Atheism in American politics

Jun 20, 2011

In his op-ed column, Gregory Paul wrote, "Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don't like much: atheists."

Join Gregory Paul as he chats with readers about how politicians treat the subject of atheism and the role atheists play in the American political system.

Related:

Why do Americans still dislike atheists?

Atheists fed up? Believe it!

Greg Paul here, ready to take your questions.

This is a well-timed chat, considering NBC is apologizing for offending certain religious people by excluding "under God" from the pledge...and basically promising to return to annoying atheists, agnostics, and religious people who simply wish for a separation of patriotism and spirituality, the next time they play the pledge. I remember when I served (yes, I was an atheist in a foxhole), I was told that I could exclude references to religion from both my oath of service and from the pledge when we said the pledge. It shouldn't be such a big deal to exclude religious references from political or patriotic statements.

As it happens a suit is underway in MA intended to remove god from the pledge on the basis that it does harm to nontheists (a new tactic). I am consulting on that project. The judge refused the 1st attempt by the state to have the case dismissed.

About 1 in 6 Americans are secular -- they engage in no religious practice and have no religious affiliation -- not even a vestigal one. Far fewer Americans identify as atheist or agnostic. Why this gap? And are there any important differences between non-theists and the religiously apathetic?

According to recent Harris and Gallup surveys as many as one in five Americans are at least skeptical about the existence of the gods, which at 60 million is similar to evangelicals & Christians. However, a large portion identify as spiritual and may believe in some sort of higher power, so they will not describe themselves as atheists. In any case the discriminatory attitudes against atheists discourage folks from calling themselves that, it's a problem for pollsters (similar to the reluctance by many to admit being liberal or a feminist).

Atheists and agnostics make up a signficicant part of the electorate, yet it seems it would be political suicide for anyone to actively seek their support. Has there even been a candidate who actively sought the support of atheist group or to appeal to the atheist vote?

What is the political make-up of atheists, in terms of political party, political leanings, and as percent of voters in different regions of the country?

I made a mistake on the last question so will answer 2 of them here.

As far as I know no one has ever run on an atheistic platform. Even in the most secular voting districts it would probably not be a particularly useful position to take.

In some areas such as the southeast and midwest them there atheists probably make up less than 5% of the electorate. On the coasts it will be markedly higher espeically urban areas, maybe a quarter to a third in NYC or San Francisco.

The great majority of nontheists are progressive liberals. However, there is a large minority, maybe a quarter to a third, that are libertarians in the mold of Ayn Rand. For example I have info that David Koch is an atheist.

Of course the Christian Bible contains the 1st explicit description of socialism enforced by death (in Acts), that the religious right is anti-socialists is one of the geat political scams of our time.

 

 

 

My boss gave me a gift card to a Christian bookstore with a note saying I should buy a Bible and read it. I feel very strongly that this it is religious discrimination and harrassment.

Darn right a boss giving someone a Bible etc. is inappropriate. How would he like it if he got a copy of Darwin, or Ayn Rand's views of atheism? Unfortunately religious folks are often very touchy about this sort of thing, so your boss is not likely to be trying to engage in a back and forth.

If it does become a problem over time you might want to show him the WP op-ed this essy is a follow up to. I hear others are using for such purposes.

I have to tell you that as a believer who really doesn't give a hoot what other people believe or don't believe, most of the prejudice I've encountered has been from atheists who, with varying degrees of good grace, suggest that I'm stupid or ill-informed for my beliefs. My supervisor at work who is an atheist, and who never misses an opportunity to tell everyone around him that he is, insists on giving me a hard time every single year when I ask for annual leave for religious observation. Company policy requires that he sign my request, but he loves to hassle me. Maybe there would be less prejudice against atheists if they didn't insist on thinking that non-believers were suspicious idiots.

This atheist boss is being a jerk as well. However, their are issues about religious persons wanting special treatment. That leaves atheists out in the cold yet again.

 

How can I constructively support the separation of church and state? Write letters to my Congressional representatives? It doesn't seem possible to support a secular candidate, as all candidates seem to court the religious vote. Are there groups that lobby on behalf of this fundamental founding principle?

By all means write your representatives. Heck, send something to Obama. Your activities would be adjusted to where you live. If you are in a fairly liberal secular state you would probably orient more towards the federal level. If you are in a more theoconservative red state local and state politics is important.

