There Are 10 Times as Many Atheists as Mormons: When Will Non-Believers Become a Political Force?

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

The propagandists of the religious right shout it aloud as their battle cry: “America is a Christian nation!” And in the trivial sense that ours is a nation populated mostly by Christians, this is true. But in the sense that they mean it, that Christianity was intended to occupy a privileged place in the law – or worse, that Christianity was intended to be the only belief professed by Americans – it couldn’t be more false. Although religion in general and Christianity in particular play a dominant role in our public life, ours is a secular nation by law. And befitting that heritage, America has always played host to a lively tradition of freethought, unorthodoxy, and religious dissent, one that dates back to our founding generation.

To name just one example, Thomas Jefferson rejected miracles and special revelation – he famously created his own version of the New Testament, which kept only the moral teachings and parables and cut out all the miracle stories – and encouraged his contemporaries to “question with boldness even the existence of a God.” He himself was a deist, not an atheist, but this subtle distinction was lost on his contemporaries, who hurled accusations at him every bit as vicious as today’s TV attack ads. For instance, in the presidential campaign of 1800, the Gazette of the United States editorialized as follows:

“At the present solemn moment the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘shall I continue in allegiance to GOD-—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—-AND NO GOD!!!’”

Jefferson’s political opponents denounced him as a “howling atheist” and a “French infidel”, and paranoid rumors circulated that, if he became president, he would order all Bibles to be confiscated. Of course, in the end Jefferson was elected to two successful presidential terms, and the feared wave of atheistic persecution failed to materialize.

But stories like these aren’t just historical footnotes. Just as freethinkers have always had their place in our nation, the strategy of slandering and demonizing them for political gain is likewise alive and well, as I found out for myself in 2008.

In that year’s North Carolina Senate race, Elizabeth Dole, the Republican incumbent, was running against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. In the waning weeks of the campaign, Hagan attended a fundraiser at the home of Woody Kaplan and Wendy Kaminer, advisors to American Atheists’ Godless Americans Political Action Committee. The Dole campaign found out about this and tried to make political hay out of it, releasing a campaign ad which said:

“A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan’s honor… Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras. Took Godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?”

When I saw this ad, I was incensed. (Can you imagine a political ad which attacked a candidate by saying, “He attended a secret fundraiser held by the Jews and took Jewish money. What did he promise in return?”) I dashed off a blog post titled “Why I’m Donating to Kay Hagan,” expressing my anger at politicians who try to drum up anti-atheist bigotry to win votes, and wrote a check to the Hagan campaign. I thought nothing more of it until a few weeks later, when I found out that my post was being featured in another anti-atheist ad by the Dole campaign:

As you can see, the ad highlights my statement that “Hagan ought to be rewarded for inviting nonbelievers onto her platform,” as if this were a bad thing. It portrays atheists not as fellow citizens entitled to take part in the democratic process, but as agents of a sinister and un-American conspiracy – the same ugly slander that’s historically been used against immigrants, Roman Catholics, Jewish people, gays and lesbians, and every other minority that seeks out politicians who will defend their interests.

Clearly, Dole was counting on a wave of outraged, prejudiced voters to flood the polls and propel her to victory. But her campaign’s open appeal to anti-atheist bigotry may have produced a bigger backlash than she had expected. According to the Charlotte Observer, the Hagan campaign received 3,600 contributions within 48 hours of Dole’s “Godless” ad, many of them presumably from nonbelievers upset at being dragged through the mud by right-wingers trying to score political points.

Unfortunately, Hagan herself turned out to be no friend of atheists. Although she was happy to accept our donations, when our association with us became an issue, she fled to the safe ground of piety-drenched politics. Her campaign released an ad accusing Dole of “attacking my Christian faith,” going so far as to threaten a defamation lawsuit. It would have been nice to see some defense of the idea that America is a secular nation where a person’s faith has no bearing on their fitness for public office. Instead, her response consisted solely of, “Yes, I believe in God and how dare you imply otherwise!” – effective, perhaps, but cold comfort to atheists who had for some reason assumed that we have as much right to be involved in politics as anyone else.

