When Will We Have an Atheist President?

So far this year, a rightward-leaning Supreme Court has issued two major rulings granting sweeping new privileges to religious belief. Atheists and secularists in America are angry and frustrated, and it’s natural to wonder when we’ll have a government that heeds our wishes. Is there any prospect of an atheist president any time soon, or a nonbeliever in some other high political office?

My message, to atheists and friends of secularism, is that there’s reason to hope. It won’t be next election cycle or even next decade, but things may change faster than we think.

The most underappreciated fact about the future of American politics is that the so-called Millennial generation, born between 1982 and 2000, is both the biggest (yes, bigger than the Baby Boomers) and least religious generation in American history. It seems likely that they’re on the leading edge of the same secularizing shift that’s already happened in Europe and other First World countries, as religion ceases to be an overwhelmingly important part of daily life. Higher levels of education are playing a part in this, but it’s likely that, in America at least, it’s also a reaction against the way politically aggressive fundamentalism has made religion synonymous with a particular harsh and intolerant political outlook.

As the younger, more secular demographics grow into adulthood and replace more religiously homogeneous voters, blatant appeals to religion will begin failing as a campaign tactic. We’re already seeing the first encouraging signs of this – the 2006 U.S. midterm elections were swung by independent voters, of which the non-religious are a major bloc; and atheist-bashing political ads have failed to turn the tide in elections, to say nothing of the non-religious’ overwhelming support for Barack Obama in two elections – but it hasn’t happened often enough or obviously enough to really catch politicians’ attention.

But when it does sink in, the American political landscape will change dramatically. The importance of secularism as a constitutional principle will be recognized again; associating with pushy, domineering fundamentalists will become poison for national campaigns; loud and showy god-talk will decline in importance; candidates may even explicitly reach out to us. It’s only then that an openly atheist candidate would stand a chance. It may take a long time for the dam to break, but when it does happen, the change could take place quite rapidly, just as same-sex marriage went from unthinkable to unstoppable within a short few years.

While atheists, lacking a central authority or sacred text, are a diverse and contentious bunch and that will likely never change, I think there are some basic principles we can agree on. I’ve listed some of them in the past: LGBT rights, separation of church and state, public support for science and education, and defense of reproductive choice, to name a few. And when there is an actual atheist candidate, the excitement of that milestone will no doubt lead atheists to line up behind her.

That said, I think the real achievement won’t be the first atheist presidential candidate, but the second. As long as atheists running for office are seen as unusual or exceptional, there will remain that otherizing perception that there’s something different about us, that being a nonbeliever is a category unlike the rest of humanity. When an atheist candidate isn’t an exceptional event, but something that doesn’t even occasion comment or raised eyebrows, then we’ll know we’ve taken our rightful place in the body politic.

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Atheist community here.

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.

  • DJMankiwitz

    I can never get a consistent period of time for the “millennial” generation. Some start it squarely in 1980 (which would make me both a gen x’er and a millennial, which feels really weird). Others place it’s starting date very close to 2000.

    As a result, I have to wonder what the heck the point of “naming” a generation even is. (I personally hated being called a “generation x” kid, as I never felt like I fit in with THAT generation either.) I have about as much in common with people born in 1999 or so as I do with people born in 1960. Heck, I’ve learned over time that I’m a space/time anomaly as compared to other “children of the 80′s”, so even that isn’t a good gauge. Turns out most 80′s kids didn’t grow up with computers and the internet as I did. I just got lucky and had a parent who worked in the field, so there’s really never been a point in my life where I didn’t have access to computers and internetty stuff (yep, 80′s internet, which according to movies from that decade was used primarily for hacking your school grades, accidentally starting a nuclear war, and fighting “for the users”, but which I used to download Apogee game demos and walkthroughs from BBS’s).

  • Shawn

    I think that the atheist movement will be similar to the gay rights movement in that eventually there will be a critical mass of “out” people. It’s really easy to hate and vilify “the gays”. It’s harder to hate Cousin Jim, and even harder than that to hate Cousin Jim and his cool partner Eugene, and those nice ladies down the street, and that old college roommate you had back when. I live in the fringes of the Bible Belt, and I am not open to just anyone about my atheism, since it would affect my professional life in ways that aren’t fair to my family. At least with the rise of the Internet I no longer believe that I’m the only person in the world with religious doubts, like I did when I was younger, and I can contribute to the Secular Student Alliance and similar groups to help the future.

  • eyelessgame

    You need to end the headline question of this post with “again”. We’ve had atheist presidents. Just not since the 19th century.

