Anti-Atheist Bigotry Enters Another Campaign

Because this strategy worked so well for Elizabeth Dole, another conservative politician has decided to make a play for the bigot vote by stirring up anti-atheist prejudice against a challenger. In this case, it’s on a smaller scale: a race for city council in Albuquerque, New Mexico. You can read about it in the New Mexico Independent, a local paper. (HT: Daylight Atheism reader Brian Westley, who was also the first one to tell me about the Dole ads. He’s good at finding this stuff!)

According to the mailer, sent out by city council member Don Harris:

David Barbour, recently moved here from San Francisco. He is a donor to Atheist organizations and speaker at Atheist events and attends radical political protests even in foreign countries. [italics and caps as in original —Ebonmuse]

Evidently, Mr. Barbour was a presenter at a 2004 event titled “The Importance of Being Atheist,” hosted by a Unitarian Universalist group, and contributed to a scholarship essay contest run in 2008 by San Francisco Atheists (source). And I say, good for him! We need more civically minded, politically engaged atheists taking part in our great democracy. We have as much right to participate in the electoral process as any other citizen.

Mr. Harris, on the other hand, has a great deal to be ashamed of. Making a campaign issue out of someone’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, is a disgusting, despicable tactic. Whether someone is atheist, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or anything else makes no difference in their ability to serve their country, and trying to imply otherwise is a form of out-and-out bigotry no different than urging voters to defeat a candidate because they are black or because they are female. Whether in races for Senate seats, city council seats, or anything in between, this naked and shameless appeal to prejudice is an evil that no one should tolerate.

Unfortunately, this story was reported too late for us to help out Barbour’s campaign – the election was today, in fact. I’ll post an update when I hear how it turned out. But let this be a reminder to us that we must always be vigilant in fighting prejudice wherever and whenever it rears its head. By volunteering and contributing to support atheist candidates for political office, we can dispel anti-atheist bigotry and erect a bulwark against the forces of theocracy that are always seeking to push their way into our government.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I am unaware of Mr Barbour’s persuasions, but I am also getting a serious anti-gay vibe off of that excerpt. I love the first sentence. He just moved here from SAN FRANCISCO, AND he’s an ATHEIST. We all know what that means. I wonder what qualifies as a radical political protest for Mr Harris. Hmmm. Gay rights maybe?

  • the chaplain

    Harris’ tactic is disgusting. And, I’m sure you would have written a post pretty much like this one if Barbour happened to be Jewish, Muslim, etc. Whenever I post about political issues in which all non-Christians have a stake, I try to point out that adherents of other religions, Buddhists, Hindus, etc., have the same interests we do – resisting Christian privilege in the American sociopolitical sphere.

  • luke

    You didn’t read about this at Atheist Ethicist?

  • Petrucio

    Making a campaign issue out of someone’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, is a disgusting, despicable tactic

    I do agree on most levels, but I’m sure you would NOT vote for a scientologist, no matter how rational he may seem on other relevant areas.

    The analogy does not apply well here, but in the minds of certain people it certainly will, and I cannot fault them for thinking that way – assuming they really believe what they supposedly believe.

    I probably wouldn’t even hire a scientologist to work for me in a not so important job. So sue me, I’m a bigot. We all have SOME degree of bigotry in us, whether we want to accept it or not.

  • other scott

    Meh, I don’t see scientologists as any crazier than the rest of the religious people out there. Personally I think that their beliefs are probably more realistic that Christians. At least humans being seeded on this planet by an alien race is a measurable, physical creation myth. Christians believe that god exists as a completely seperate entity from the universe unknowable and unmeasurable and able to do anything.

    It’s a technological superior being vs a being that has infinite power for no discernable reason.

    I think logically, it is easier to accept Xenu than Jehovah.

  • Naug

    My biggest gripe wouldn’t be with scientology’s creation myth, it’s the practice of their “church”. While christians have some whacky ideas, scientology seems to me to be just a moneygrubbing, lifedestroying, lawsuit-swinging corporation-cult that doesn’t care about anyone except for the livelihood of the people at the top and will use any and all psychological tricks known to mankind to keep their congregation in check.

    That attitude is typically not found in your normal christians and that would be a really big turn off for me should I find my self in a situation where I could vote for one.

  • UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 10/07/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • Steve Bowen

    In the U.S as far as I can tell, theist candidates wear their religious oolours conspicuously and can probably expect to gain votes that way. Black and female candidates are also obviously what they are. Atheists don’t usually make a point of their theological position at all which does leave them open to being “outed” in the same way a closet gay candidate might be. The real tragedy is that Don Harris’ expectation that labelling David Barbour an atheist will damage his chances is a reasonable one. I look forward to the day when atheist political candidates can actually take an atheist platform and explain why rational evidence based politics is preferable to religiously influenced politics.

  • Dan

    The more subtle smear is the one that Sarah points out. The phrase “recently moved here” also carries meaning … that Barbour is an outsider who is to be rejected because he brings bad “outside” influences to this community. As one who has made a similar move from San Francisco to a rural midwestern community, I’ve been described in the same way … “that guy who just moved here from San Francisco.” So I know the meanings up close and personal (so to speak).

  • Modusoperandi

    Dan: Being from the West coast, if he got elected, he’d soon be banning good American food like flatbread and burritos, and legislating the mandatory consumption of tofu and sushi!

  • OMGF

    …wear their religious oolours conspicuously…

    [emphasis mine]
    I read that as “odours.”