But despite this disappointment, there was a heartening outcome. For whatever reason – whether it was the flood of donations from outraged atheists, or Hagan’s strong protestations of piety, or because the “Godless” ad simply failed to change enough voters’ minds – on Election Day, Elizabeth Dole was defeated by a solid margin, and Kay Hagan became the new Democratic Senator from North Carolina.

As the Hagan episode shows, even many Democratic politicians, who should rightfully be our allies, feel that outspoken atheism is a disqualifier for public office. John Kerry gave voice to this sentiment in November 2007:

“The vast majority of Americans say they believe in God… The vast majority of America, at some time, goes to church, and I think it matters to people. When you are choosing the president of the United States, people vote on the things that matter to them. So I think it is probably unlikely that you are going to find somebody who stands up and says, ‘Well, I don’t believe in anything,’ and you’ll get a whole bunch people who get excited about voting for that person… It’s just a fact.”

Even Barack Obama, despite having been raised by a nonreligious mother, has been no friend to atheists – something we found out on the first day of his presidency, when he invited the anti-choice, anti-gay-rights, anti-stem-cell-research right-wing pastor Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration. Breaking a clear campaign promise, he’s also continued the George W. Bush “faith-based initiative”, which hands out government money to religious groups which openly proselytize, discriminate in hiring, and face no outside accountability. And polls continue to show that atheists are among the most reviled and least trusted minorities in the U.S., even more so than Muslims or gays.

Some corporations have been accused of having a “glass ceiling,” an invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from rising to the topmost positions. In that sense, American politics clearly has a “stained-glass ceiling,” a de facto barrier to atheists running for office. Despite the many great Americans who’ve been nonbelievers, despite the guarantees of secularism written into our Constitution, outspoken atheism is still seen as an insurmountable liability for anyone who seeks to serve our country as an elected officer of the government.

Why is this? It’s not because atheists are so rare that politicians can safely ignore us. On the contrary, nonbelief is far more common than many people realize.

The definitive word on atheist demographics in the U.S. is the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), a massive study that questioned over 50,000 Americans about their religious beliefs. The ARIS found that self-identified atheists and agnostics account for 1.6% of the population of America, or about 3.5 million people. But the ARIS also asked people in-depth questions about what they really believe. And based on their results, the survey’s authors concluded that whether they choose that word to describe themselves or not, 12% of Americans are atheists – over 36 million of us!

To put that number in perspective, there are about as many atheists in America as there are members of all the mainline Protestant churches – Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ – combined. There are ten times as many atheists as there are Jews or Mormons. The only two religious groups in America that outnumber atheists are Baptists and Roman Catholics. But both of those groups have seen their membership as a percentage of the population decline steadily since 1990, while the non-religious have grown proportionally in the country as a whole and in every state. And the numbers show a clear trend: every generation since World War II has exhibited higher rates of nonbelief, now up to 20% among those born since 1977.

So, atheists don’t lack the numbers. Nor do we lack passion or political interest. In fact, the opposite is true: atheists have one of the highest rates of political participation of any group. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found that 82% of the non-religious are very or somewhat likely to vote, an astonishingly high turnout level. In fact, the only group more likely to vote is Christian evangelicals. But the political loyalties of evangelicals are settled already, while non-religious voters – again according to Pew – are disproportionately likely to be independent voters whose choices often determine the outcome of an election.

Given these facts, politicians should be lining up to court us. On a purely numerical level, atheists are a large, potentially influential group. We’re highly motivated to get out and vote, more so than almost any religious group. We tend to be swing voters, the kind that makes all the difference in close races. And most of all, atheists are common among the young, and good politicians know that political loyalties established at a young age usually last for a lifetime.

So why aren’t candidates seeking atheists out and appealing to us for our support? Why is the political class, even the liberal political class, so fearful of being associated with us?

The obvious answer is that the pervasiveness of anti-atheist bigotry makes it political suicide to associate with us. (Elizabeth Dole failed in her attempt to appeal to it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.) But I think there’s a deeper answer that explains both why that bigotry exists in the first place and why politicians so habitually neglect us: Atheists don’t lack the numbers or the passion. What we lack is the organization.

