and 49 percent disagreed that “religion is very important to their lives.” That, she said, is proof that her group might find fertile recruiting ground in Iowa.

Kevin deLaplante, chairman of the ISU Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, said he was not familiar with the Pew study or its methodology to know whether the numbers were credible. But he noted there has been a growing concern among secular, humanist and even libertarian and centrist Republican factions over the intermingling of religion and politics.

There also is a generational divide, with younger Americans being more tolerant of diversity and atheistic or agnostic concepts or associations than older generations, he said.

However, deLaplante said the Secular Coalition for America faces a serious public relations challenge in Iowa, because self-avowed atheists usually rank low among demographic groups that are liked or trusted.

“That is still one of the hardest nuts to crack in terms of public opinion,” he said. “There are lots of people who want to be tolerant of religious diversity but who nevertheless have some strong skepticism or worries about overtly atheistic endorsements.”

Hector Avalos, an ISU professor of religious studies who started an atheists and agnostics society at the Ames campus in 1999, said over the past decade or two, America has seen a “rise of the nones” — people who have no religious preference or participation. Whether that translates into membership for the Secular Coalition for Iowa is unclear, he said, given that secular people “by nature are not joiners” and have been the target of prejudice in this country.

The Iowa chapter will fashion its own agenda, Youngblood said. But proposed constitutional amendments dealing with marriage equality will likely fall within its scope, as well as “personhood” legislation. The practice of opening daily sessions in the Iowa House and Senate with prayer could also be an issue.

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