Electing atheists

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Anti-atheists billboard
trust meterA recent story on Religion News discusses the DNC’s concerns about former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ religion. Not that he was Jewish, but that he might be a closet atheist. And that send the DNC-crats over the roof. Scary, eh?

You can’t elect an atheist in America. You can elect liars, cheats, adulterers, misogynists and creationists (and sometimes all in the same person…). But not atheists.

Even Donald Trump, whose murky religious beliefs remain cause for much speculation, overshadowed by his overt worship of power and money, hasn’t strayed into atheism, at least publicly.

And it’s been that way since the late 1960s-early ’70s. American religion and politics somehow became entwined around then, and today they are inseparable, Constitution notwithstanding. The right paints anyone who isn’t Bible-thumping along with them as atheist, leftist, socialist or liberal (or all four…). The recent Republican presidential-candidate race often seemed more like a series of fundamentalist, revivalist prayer meetings than political debates.

Not that America is unique in this. Despite a growing percentage of the population claiming no religious affiliation running as an atheist in politics taints any candidate. As the article continues:

Raising a candidate’s religion or questioning his or her faith is beyond the pale. One reason the email is so damning (pun intended) is that atheists are among the least-liked groups in America. There is a wide gap between public opinion toward Jews and feelings for atheists.
How much are they disliked? The average American feels warmer toward Congress than toward atheists. That’s as low as you get in public opinion.

Statistics show that roughly 20% of Americans claim no religious affiliation, but that doesn’t mean they’re atheists. In fact, the large majority of them believe in a deity or have some spiritual belief. A Pew Research poll suggests only 3.1% of Americans are actually atheists and 4% are agnostics.

Although 23.9% of Canadians claim to be ‘irreligious’, the list of openly atheist politicians in Canada is pitifully small (and all of them are from Quebec…).

An Angus-Reid poll also indicates the troubling notion that a lot of Canadians who consider themselves non-religious or ambivalent about religion also believe in superstitious claptrap like astrology, reincarnation and psychic powers.

Overall, though we don’t much care for prayer in public meetings, regardless of what we believe. And that’s a good thing.


Freedom From Religion
Even though America was not founded as a “Christian nation” it often seems to have become one, bordering on a repressive theocracy in some states.

Demonizing non-believers is a blood sport in the USA, with the right creating imaginary “wars” on Easter and Christmas if anyone even questions the intrusion of religion into the public or political spheres. Little wonder the intolerant, theocratic Tea Party has been called the ‘American Taliban.’ And little wonder anyone who isn’t a believer covers up with a pretense of belief. The right is pretty scary about religion.

As one conservative commentator wrote:

These groups that are attacking Christianity have a deeper and far more sinister reason for their attacks. One reason for these attacks is that Christianity is in direct opposition to the open sinfulness some people want America to embrace. As long as America stands on Judea/Christian law, groups like sodomite’s and lesbians will not be free to spread their poison across America.

Pretty typical of the right wing spume about their god, their faith and the evils of anyone who isn’t slavishly consumed with hatred towards outsiders. And they have guns, too. Lots of them, and they’re not afraid to shoot people who don’t believe as they do.

Even Donald Trump played into that right-wing fear of atheist hordes by promising in January to protect Christians, who, he claimed are “…losing their power in American society.” Facts are not Trump’s strong suit, of course. But he’s big on fear-mongering and catering to the bigots and fundamentalists.

Both Republican and Democratic national conventions were replete with religious fervour and prayer – far too much “God bless America” and “God bless us” for what should be a secular business. Donald Trump’s pastor-du-jour called on his partisan god to defeat the enemy Democrats and Hilary:

Father God, in the name of Jesus, Lord we’re so thankful for the life of Donald Trump. We’re thankful that you are guiding him, the you are giving him the words to unite this party, this country, that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party, to keep us divided and not united. Because we are the United States of America, and we are the conservative party under God.

But perhaps this sort of theistic myopia is on the way out, at least among younger generations.

A recent article in National Geographic says secularism – no religious affiliation, not necessarily atheism – is growing rapidly. But not as rapidly as religion in undeveloped nations, but still growing. It then notes:

Around the world, when asked about their feelings on religion, more and more people are responding with a meh… A lack of religious affiliation has profound effects on how people think about death, how they teach their kids, and even how they vote.