Organized religions have two built-in advantages: they have large followings that are accustomed to unquestioning loyalty, and hierarchical structures through which the leaders can issue marching orders to the flock. This means it’s easy for them to orchestrate coordinated actions, like marches, protests and letter-writing campaigns, that are highly visible to politicians and journalists. Atheists, by comparison, are a fiercely independent and contentious bunch – and while I wouldn’t change that if I could, it does make it harder for us to act in unison in the ways that make politicians take notice. It also makes it more difficult for us to mount a swift, strong and coordinated response to the slanderous stereotypes that are habitually heard from pulpits and in the media.

But if we can overcome that and become politically organized – and there’s much evidence that this coalescence is already happening – the potential benefits are enormous. Atheists don’t agree on everything, but I’m confident that we agree on enough to form a constituency that couldn’t be lightly dismissed. The rise of atheists as a political force, if it succeeds, wouldn’t just benefit atheists, but would have positive effects on American society in general and possibly even the world as a whole.

After all, most of the goals we share are also goals of the broader progressive movement: greater protection of free speech, firm separation of church and state, increased funding for science education and research, equal rights for GLBT people, and greater public support for reason and rationality. The idea that we want to take away people’s right to pray or worship in private, or even to preach their beliefs in public, is just as much of a lie today as it was in Thomas Jefferson’s time – but we do unapologetically demand that government employees, when acting in their official capacity, take no action to endorse or aid any specific religion or religion in general. This is no more than the Constitution already requires.

The global arena, also, would benefit from greater atheist involvement. If you list the evils that afflict humanity on an international scale – transnational religious terrorism; the abuse and subjugation of women; the denial of human rights in dictatorships and theocracies – you’ll notice that many of them have this in common: they’re all rooted in primitive, violent, patriarchal religious worldviews, and derive their strength from the excessive power and privilege accorded to faith. Again, a stronger atheist presence on the international stage would be as welcome as a cool breeze in the hothouse of fundamentalist religion, which has so often been used to justify ongoing oppression and inequality.

Imagine the kind of world we could live in if atheists were a political force. It would be a world where secularism is the unquestioned law of the land, where religious groups wouldn’t interfere in politics unless they could put forward arguments backed by evidence that anyone could examine, and not just appeals to faith. We’d rely on science and rationality to shape public policy; humanity would heed the voice of reason, rather than gut feelings or superstitious taboos. In this world, the religious arguments propping up tribalism, racism, and the oppression of women would wither away; the decrees of unelected and unaccountable authorities would fade into dust, and democracy and the liberty of the individual would be the guiding principles.

Religion isn’t solely responsible for all the world’s evils, but – particularly where it goes unchallenged and unaccountable – it plays a role in a surprisingly large number of them. Even if it doesn’t fade away entirely, which I don’t expect to happen anytime soon, it’s likely that the pressure of atheistic critiques would force it to become more moderate, more enlightened, and more humane. A world where atheists held political sway wouldn’t be a utopia by any means, but I’m confident in asserting that it would be more peaceful, fair and free than the world as it is now – and this makes it a goal well worth fighting for.

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://chl-tx.com TX CHL Instructor

    “What we lack is the organization.”

    Yeah, well, organizing atheists is a lot like herding cats.

    I have found that some atheist organizations are just as bigoted, superstitious, and politically biased as those based on religion. Examples of that show up right here in this blog (which I have had the temerity in the past to point out — and been the target of vicious ad hominem attacks (because I’m an atheist who is politically conservative/libertarian, and who chooses to eat meat, among other things). It’s part of the Human condition.

  • http://reedbraden.com Reed Braden

    Maybe they’re not ad hominem attacks. Maybe you’re just a self-righteous blowhard.

  • karen

    Excellent essay, Adam! I hope it gets the attention and provokes the kind of enlightening debate that it deserves. Thanks for being such a thoughtful and articulate spokesman for us heathens. ;-)

  • http://gazinglongintoanabyss.blogspot.com/ Michael

    @TX CHL Instructor Ah, but trying to organize libertarians can be like herding cats too, no? All the atheist organizations I’m a member of are strongly Progressive/left liberal, which is a bit uncomfortable for anyone who disagrees with that. I count only three people who do, myself among them, although one is a Communist, so it’s more a case of the Progressives being not quite Leftist enough for him.

    @Reed Braden: “Maybe they’re not ad hominem attacks. Maybe you’re just a self-righteous blowhard.” Quelle irony-using an ad hominem to say they’re not ad hominems.