There are lobbying groups, including one whose title is something along the lines of Separation of Church and State, you can look them up.

I struggled with all these lables and was thrilled to discover Freethinker.  It really reflects my overall attitude and resistance to dogma. It feels like a positive statement about myself.

Freethinker is good. I tend to use anti-supernaturalist  since I'm opposed to all forms of unsubstantiated supernaturalistic and paranormalistic belief including god, ghosts (which nearly half of Americans believe in), poltergeists, bigfoots, ESP etc.

I am the poster with the jerky atheist boss. Your comment was: "However, their are issues about religious persons wanting special treatment. That leaves atheists out in the cold yet again." Sorry, but I'm not asking for or wanting "special treatment." My days off for religious observation come out of my annual leave. I don't get any more days off than anybody else. My boss knows it's for religious observation because I take the same days off every year.

You may well have a legitimate complaint. It would be interesting to know how these matters are handled in other western democracies where nontheists are the maority, there is not much research on the subject.

In a country founded on the separation between church and state, why should/does religion matter? - @dan_graeber

The reason religion matters in the US despite it being the 1st country to go to such lengthes to keep religion out of gevernment is because a large majority are religious, and a major minority insists that religion play a big role in government and society. The theoconservarive  minority has leveraged its power by allying with the corporations withing the Republican Party. As I have pointed out in my research (www.gspaulscience0freligion.com) this is ironic in that the corporate-consumer culture being pushed by capital is doing more than anything else to secularize the country! The way the demographics are going the religious right should become increasing irrelevant in coming decades (new Gallup data even shows creationism starting to slip as proDarwin atheists continue to rise).

They get SO much more vacation time in Europe than we do in the U.S.!

I have conducted an extensive comparison of socioeconomic conditions in 1st world countries(www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP07398441_c.pdf) that shows that among other items Americans are overworked. The overall results show that the more irreligious and progressive prosperous democracies are, the better are the societal economics conditions. Folks in secular democracies live longer, don't kill each other nearly as often, have lower abortion, STD, teen preg rates, mental illness and so on. In part this is becuase good societal conditions suppress religiosity, which means it is not possible for a highly religious country to be socioeconomically successful.

While I am not an atheist, I have many friends that are and we all agree that there should be a separation between church and state and would fight to see that truly realized. However, if I raise this issue with an atheist whom isn't a friend, I will get yelled at and told how I believe in magic, etc. instead of actually engaging me to get a common end goal. Besides the fact it's extremely offensive to me, it reminded me of being yelled at by some in the evangelical community for being to liberal with my beliefs. Do you think there will ever be a point where people with different beliefs can work together to acheive a true separation between church and state, or are our religious beliefs - or lack thereof - always going to get in the way?

Here we get into tricky issues. There is a problem with religious persons who request respect about their beliefs, but are not willing to do so towards others with differing supernaturalist opinions, such as Scientologists or Psychic readings. So I will ask you to consider if you are as tolerant of other's spirituality as you are of yours, to the degree you would think it OK for a president to discuss the issue of ghosts they way they do God.

In the broader picture, the research I am contributing to indicates that what is likely to happen is that in following decades the US will become markedly more secular as has already happened in all other advanced democracies, with the religious right continuing to shrink and lose power (a recent PEW survey found that the Republican base in actually getting smaller, they may prove unable to mount political movements like the Tea Party in the future). If that happens then the church and state issue will largely solve itself.

 

I don't believe there is a God, but I am uncomfortable with the condescension a lot of atheists have toward the religious. I don't believe in God, but I can't prove it, and I find it odd that some atheists practically proselytize atheism. The fact is, I don't think we can ever really know the truth and if someone wants to believe in God or Jesus or Allah or a divine palm tree I really couldn't care less so long as they leave me out of it.

The problem with this view is that belief in a god is no more or less established than belief in other entities and powers such as ghosts, fairies (which Conan Doyle once wrote a book in support of), astrology and so forth. In this society it is considered entirely legit to strongly criticize paranormal beliefs, so why not religion? It's OK to strongly criticize positions on politics and morality, so why not religion? A forceful debate is a good thing, I am leery of religious persons setting a special protective bubble for themselves.

