Atheists in Government: An American Underdog Story

by Megan Bridges

The following article originally appeared in The Spectrum:

In 2007, Ernie Chambers, the openly atheist Nebraska state senator, sued God. His claim: the Almighty has caused widespread destruction and terror through “fearsome floods… horrendous hurricanes, [and] terrifying tornados,” thus threatening the lives and property of the senator and his constituents. However, Senator Chambers’ purpose was not to attack God. Indeed, the case was a reaction to a frivolous lawsuit he caught wind of in his state. Although his strategy effectively illustrated that anybody can sue anybody, his public mockery of the Judeo-Christian religious figure only confirms the public’s stereotypes of atheists as intolerant, pugnacious, and arrogant.

In a country where only 54 percent of Americans would vote for a well-qualified atheist candidate for political office, loud atheists cannot afford to confirm negative stereotypes (although they should not have to walk on eggshells either).

Figure 1. While the bulk of Americans identify as Christian, nearly twenty percent are unaffiliated with any faith.

Figure 1. While the bulk of Americans identify as Christian, nearly twenty percent are unaffiliated with any faith.

According to a Pew Research Center survey (Fig. 1), nearly 20 percent of American adults are unaffiliated with any faith, including 2.4 percent that self-identify as atheist. Furthermore, the number of nontheists has tripled since the 1960s, making it the fastest growing religious group in the United States (nontheist is an umbrella term that captures atheists, agnostics, and individuals unaffiliated with any particular faith in its definition). Despite the prevalence of nontheists in American society, they are hardly represented in public office. Statistically, one would expect to find 50 nontheists in Congress and 50,000 at the state and local government levels. However, only five public officials reported their nonbelief to the Secular Coalition for America in 2007. They include a school board president, a school committee member, a town meeting member, the since-retired United States congressman Pete Stark, and the previously mentioned Ernie Chambers.

What in the world is going on here?

In the polarizing atmosphere of American government in which politics and religion are mixed–and theism claims moral high ground–it would be political suicide to come out as atheist. Few politicians are willing to shoot themselves in the foot by declaring themselves nonbelievers, especially because, unlike homosexuality or race, it is far easier to conceal one’s metaphysical beliefs. Case in point: Representative Barney Frank.

In 1987, Rep. Barney Frank bravely came out as gay, yet waited nearly three decades later to come out as atheist once he was out of office, just having finished 16 terms in Congress. Other public officials, like Pete Stark and Ernie Chambers, waited until they were in their seventies to come out as atheists, and, according to the Secular Coalition, 28 other members of Congress silently remain in the closet to this day.

Unfortunately, political officials and aspiring politicians’ fears of coming out are well justified. Atheists are the most disliked group in America, and the least electable. People are more likely to vote for a well-qualified homosexual, female, or Muslim candidate than an atheist one. Among these underrepresented groups, atheists are also thought to least agree with the American vision for the country. While atheist politicians are unlikely to be elected due to public opinion, seven state constitutions actually bar atheists from holding public office. Even more disheartening, a recent study by the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon found that atheists were distrusted as much as rapists in particular situations.

How did atheists earn such a negative reputation?

Fig. 2. This Godless Communist, a story that began in 1961in the monthly comic book Treasure Chest.

Figure 2. “This Godless Communism,” a story that began in 1961 in the monthly comic book Treasure Chest.

Aside from the general tendency to believe that people behave better when they feel God is watching them, the media has played a role in steering public opinion toward atheists in a negative direction. During the Cold War, for example, propaganda was used to associate atheism with communism and theism with patriotism. Treasure Chest, a comic book published each month from 1946 to 1972 by the Catholic Guild, was used to promote the idea of “godless communism” (Fig. 2). Atheism became inextricably tied with the enemy.

Adding to the negative perception of atheists are atheists themselves. The most visible atheists are Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who vehemently attack religion. Dawkins, for example, has encouraged his followers to “ridicule” theists, using language such as “unforgiving control freak” and “capriciously malevolent bully” to describe God. Furthermore, the founder of the American Atheists organization, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, was labeled as “the most hated woman in America.” How is the largely theist public to perceive atheists when their most outspoken community members are arrogant, obnoxious, and filled with hatred toward religion?

Despite public opinion, nontheists are well qualified to hold public office. They are better educated as a group in comparison to the general public, and they score highly on measures of morality, including issues pertaining to environmental degradation and human rights. Metaphysical beliefs do not determine the necessary qualities voters should be seeking in their leaders: political skill, management ability, persuasiveness, and temperament. So what can nontheists do to improve representation in government?

First and foremost, nontheists need to increase their visibility. Although there are five times as many nontheists as homosexuals in the United States, most Americans report knowing more homosexuals than nontheists. Since atheists are virtually invisible in American society, negative stereotypes are more difficult to dispel. As one psychology researcher stated, “If you realize there are all these atheists you’ve been interacting with all your life and they haven’t raped your children that is going to do a lot to dispel these stereotypes.” Nontheists need to step out of the shadows and into the light. Their good deeds must also be exposed. For example, online atheist groups on raised over $200,000 for Doctors Without Borders, and members of Richard Dawkins’ foundation launched Non-Believers Giving Aid for disaster relief following the Haiti earthquake. Religion is not a prerequisite for moral behavior; altruism prevails in godless communities, as well.

Secondly, nontheists need to recreate their public image. This includes selecting spokespersons who are tolerant of other lifestyles and who can argue their points respectfully. If nontheists hope to progress in the political arena, they must make it clear that their objective is not to obliterate religion, but to exist beside it. That is not to say, however, that atheists should cease to be critical of organized religion, but they should be more tasteful in their approach. Voters look for traits such as cooperation and humility in political leaders, but with the large number of closeted nontheists and the celebrity of bigoted atheists, people associate atheism with the personality traits of its loudest representatives (read: Dawkins).

Lastly, nontheists need to better organize themselves politically. They do not agglomerate in certain neighborhoods, turn up search results on the databases of professional associations, or congregate at spiritual centers. Additionally, their faith in reason puts them at a disadvantage for grassroots work. In recent years, however, nontheists have made several accomplishments, including the formation of the Secular Party of America to advocate for issues regarding separation of church and state. Furthermore, the American Atheists organization held the Reason Rally in 2012 in Washington, D.C., to assemble a historically fragmented group of nontheists.

In keeping with my words, I step out of the closet as an agnostic atheist.

Works Cited