Lost Causes: The Downside of Secularization

A few years ago I was on a board of directors for a non-profit organization that works for the repeal of capital punishment in my state. Last night I attended a member’s meeting for the organization to discuss the current state of the death penalty, future goals, and other organizational issues. While I understand that non-religious people are by no means necessarily opposed to the death penalty—I’d imagine our demographics mirror the demographics of our societies as a whole—I was continuously frustrated when the issue of religion came up. And it came up a lot.

First, the meeting was held at a Pentecostal Church, and was lead by a former employee of the Pro-Life department of the Catholic Diocese. The Rector of the church was also in attendance. A retired Baptist Minister, a Catholic Nun, and a prominent Quaker activist flanked the rest of us. An exonerated death row survivor who thanked god for his deliverance from execution sat beside me. In fact, in atheism I was alone. The closest thing to another atheist in attendance was a non-practicing Jew (whose son was tragically beheaded in Iraq in 2004).

Second, appeals for membership were largely divided between two non-mutually exclusive areas: 1) Church groups are a really good place to spread the message about capital punishment, and 2) we’ve had tremendous success convincing state Republican leaders to cross the isle and come out against the death penalty—especially Tea Party members, who don’t trust the government to get it right—by bringing up the issue of cost. In other words, the best ways we know of to attempt to convince people capital punishment is wrong is by appealing to religion and appealing to state coffers.

At every point in the meeting, I kept thinking about the large and growing number of secular people in my state, especially college students. But I couldn’t find a way in. Atheists and other non-religious people just don’t have the organizational robustness needed to adequately bring up a topic for discussion. Well, maybe Reddit, but it’s difficult to appeal to the emotions of people on notorious troll sites.

Like I said above, I’m aware that many non-religious people support capital punishment. This post is not to argue against it. In fact, I accept that supporting the death penalty is a matter of personal opinion, and it’s not subjected to my will. The point of this post, however, is to bring up a troubling reality in my state.

I currently live, work, and study in the south of the US. By most standards my state is the least religious southern state besides Florida. As our secular population hedges towards 20%, certain non-profit organizations, such as those opposed to capital punishment, will lose the ability to reach out to certain audiences who would otherwise support them. Catholics, Quakers, and Pentecostals are huge supporters of this movement, but if current trends hold, the effort it takes to reach out to them will increasingly provide diminishing returns.

Don’t get me wrong; I welcome the secularization of my state. It’s just that without a secular social structure to pick up the slack, secularization also carries with it some negative consequences. And I’m not entirely—or at all, really—convinced secular church-like services are the answer either.

This post is merely a reflection.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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