In the military, you can select Atheism as your religious preference.  Isn't that a bit oxymoronic? And by the way, you can add me as one of those who has felt much happier since starting my own '12 step recovery from religion' nearly 20 years ago.

After lobbying efforts it looks like the military will be accepting atheist chaplins. It's the term for the job description.

Is there really any practical alternative for an atheist than the Democratic party? The GOP is pretty solidly in the hands of the religious right and there is no way that an alternate party candidate could be elected to any significant position. Aren't atheists just going to run as democrats and keep their religious views to themselves and hope to get elected?

Actually, a fair number of Republican libertarians are atheists, David Koch being one. So if you are an Ayn Randian disbeliever the Repubs are an option, not that you are likely to get far (at least until the country secularizes enough that the party has to pay more attention to nontheists).

"I'm opposed to all forms of unsubstantiated supernaturalistic and paranormalistic belief including god, ghosts (which nearly half of Americans believe in), poltergeists, bigfoots, ESP etc." I think all beliefs could be called unsubstantiated; that's why they are beliefs, not provable facts. Since atheism is the belief that there is no supernatural being (it cannot be proved so it is a belief not fact), you are opposed to atheism. Agree?

The only viable belief in that which can be effectively demonstrated to be true, such as the earth being a sphere that orbits the sun, organisms evolving over time, or George Washington being a president. It is not entirely possible to disprove the reality of gods, but the same is true of ghosts and believing in either is not tenable with the current evidence. What can be disproven is the existence of the good God Christians believe in, I published the refutation in the Philosophy & Theology paper at my website. It is one reason trying to run countries on a godly basis won't work.

How do you see atheism as distinct from secularism? Religious people often talk as if they're the same thing.

The United Way is a secular organiation, American Atheists is atheistic of course. Secular merely means it is at least neutral on religion, like our government is supposed to be. Atheist is a subset of that. Religious folks do have a practical point that secular societies do tend to lose religion

I use that term for myself because while I take no position on whether Gods exist, most of the atheists I know also support humanism and secularism, which aren't exclusive to atheism. One of my frustrations is the assumption that only atheists are offended by the sectarian endorsement of "under God" in the pledge. The phrase excludes numerous polytheistic and spirit religions, and plenty of Christians rightly object to that phrase as unconstitutional. Has it been your experience that people assume that one is either Christian or atheist, at least on issues like that, as if (other) religious minorities didn't matter?

You are entirely correct that people of various religious sorts often object to the monotheism often implied by government statements as per the pledge. They often ally with atheists in legal challanges.

They know this is the only life we have and we'd better make the most of it. We aren't auditioning to get into heaven. We have to enjoy life here now.

Check out Phil Zuckerman's book Society Without God in which he interviews Danes who express exactly the sort of live life and don't worry about the mythical heaven stuff you mention.

Honestly, I don't think it's appropriate for a President to discuss his/her religious beliefs at all so I think the discussion of what he/she believes is truly irrelevant. I am honestly truly tired of the assumptions that believers are ignorant of science (I am a accomplished scientist) and that non-believers are lack empathy and are heartless people. I think people are people and while maybe in some cases of extremism their beliefs may color character, I doubt there is truly any correlation. At the end of the day however, I do not want my church running my government nor do I want my government running my church; not to mention just because I don't "believe" in something, doesn't mean that it should be illegal.

There is a correlation between how well run societies are versus how religious they are with the most secular doing the best

(www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP07398441_c.pdf), so the idea that the degree of religiosity does matter cannot be dismissed, although it is usually misunderstood.

As an atheist, all I can say is "from your lips, to God's ears"

Gallup stats show that god disbelievers have quadrupled since the 60s and doubled since the 90s, with 20% these days being nontheistic to some degree. Looks like the US is heading down the secular path like all the rest of the west.

Is California Representative Fortney "Pete" Stark the only member of Congress who's an avowed atheist or agnostic? It seems like "coming out" re lack of religiosity is the last taboo.

As far as I know yes.

Who cares? Why do theists and atheists have to win these stupid arguements? A ha! You must be smarter than me.  You outsmated me in a debate about religion. There must be a God! Just stop trying to prove me wrong and put that energy into feeding starving children.

Debating matters is part of being human, so I'm al for it. Good point about doing more about social ills, and it happens that the nations with the best overall conditions for kids are the most atheistic.

