Beyond The 2020 Election: How American Atheists Can Expand Their Influence

How American Atheists Can Expand Our Influence

Simple Ways To Expand Atheists' Influence

The religious right and theocratically inclined politicians are seeing their power and influence slide away. 

This creates an opportunity to restore secular, pluralistic politics in America and offers Atheists a significant opening for greater involvement in politics. But we must seize it now and commit right away to a four-part strategy. 

If we don’t, our apathy will only fuel religion’s influence on the American government.

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Atheists Must Vote

That cannot be said enough. Atheists must vote at every opportunity, not just in presidential elections. Midterm elections are just as important, but the turnout is much lower than it is in presidential years. 

Local elections that occur at times other than the midterms have even lower turnouts, which can give minority voting blocs a numerical advantage—only if they vote in relatively large numbers. 

That is exactly what happened in 2010 when the Tea Party faction took so many seats in Congress and in state legislatures. As a result, there has been a sharp rise in religiously motivated legislation and restrictions on the rights of minorities. 

But that trend can be reversed just as quickly. What’s required is a high turnout of Atheists, a demographic with a historically dismal record of showing up at the polls. “My vote doesn’t count” is a common refrain, and it couldn’t be more wrong. 

The ballot not cast is the ballot not counted. If you don’t think your vote counts for anything, consider the voter turnout in past elections. The 2014 midterm elections saw a turnout of about thirty-six percent, the lowest since World War II.1 

The 2012 presidential election saw a slightly better turnout of about fifty-three percent.2 

With those numbers, you could say that a ballot cast in those midterm elections actually counts for 2.77 eligible voters. So your vote counts more than double—if you use it. 

However, the 2020 presidential election had the highest voter turnout of the 21st century, with 66.8% of citizens 18 years and older voting.

But, the situation is critical in primary elections, where even lower turnouts are the norm. In fact, many local and state races are determined in the primaries and are the only opportunity to select a candidate. So let’s stop saying that “votes don’t count.”3,4,5 

A lot of people don’t like voting for “the lesser of two evils.” That shocks me when Atheists say it as if this idiom can truly apply to all political candidates. I won’t deny that political leaders can do harmful things, but they can implement good policies, too. 

So try thinking of the choice among candidates another way. Say there are two candidates, neither of which represent your values fully. But Candidate A represents your values even less than Candidate B. That means B is slightly better, so vote for B. 

Even when the difference is slight, it’s not nothing. And yes, I did say “values.” The Religious Right has stolen that word and we must take it back. So, what values am I talking about? After all, Atheists are in total agreement about only one thing, but I believe that most Atheists would also agree that public policy should never be based on religious belief. 

That leaves a lot of room for us to debate a great many topics, but it defines some core values that we should all share: separation of religion and government, separation of myth from fact in all subjects in public education, personal autonomy in body and thought, and equal rights for all. 

So, I also reject the claim that Atheists are destroying religious liberty. Because we stand firmly against religious privilege, we are the true defenders of that liberty. Increasing Atheist turnout is by far the most important step. 

Beyond that, more strategic actions will make Atheists a demographic force that all candidates must reckon with. But it won’t happen overnight, and it will never happen at all if we don’t cast our votes this November and in every election after that.

Advocate for the Issues

Most of us can, in one way or another, be effective issue advocates. For example, Atheist activists have a long tradition of letter-writing. There are now many social media outlets, such as podcasts and blogs, where we can have a great deal of influence. 

Advocacy for Atheism has driven the rise of the “Nones,” to use the pollsters’ preferred term for people with no affiliation, and has given Atheists greater courage to speak up and speak out. 

The Secular Coalition for America and the Freethought Equality Fund are two organizations that have made great strides in keeping religion out of government, but neither is as large nor as well-funded as the lobbying organizations for the Religious Right—at least not yet. In the meantime, we have a vast, untapped resource that will be highly influential if we use it. 

That force is the citizen lobbyist. We can be highly effective when we, as individuals, consistently lobby our elected officials and share with them the demographics that show they need our votes and, therefore, must represent our concerns. 

The definitive guide to this type of activism is the book The Citizen Lobbyist: A How-to Manual for Making Your Voice Heard in Government, written for anyone who wants to have a more active role in public policy. 

The author is Amanda Knief, the National Legal and Public Policy Director for American Atheists. Public forums and speaking engagements have become my favorite avenue for advocacy. There are many groups, like pro-choice and LGBTQ organizations, who are more than just our allies. They are us. 

When I speak to these groups, I have a clear message about the intrusion of religion into government and politics. As a result, many members of these groups openly express their own Atheism. It happens over and over again: when we boldly speak up and speak out, others do too. 

Another benefit of speaking up in public forums is the response of the politicians and candidates in attendance. At these events, candidates running for office at every level have approached me and asked for our support. In the run-up to the 2020 election, I was at a forum in Huntsville, Alabama, that was dominated by politicians who were part of the Religious Right. 