Just as an overt religious affiliation can have profound effects on those things. So can breathing. It’s a logical fallacy to assume that atheists don’t have morals, ethics or commitment to social norms or the greater good. Assuming atheists have no moral compass is just another form of xenophobia.

True, non-believers won’t have the “absolute” morality of Bronze-age scripture to treat literally, but history has shown us that religious morality is far from absolute, and changes according to convenience or need. Or who has the biggest weapons.

And it’s also true that for atheists, death is not shrouded in superstition and magic. There is no afterlife for atheists. But they’re also far more likely to be better grounded in facts, science, medicine, and truth.

A digression: atheism means no belief in a God or gods. In that sense, everyone is an atheist to some degree in that they don’t believe in all deities. Christians, for example, don’t believe in Ganesh, or Thor or Ahura-Mazda. Not as gods, anyway. Real atheists merely disbelieve in one more deity than religious people.

Atheism isn’t a belief system or a religion. It’s a refutation of them. It is not an organization or movement. It’s as highly individual as one’s taste for food.

Agnosticism waivers. Someone who doesn’t want to commit to a belief or lack thereof. Like in the Blood Sweat and Tears song, And When I Die:

I swear there ain’t no heaven, and I pray there ain’t no Hell…

Agnostic is a term coined in the 1860s by Thomas Huxley that has blossomed to mean having no particular faith or belief in a wide variety of issues and positions. I, for example, am a political agnostic in that I don’t have faith in any single party or platform.

Agnosticism is often understandable in a world of competing, loud, conflicting and often violent claims to truth. It might be a person with an open mind, or someone not strong enough to make a decision. Agnostics seldom commit to specifics.

Sometimes an agnostic is a hypocrite, but sometimes it’s a person with more tolerance for opposing views than some atheists show. And sometimes they’re just skeptical of organizations and bureaucracies. However, an agnostic is equally unlikely to be elected today.

In 2014, Tom Krattenmaker wrote in USA Today,

Candidates have to at least feign some religiosity to qualify for prominent political office, despite our Constitution forbidding religion tests of this sort. And atheism and related forms of non-belief are about the worst thing a candidate can be associated with.

Another poll he quotes shows, “…53% of Americans think it’s necessary to believe in God to be moral. Other survey data show that being an atheist is more injurious to one’s shot at political office than being an adulterer.” Not just any god, of course: you have to believe in the right one. That means the Judeo-Christian god (unless you’re the hateful Westboro Baptist bigots, in which case it’s only the Christian god. And maybe the Santa Claus god, too.)

As far as I can discern, only one openly atheist candidate has run for Congress. And he was trounced. Carlos Moreno, an associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine, commented on CNN:

Why is it that we require our candidates to profess a religious faith, but not that they demonstrate even minimal scientific literacy? Our representatives in Congress make critical decisions on science policy and science funding, and yet are often hostile to the entire scientific enterprise. In 2012, Rep. Paul Broun, R-Georgia, while serving on the House science committee, famously said that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies from the pit of hell.”

Eight states actually make it a law that you can’t get elected if you don’t believe in god. Some sort of god – a “supreme being” like the Freemasons say. This despite the US Constitution (Article VI, paragraph 3) which clearly states:

…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

To date, there are no openly atheist members of the US Congress and the one person who answered none to religious affiliation won’t admit to being an atheist. It’s still too scary (two, by the way, have listed themselves as Buddhist and two others as Hindu). In the US Senate, only two are listed as “unaffiliated.” But again, not as atheist.

Religious freedom is a term often touted by the Christian right to mean the right to impose their particular, limited and repressive interpretation of Christian values on others, but not the right of other religions to do the same. And it certainly doesn’t extend the right of atheists not to believe. For the right, religious freedom means the ‘freedom’ to do and believe as you are told.

Barack Obama broke one glass ceiling by being elected and Hilary Clinton may break another. But until an openly atheist politician can be elected into the highest office in the USA, a big one will remain to restrict democracy in America.

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