  • katiehippie

    I hope I see the day when nobody cares what religion or not the president is. I want to hear this conversation:
    person 1: I hear the presidential candidate is an atheist.
    person 2: So? How does he/she feel about our level of military spending?

  • http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com/ Leo Buzalsky

    And when there is an actual atheist candidate, the excitement of that milestone will no doubt lead atheists to line up behind her.

    Oh, and they’re going to be a female candidate! Well, that’s an interesting prediction if you at all meant that to be one, which I’m guessing you really didn’t, but I’m going to run with it and say that I can see some reasoning behind that. While atheists currently tend to be more male, the religious right is really waging a war on women right now, so I can totally see more women joining our ranks in the future as part of that reaction against fundamentalists. Also due to this, I can see a woman politician being more likely to shout “Enough!” and come out as atheist

  • Shawn

    We may have already had a gay president as well – although I wouldn’t blame anybody for not trying to claim James Buchanan as one of their own.

  • TBP100

    I suspect we’ve had atheist presidents, just not “out” atheist presidents.

  • raylampert

    We very well may have already had atheist Presidents and other elected officials before. I think the big deal is going to be when we have somebody who is openly atheist. Bernie Sanders recently came out as an atheist after he chose to retire from Congress. He never openly said he was an atheist while he was in office, but never made religion part of his identity.
    I would be more than willing to wager that we’ve had several people in high office who have felt the need to conceal their lack of belief in order to win votes.

  • GCT
  • vegemighty

    His claims to the contrary, I suspect we have one right now.

  • AndyT

    I don’t think US will have an openly Atheist President anytime soon; afterall, just 2 years ago a Gallup survey showed that most people would rather have a Muslim or LGBT President than an Atheist one:

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/155285/atheists-muslims-bias-presidential-candidates.aspx

  • raylampert

    I think a lot of people suspect that Obama’s self-identity as a Christian isn’t the same definition that some others might use. There are people out there who call themselves “Christian atheists”, in that they try to follow the teachings of Jesus without accepting his divinity.
    I suspect that Obama is probably a deist. I don’t get the sense that he believes in a personal god, but he at least nominally supports the teachings of Jesus, at least where they’re practical to follow.

  • Akai Koru

    Were the Bulletin Boards you went to hooked to the net somehow? All of ours were only a computer at someone’s house and my computer being connected…

  • L.Long

    I know exactly when we get an atheist prez!
    You all hear about the place filled with fire? That people talk about freezing over!
    Well when it snows there, we get an atheist Prez.

  • Guest

    Never mind atheism, when will you have a president that doesn’t suck?

  • http://www.lacourt-m.com/ MarilynLaCourt

    ” LGBT rights, separation of church and state, public support for science and education, and defense of reproductive choice, to name a few.”
    As an 80 year old woman, I would add euthanasia to this list things we should support.
    This is an issue that the younger atheists among us do not quite see as important, certainly not urgent.

  • http://www.lacourt-m.com/ MarilynLaCourt

    Given the misogynistic underpinnings of almost all religions, especially the mainstream ones, I can see this potential.
    Yes! Enough!

  • http://www.lacourt-m.com/ MarilynLaCourt

    Good for you, Shawn. There is a song in the movie “Cabaret” called “tomorrow belongs to me”.
    I know it is supposed to be about how the Natzis brain washed German youth. But the song is really quite beautiful. Listening to it with an open mind it really becomes a protest song.

  • anxionnat

    Hey–Is there any way to get rid of these intrusive ads, which blast out at me when I’m trying to read your posts. If this happens again, I will *definitely* stop reading your site.

  • heterodox

    We may have had an atheist for president in 1800… And probably a number of other closeted atheists since then.

    Of course, what is really meant is “When will we have an avowed atheist for president?” But I think it’s an important distinction to make.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    I’ve always thought that assigning attributes to “generations” was pretty stupid anyway. The catagory is vague enough that it can be used to justify pretty much anything you want to say.

  • Nemo

    Personally, if an atheist ran for office in the same way that fundamentalists often ran, I would not vote for them. I don’t care what someone’s religious views are. President Kennedy was well known for his religious views, but that didn’t effect his governance. Abraham Lincoln became much more religious after he got elected (a lot of people do in tough times), but he was still a good president.

  • Acurisur
  • Robert Hussein

    In theory , there is a separation of Church, and the State, in Reality USA is far from it, until that day comes, Gods are in Church, just come to Middle East to see Gods’ work. The only way to be president of USA today, if you brag that you are carrying Bible wherever you go. Like here in Middle East , .