  • Demonhype

    Well, no, religion isn’t solely responsible for all the world’s evils, but it does provide some excellent insulation for them. It’s already hard enough when you’re arguing against someone’s opinion that is based entirely in emotion or tradition or early teaching because you’ve got someone’s ego fighting to protect what they are used to against evidence to the contrary. Now add religion, which strokes that ego and tells you that you are special and right and that no amount of evidence will ever matter enough to change that, that puts their opinion firmly out of the realm of logic, reason and reality into some transcendent realm wherein those things do not matter and anyone who disagrees with you can be comfortably placed in the “forces of evil” category, wherein anyone who argues with your views is a danger to you and society who will be directly responsible for you being tortured for eternity….well, you see where I’m going here. Religion adds an extra layer of insulation to one’s views that is uniquely difficult to push through, that makes its adherents instantly demonize any dissent and makes it much easier for leaders to maintain their positions–who was it that said that thing about religion being true for the common, false for the wise, and useful for the governments? Because that’s very true.

    There would still be jerks and fascists etc. without religion, but there wouldn’t be that special transcendent magical pedestal that places fundamentally it out of reach of any dissent or reason or logic. Not that dogma would entirely go away either–look at the Soviets!–but again, it wouldn’t have that special magical super-spiritual untouchable layer to it.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    Neocon and libertarian atheists are a large minority in the godless community; nonbelievers are one of the most liberal groups in the country (right up there with Reformed Jews). It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that politically-active atheist organizations tend to be liberal. The pro-theocracy stance of the GOP doesn’t help matters, either.

  • http://darkenedstumbling.blogspot.com/ Leum

    (right up there with Reformed Jews)

    It’s nitpicky of me, but it’s “Reform Jews,” no “-ed.” The Reformed movement is a Christian (and I believe Calvinist) movement.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Quelle irony-using an ad hominem to say they’re not ad hominems.

    No, the irony was that we’re “bigoted, superstitious, and politically biased” “right here in this blog” and thus our views should be dismissed.

  • http://gazinglongintoanabyss.blogspot.com/ Michael

    @Comment #6: True, but libertarians who are atheists oppose it too. They just extend that opposition to government generally.

    @Comment #7: Yes, as in the Reformed Church of Geneva that Calvin began.

    @Comment #8: Double irony then. It tends to get thick in political discussions.

  • Kaelik

    @Michael, it turns out, that not all insults are ad hominems. The statement that people might have been making ad hominems, and that instead, he’s the sort of self righteous blowhard who thinks that every insult is an ad hominem, is not in fact making any argument at all, and therefore cannot be an ad hominem.

  • Alex

    I used to look at politicians as humans with human points of view and opinions, but I find more success predicting their behavior when I think of them as simple re-election machines programmed to say and do anything at all to continue in that capacity. If it means throwing nonbelievers a bone in the form of uttering the words “and nonbelievers” in a speech and then inviting Rick Warren over for tea, well it’s in the re-election program. This is why we see so few open nonbelievers among the political ranks. They are following the program and courting who they must to hold their jobs. Nothing personal. Currently, we are a piece of the re-election puzzle that can be ignored or exploited. As long as we are a hot button for voting believers, I think this will continue.

  • http://gazinglongintoanabyss.blogspot.com/ Michael

    @Comment#10: On further reflection, you’re right, it’s not an ad hominem. My mistake Kaelik. Did I commit a logical fallacy there myself?

  • Charles Black

    Ebon have you seen an email like this?
    “IMPORTANT

    AUSTRALIA WILL BE HOLDING A CENSUS IN AUGUST
    DO NOT LEAVE THE “RELIGION” SECTION BLANK.
    BE SURE TO AT LEAST TICK CHRISTIAN (OR YOUR UPBRINGING FAITH).
    1,000,000 MUSLIMS WILL TICK THEIR BOX.
    10,000,000 AUSTRALIANS WILL LEAVE IT BLANK THEN WONDER WHY
    A MOSQUE IS BUILT IN THEIR NEIGHBOURHOOD!!!
    PASS THIS ON TO ALL YOUR FRIENDS.”

    Please help us Aussies stop this nonsense from affecting the census results if you can Ebon.