What, Mr. Paul, is the classic proof for the non-existence of God? Catholics have Aquinas's proof in Summa Contra Gentiles for God's existence. Is there a parallel argument for God's non-existence? If not is there a feasible attack on Aquinas's argument?

You are asking the wrong specific question in that it is probably  not possible to completely disprove the existence of gods. Much more important is whethter a good god can exist. I have gone further than anyone in doing that at in the peer reviewed

(gregspaul.webs.com/Philosophy&Theology.pdf). It shows that the massive loss of the children (50 billion dead kids so far) makes it impossible for a truly loving creator as most Christians believe in to be real. Aside from the cruelty of allowing such massive suffering by children, it wrecks the classic free will hypothesis.

Are there any openly atheist politicians? I can't think of any. BTW, I was raised in an atheist household and as a child, I remember asking my father about the pledge of allegiance and how he handed the "under God" part. He said that the words held no importance to him so he might as well say them as not--it made no difference to him that they were in there. I wish I could be this detached from it, but I still feel a bristle of irritation each time the president ends a speech with "God Bless America." If we have separation of church and state, why do politicians do this?

They do it because it still gets votes. In Canada, Europe etc it can actually backfire.

My father is a lifelong socialist (but registered Democrat - he's practical at least) and was asked to run for Congress twice in the 60s and 70s, once in Southern California and once in upstate New York. The local Democratic organizations knew about his Socialism, but once he told them that he was an atheist and was not going to pretend to be a moderately-observant Jew, they lost interest in having him run. I think the same thing would happen again now, even in Santa Monica.

I suspect it could now be done in some of the most secular districts. However, it would hurt anyone shooting for really high office such as gov or prez.

Most atheists I know don't want to talk about religion at all. The yellers are rare. Most of us are not interested in your superstitions and would rather talk about something substantive. Stop bringing it up and those yellers will stop yelling at you. Talk about the weather.

They wouldn't know what your beliefs are if you wouldn't tell them. IE: discuss work at work and religion at home and church and keep the religious talk out of work. That way no one can criticize your views. (That is how I keep my atheist self employed in the buckle of the Bible Belt. I keep my private business private so no one at work can discriminate against me for it.) Maybe you were doing too much protheslitizing at work; that should not be allowed.

Do you feel that the only (bad)atheists are seen and heard because they're the most complained about (like bad/zealot religious people?) Because I'm an atheist and my belief is you can believe whatever you want, so long as you don't oppress, harass or harm others while doing it, and that the idea that more atheists could be prevalent later on in the future.

Am not sure who the "Bad" atheists are. Dawkins, Harris? They have been very effective in rallying the base and are serving much the same purpose as in their faces gays have done. The stats show if anything an increase in the rise of atheism since the start of "New" atheism.

You should note the original Pledge, as written by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, had no mention of any god. It also was much snappier than the present one (which is at least v3.0): "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." The right goes on about the "lost Constitution." This is the "lost" Pledge of Allegiance.

He checks back to last year to see if you took the last day off? Most religious holidays occur on different dates every year (besides Christmas) so I don't know how he'd know. If he hates letting people take off, I bet he gives the other people heck too, you just don't hear it.

I have always rather liked the idea that the word religion, taken to some of its Latin roots, can be used to define "That which holds one's life together." This seems to me to be helpful in the sense that we all have things we hold dear that are important to our behavior and motiviations. If Crest toothpaste saves us from cavities, it can easily qualify as part of our personal religious beliefs. The things that help us maintain our personhood and deal effectively with others and in our respective societies can, I imagine, be called religious in some sense. Are you familiar with any of this type of dialogue? Thanks.

Dicey question. Strict Buddhism is actually atheistic, so some consider it a philosophy rather than a religion.

I have to go, but thanks for the questions!

In This Chat
Gregory Paul
Gregory Paul has been scientifically researching the interaction between religion, atheism, science, politics, economics, and society, as well as the theology of religious morality, and publishing the results in Evolutionary Psychology, The Journal of Religion and Society, Theology and Philosophy, Journal of Medical Ethics, and Pediatrics (papers, articles and press coaverage available at www.gspaulscienceofreligion.com). The results indicate that religion is not integral or universal to the human condition, and is not able to produce the superior societal conditions present in the most secular democracies.
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