  • Brian Westley

    Luke, I sent this story to Daylight Atheism, the Atheist Ethicist, and the Friendly Atheist, because they had all commented on the earlier Dole campaign.

    Commenters at the thread at Friendly Atheist now report getting a (somewhat lame) form email apology/reply after emailing complaints to Harris.

  • Sarah Braasch

    So, basically, his “apology” is no apology at all, but just another excuse to equate UU / atheism with radical politics.

    I actually take this as a compliment, but Mr Harris means it pejoratively, to be sure.

    I love how he is completely blase about opening himself and his city up to legal and constitutional liability.

  • Steve Bowen

    I read that as “odours.”

    Ah, two nations divided by a common language eh? but maybe I like your interpretation better :)

  • rennis

    Good post. While I would not vote against someone just because they are atheist and I’m not; I would never vote for someone such as Harris whose tactics reveal a great deal about his character and integrity.

  • Roy

    I don’t think you can equate someone’s religous affiliations with whether they are female or black. I try not to let any personal attributes that are beyond the control of a person (color, height, gender, etc) effect my attitudes toward them.
    Since religion, or lack, is a personal choice, I should be able to draw some broad conclusions about how they might be influenced in the political sphere.
    Now, they may not be “practicing” Jews or Muslims or Christians, but I don’t see how they would be able to cast every vote without being influenced by the dogma they choose to be associated with.
    Everyone practices some level of discrimination (in the sense of evaluation of input data). Some use faulty or unreliable or prejudicial data instead of reasoned, well-thought-out information.

  • The Big Blue Frog

    The Chaplain brings up a good point. Religious pluralism is in the best interest of atheists in America. Religion isn’t going anywhere, but the next best thing to no religion is so many religions that no one faith can get the upper hand.

  • Gareth

    Hey fellow free thinkers. As noted in a previous comment, this was highlighted on and a bunch of people, myself included, emailed Mr Harris. And yes his one line apology sent to all who emailed him was certainly lame and I suspect disingenuous. Unfortunately, a man willing to engage in such tactics nonetheless won with a landslide. We need to keep fighting back against this blatant bigotry and making it clear that we won’t stand for the term “atheist” being used in a derogatory manner. It’s actually quite mind numbing that in a highly educated society that someone can be tarnished for being unable to believe in something so inherently childish as religious philosophy. Though I must say that I have been given hope that there is a growing community fighting back against what currently is one of the few remaining sources of bigotry. Keep up the fight everyone!!

  • the chaplain

    While I would not vote against someone just because they are atheist and I’m not; I would never vote for someone such as Harris whose tactics reveal a great deal about his character and integrity.

    You hit the nail on the head, there, rennis (comment #15).

  • Slater

    We need more civically minded, politically engaged atheists taking part in our great democracy.

    Heh, good one.

    No, seriously. Adam, you’re a smart guy, you don’t honestly believe the US has a “great democracy”, do you?

  • Cerus

    Honestly #20? It’s not bad.

    I understand it’s a popular trend to bash it though, so carry on.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Our democracy is in a state of decadent devolution towards a tyrannical religious / corporate federalism. But, our Constitution kicks ass. I still think we can check the decay. And, truth be told, when haven’t we been on the brink of a tyrannical religious federalism?

  • Ebonmuse

    I should have mentioned this yesterday, but as Gareth pointed out, Don Harris did indeed win reelection by a large margin (according to the city clerk’s website). It’s disappointing, but such are the advantages of incumbency. Next time, we’ll catch this kind of bigotry earlier.

    Yes, I do believe the U.S. has a great democracy. We get precisely the government that we deserve, and what better indicator of democratic health could you ask for?

  • Slater

    #21: Popular trend? I guess that’s one way to blindfold yourself and not look at reality. Carry on then.

    #24: There’s some truth to that, but are you really satisified with the fundies and idiots getting the government they “deserve”, and the rest of you having to put up with what they pick?
    The first thing the US would need to have a decent democracy is some damn education, so most people would know what they voted for and why – and to start looking at the politics rather than the people behind it. And, of course, to implement the most basic democratic principle of one-man-one-vote, so things like Bush winning with less votes than his opposition wouldn’t happen, before you could even rightfully call yourself a democracy. Even then, this wouldn’t solve the biggest problem of only having two parties with any chance of getting any real power, which are so close together politically that you use a different political scale than the rest of the world, just to camouflage that fact.

    Now, I’m not trying to peddle my own country as much better. Its democracy pretty much died with the EU-membership vote, where there was a resounding no at first, but the politicians just kept making us vote again, until enough people got fed up and said yes.

    The difference is, so many Americans – including the more intelligent ones – seem incredibly proud of their democracy, even though it’s one of the worst in the western world.

  • Cerus


    I never said it was perfect, I’m not particularly happy with the current state of affairs, I said it wasn’t bad and in my frame of reference it’s not, I’m relatively secure financially, physically healthy, and for the most part feel that as a privileged, educated white male I’m adequately protected from the various societal ills that government is instituted to address. Our system has given me at least that much.

    I think people bash on the system too much without any sort of real understanding of what’s actually broken about it. There’s plenty of legitimate specific targets to go after, start with health care, work your way up to the tax code, then maybe tackle the rampant political corruption. why take the laziest possible route and just bash the entire country? It’s no better than making french surrender jokes, which I find to be highly irritating.

    I’m not blindfolded, I just hate rampant hyperbole.