  • Swerve

    Atheists tend to be liberal. However, there isn’t an umbrella that we all are under. An Atheist is someone who simply answers anything other then yes to the questions “Is there a god?” I find many Atheist come about their understanding after rigorous research and tend to know more about religion then believers.
    BTW, facts tend to be liberally biased lol

  • Alex Weaver

    Oh FFS.

    For the last frickin’ time, “ad hominem” does not mean using an insult. It means using an insult as a premise.

    That’s right at the top of the list of things that, some days, it seems like no one past a certain age should be allowed access to food or water until they demonstrate that it’s sunk through their stupid skulls.

    I don’t appreciate the malignant idiots who make it terrifyingly easy to entertain thoughts like that, you know. >.>

  • Jormungundr

    @#13:
    Aren’t there honestly a lot of Christians in Australia? If someone does hold Christian views then they should check the box.
    The scaremongering about Muslims is ridiculous, but the basic message of ‘check the box that matches your faith, even if you aren’t a Christian’ is reasonable. The only issue then is if ‘upbringing faith’ and ‘current theological views’ is being conflated.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    What is with the hostile pedantry, Weaver? Even worse, flawed pedantry. Those words have literal meaning in Latin, and that meaning is appropriate to several contexts in which they are used. You don’t have some special right to decide what others intend by the words they use.

    In any case, your empty threats of deprivation (imprisonment? torture?) are noted. I suppose that was meant to improve others opinion of you somehow; I can assure you it did not succeed.

    One other note: would you like to explain for the rest of us (since your well of wisdom is that deep) how one is able to cleanly and clearly separate insults designed to discredit as part of an argument, and insults that merely exist independently, unconnected to everything else that was said?

  • Dennis

    The thought of a conservative athiest makes me think of Dick Cheney. Almost enough to make me believe in Satan… OK. maybe that’s not fair, but when I think of conservatism I think of exclusion, bigotry and prejuduce. It seems to be what they are comfortable with.

  • Jormungundr

    The thought of a conservative athiest makes me think of Dick Cheney

    Why do conservative atheists make you think of a neocon Methodist? Cheney is neither a conservative (surely we can tell the difference between a neocon and a conservative), nor an atheist.

    when I think of conservatism I think of exclusion, bigotry and prejuduce

    When I think of conservatism I think of free market values, low taxes and small government. I think of Goldwater opposing the culture war advocated by the so called religious right while adhering to the tax and economic policies that promote freedom and prosperity in opposition to the disastrous policies advocated by the left.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Hmmm, maybe you should join the 21st century.

  • Ron A. Zajac

    There’s a corollary to what you say about Christian (political) unity. Politics is yet-another wash behind which the enormous non-unity of Christians gets obscured. Christian sects may think every other sect is going to eternal fiery torment, but by God they’re fairly consistently voting for “values” candidates.

    And it’s weirder than that. Plainly put, Christians largely aren’t unified, even within a given church. From time to time I’ve found myself in church environments, and “discussions” therein are typified by a kind of unconscious dogged determination to avoid the simplest kinds of probity that secularists take for granted. In these situation, it’s often come to pass that I innocently make an innocuous followup inquiry regarding something someone said in the interests of piety. I get those darting glances that say, “Oh! You’re not one of _us_, are you?” Even in one church environment, you don’t ask questions; you don’t use your head; you don’t react. Ultimately, the message is that it’s heresy to reflect a bit. And, I might add, an open-minded reading of the Gospels would seem to indicate that even Jesus (historic or no) is with me on this one! He wasn’t one to avoid stating the obvious, early and often. Ironic, wot?

    The real issue, when it comes to the care and feeding of a democratic republic is to denounce the scrim of “unity” and plead for the enlightenment virtue of hashing things out, in the open and on the table.

    Now, what all the foregoing might have to do with beginning to carve out a social movement for atheist (or non-believer) political unity is the big, big question. Another irony, when you think about it, is that it may really just come down to the fight between sanctified know-nothing troglodytic–and hell-bent–political momentum, and some kind of “movement” that seeks to remind people that the highest virtue of a truly decent society is the open and evidence-seeking exploration of real social possibilities.

    Now, how you make a “movement” out of that is the *big* question!

  • http://www.usanap,org Bridget Gaudette

    National Atheist Party. Do we have your support?


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