  • J-D

    Obama made a personal choice as an adult to be baptised and to join a Christian church, which is probably more than the majority of Christians could say.

  • J-D

    What the opinion surveys showed two years in the past might be a good guide to what they _will_ say fifteen years in the future — but then again, maybe not.

  • J-D

    The point of assigning names to generations is to make trivial things look important. There could be a number of reasons for doing this. It might be used as a way of appearing more knowledgeable than you really are, or it might be used as a way of distracting attention from more important subjects.

  • Donalbain

    Why? Based on what evidence?

  • Donalbain

    Why do you suspect that? What evidence do you use to come to that conclusion?

  • Donalbain

    So, just after Scotland win the World Cup?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Which ads? The mailing list ones?

  • Cafeeine

    All of the above, and a quick way for magazines to group together whatever group they want to discuss. Its easier to say “Generation X” than to say “those people 15-25 who do X, Y and Z.
    If I were charitable, I would call it economical language. If not, plain lazy.

    I wonder what effect did such labeling have on the people who did not fit in the mold they tried to squeeze it in.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    I am heartened by the increasing number of secular people, but religion does have quite a strong hold, and it’s sometimes possible for a group that’s long been in power to maintain that influence, even as their percentage of the population decreases. What I think will be a big step is when we start having debates, arguments, etc. about politics without the participants having to bring up God. When we have a bunch of candidates, and all but when mention God all the time, then that one person stands out. But if we have multiple candidates who are secular (not necessarily atheist) then that’ll set a nice precedent that we don’t have to refer to religion to answer all questions. Then, multiple secular candidates will have a chance, and it might not seem as weird if a person is an atheist.

  • DJMankiwitz

    At the time, there were no “hyper links”, as the “world wide web” hadn’t yet been properly invented (that is, web pages as people understand them wouldn’t come along until the early 90′s). So as such, if you wanted to connect to a computer using this or that protocol (usually BBS, but there were a few others for limited purposes, like the Atari 2600′s online service, yes, that existed), you generally had to know each machine’s “address” (usually as a phone number). Without search engines or hyper links, you’d basically dial into each BBS individually, with some BBSes serving as “directories” full of the numbers for other BBSes. So, if I wanted to find walkthroughs, I’d first have to find a directory that happened to have a number for some game enthusiast BBS, then once on that BBS, I might find either a walkthrough or a number to yet another personal BBS someone owned that had their personal walkthroughs. I never did delve too deeply into that like other older kids back then, but it was interesting (and time consuming) when I did.

    Yes, some BBS systems were directly “dialed into” each other as a shared link, sharing resources and a common BBS interface (how else would you set up computer chess tournaments?…. I never set up a computer chess tournament…), but yeah, I’m pretty sure most BBS systems were just their own thing, much like early web pages were very often hosted locally. The notion of a shared network like (ugh) GoDaddy that hosted numerous web pages came along a bit later.

    However, it all was still the internet. It all existed on the same basic infrastructure, and anyone who was “on” could reach anyone else so long as they knew where to call. In that sense, no different than today. It’s not like the world wide web is truly all on “one” network, it’s all split across numerous service prodivers, server farms, and various companies and institutions all linking through various “pipes”. In fact, one part of the world could essentially be “cut off” from another part if some of the more important pathways ever got taken down (back end pathways would still be set up, though at far slower bandwidth, too little to accommodate all the traffic the larger “pipe” was capable of).

    I wasn’t alive for 70′s internet, but from what I understand you basically had to belong to a college in order to access those systems.

    Huh, if you widen the definition enough, telegraph might be considered the earliest “internet”. That’s stretching it for sure, but it’s got a certain poetic element to it.

  • Jenee Binet

    I think Jefferson came pretty close.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    FYI, I brought this to the attention of the Patheos higher-ups. They said that they don’t sell or allow auto-play ads, but some of their ad networks slip them in anyway; they’ve severed their association with ad networks in the past because of this. If you’re still seeing autoplays, please let me know and I’ll take that back to them. (Screen shots might be helpful.)

  • anxionnat

    Thanks Adam. I appreciate your concern and your actions. They were driving me nuts. I’m not a computer person, but my computer guru (nephew) installed a thing to get rid of ads, which it did on your site. Thanks again, and keep up the excellent work!

  • GeniusPhx

    our first 7 presidents were deists, which was code back then for atheist. deism was on the path between christian and atheism just like ‘spiritual but no religious’ is now. washington, adams, jefferson, madison, monroe, adams, and jackson all had contempt for christianity tho they had to seem religious.

    i wish someone would pretend to be a bible thumper then come out as atheist after swearing in.


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