Their aim was to push a Christian-nationalist ideology, so some members of the North Alabama Freethought Association attended, along with a local student organization, the University of Alabama in Huntsville Non-Theists. 

We were not on the panel, and the organizers weren’t interested in our side of the discussion—at first. The panel’s moderator started by declaring that an overwhelming majority of the crowd were Christian nationalists after he asked for a show of hands. 

When it came time for questions from the floor, one of our members asked for a show of Atheists’ hands and immediately proved the moderator’s claim was false. We then asked for five minutes for a rebuttal, and we ended up with ten. 

Then something even more interesting happened. More questions and comments came from the floor and the Christian nationalist “majority” started to fold. This occurred in Alabama, identified as the most religious state in the country.6 

If it can happen here, it can happen elsewhere, too. At another event, a rally held by the Alabama Reproductive Rights Advocates, I gave a five-minute speech. Afterward, I was approached by three different candidates—one was running for county sheriff, one for the U.S. 

Congress, and one for governor. They all asked how they could gain the support of Atheists because they understood that we are an important voting bloc. When candidates notice us, they pay attention to us because they want to know how to get our votes. 

They need us to win, then they need to stay in office, and we need them to fortify church/ state separation. So our price for that support is that they leave religion at home when they serve the public.

More Direct Political Involvement

Political parties thrive only when they have active local committees, and there is always something you can do at the local level because volunteers are always needed and welcomed. 

More Atheists need to volunteer on these committees because at the local and state levels, it’s the workers who have the most direct influence on the platforms and candidates. Public forums allow us to speak directly to officials and candidates. 

This is where we can heighten our influence because typically, very few people attend these events, and even fewer speak up. When we both show up and speak up, we drive home the point that we are committed and involved. 

And when the candidates see the work that we do, they respond favorably because they not only need our votes, they also need people like us to work on their campaigns. 

Many Atheist activist groups are already good at organizing events and performing outreach at the local level. Those skills are transferrable to election campaigns. 

We can extend our influence even further by working directly on behalf of candidates who are aligned with our values and will represent us best. 

When we find candidates that we can support, and have the means to do so, we should work for them and contribute our time and money, even when they aren’t Atheists themselves. 

Limiting ourselves to openly Atheist candidates would be counterproductive and short-sighted because a candidate’s religion should not matter. 

Our founders wisely included a clause in Article VI of the Constitution that says, “… no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Today, however, there is a de facto religious test for office that stands as a barrier against real religious liberty. 

We must commit to eradicating this barrier. Religion should be irrelevant in public policy and law-making, and we should consider supporting any candidate that is committed to that principle, no matter what their personal religious beliefs may be.

Openly Atheist Candidates

Once we have done the work to make ourselves a visible political force, it will be possible for more Atheist politicians to be candid about their non-belief. I have met with closeted Atheists in the Alabama Statehouse, and if I can find them there, we can find Atheist officeholders everywhere. 

That they don’t currently have the political capital to be open is not their fault—it’s ours. We can fix that by taking the actions I’ve mentioned above. 

And because we, ourselves, can run for local office, many of us can also be the openly Atheist candidate. What about those closeted Atheists now in office? What can we learn from their success as politicians? 

They ran on issues, not their Atheism. Keep in mind that to be successful, candidates must have a clear platform and message. We must commit to making religion irrelevant, but running as the Atheist candidate with no clear platform is counterproductive. 

We need to run as candidates with solid platforms that happen to be Atheists. Candidates must start using Article VI to defend their refusal to include their church membership or faith in their campaign messages. 

But they won’t stop until we communicate to them that it is unnecessary, unimportant, and un-American. We must point out that their religion is irrelevant—unless they intend to use that religion to legislate. And if that’s the case, then they are not worthy of holding public office. 

When an Atheist candidate is questioned about faith, their answer should be, “Yes, I am an Atheist. So what? Article VI of the United States Constitution says that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office. Now let’s talk about the real issues.” 

Atheists inclined to take office should consider the many opportunities to reverse the undue influence of religion in public life. Just for starters, thousands of seats on local and state school boards become open every year. 

Imagine a political environment where, instead of trying to prove which of them is the most Christian of all, politicians rationally discuss and debate important issues and make decisions based on facts and well-informed opinions. 

I can see the day when openly Atheist Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, Independents, and Republicans debate issues and arrive at laws and policies the way the founders of our pluralistic democratic republic envisioned. With you onboard—at any level—we can make that vision a reality.



Charles Miller

By Charles Miller

Charles Miller is a secular activist and consultant from Idaho.


  1. “Voter Turnout in 2014 was the lowest since WWII,” by Jose A. DelReal, Nov. 10, 2014,
  2. “U.S. Voter Turnout Trails Most Developed Countries,” by Drew Desilver, May 6, 2015,
  3. “Voter Turnout in the United States Presidential Elections,”
  6. “How Religious Is Your State?” by Michael Lipka and Benjamin Wormald, Feb. 29, 2016,

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