Australian Asks: Why Don’t Atheists Get Elected in America?

Anne Davies in The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) has an article called, “A non-believer – say it isn’t so.”

It opens with a (slightly erroneous) story about Pete Stark:

Pete Stark found himself in a unique and slightly uncomfortable position earlier this year. The longtime Democrat congressman for the Oakland district near San Francisco had responded to a survey from the Secular Coalition for America which offered a $1000 prize to the person who could identify the “highest-level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of ‘nontheist’ currently holding elected public office in the United States”.

To his surprise, that was him. Stark was the only one of 535 federal politicians prepared to admit he had no religion. For a few brief weeks he was the poster-boy for the humanists in a nation where, according to Pew Foundation research, eight out of 10 people say they have “no doubt God exists” and that “prayer is an important part of their daily lives”.

In the immediate aftermath, Stark’s staff worried about the backlash. Would his office be targeted by fire-and-brimstone Christians, prophesying his imminent damnation? One or two callers promised to pray for Stark’s soul, but for the most part, the callers felt Stark was championing a position held by a significant but silent minority.

Fortunately, at 75, Stark is not planning to seek higher office. If he had been, he had just committed political suicide.

That makes it sound like Stark nominated himself. He didn’t. He was separately nominated by two people and one of them won the contest (via a coin toss).

The rest of the article discusses how being an atheist hinders you from getting elected to higher office in America and why religion has flourished in that area.

Being an atheist is the biggest handicap a person could have to being elected US president – worse than being gay or a woman, according to a Gallup poll in February.

More than 53 per cent of people surveyed said they would not vote for an atheist. They would prefer a homosexual president – 43 per cent said they would not vote for a homosexual – or a woman president (11 per cent said they would not vote for a woman).

And it seems that these days being black or Catholic or Jewish is hardly a barrier at all, with each of these factors being named as a bar by fewer than 7 per cent of voters.

To Australians, the idea of asking a politician about their religious beliefs and practices would seem impertinent, at best irrelevant. Being a non-believer is certainly not a bar to high office as Bob Hawke proved. In 1980, during a interview on ABC television, Hawke admitted: “Until I get some evidence one way or the other which is compelling to me, I’m going to have to remain an agnostic …” He was prime minister three years later.

A leader demanding evidence before acting on a whim? Amazing.

It seems that Americans want a Christian president, but they are not sure that he or she should let their religious supporters have open access to the Oval Office.

It’s been said before, but I don’t think most atheists mind if a Christian gets elected. As long as Christianity isn’t used as the sole basis for the person’s decisions. Let it guide you, if it must, but you better have secular reasons for supporting or vetoing legislation as well.


[tags]atheist, atheism, Anne Davies, The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, Pete Stark, Secular Coalition for America, Pew Foundation, God, prayer, Christian, Bob Hawke, agnostic[/tags]

  • PrimateIR

    Prior to this administration I would have said that it didn’t matter to me that much. Now….

  • http://www.christiansontheclock.org Matt L

    Not surprising those comments would come from Australia. That nation is actually a very tough mission field in that they started with a very bad taste in their mouth about Christianity and it’s continued to this day. Unfortunately their bad experience had nothing to do with Christ letting them down – just people.

  • http://20gramsoul.com Richard

    I can’t believe you’re digging up Australian news before I’ve read it – I should really keep a closer eye on our own papers! ;)

    I think most Australians (atheists, or otherwise) would agree with your point “I don’t think most atheists mind if a Christian gets elected. As long as Christianity isn’t used as the sole basis for the person’s decisions.” – I believe our current PM (John Howard) is, in fact, a Christian – but as the article suggests, for most Australians, we simply don’t care.

    I suppose if we (accidentally?) elected a leader who did base all their decisions on the religious views, we’d probably start to take notice. I think that’s a lot less likely here, though, because we all have to vote – you’ve got a lot more people to convince if you want to win office!

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Why don’t atheists get elected? Who knows but the ones who act like jerks don’t do anything to make atheists electable.

    Maybe it’s like what Michael Ruse said about Dawkins and Dennett, they’re the best thing that has happened to the ID promoters in years. I believe William Dembski has thanked them for their help by being such idiots. Dawkins understanding of American politics alone could win the case for anti-evolution.

  • ash

    olvlzl, i don’t understand…are you suggesting that the majority of (american)theists, especially christians, are stupid, knee-jerk and immensly gullible? it appears that you’re saying that the american public will judge all atheists on the examples of a couple of high profile atheists (kinda like judging all theists on the examples of jerks like falwell), a view you seem to support by using the words of Dembski. interesting, seeing as Dembski has been accused of psuedo-science and commenting outside his fields by other members of the scientific community…i thought this was an argument for why Dawkin’s views could not be held as entirely valid?

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    ash, I’m saying that most people aren’t particularly interested in the culture(s) of atheism – including lots of atheists I will throw in, Jonathan Miller speaks for more than himself. As I’ve pointed out many times about several different efforts the most loudmouthed and obnoxious tend to grab the microphone and dominate the discussion. When it is politically advantageous to the entrenched establishment, that obnoxious presence will become the face of that group. More moderate and sensible voices will be ignored by both sides.

    Personally, I judge people as individuals, atheists (my dearest brother is an atheist) and religious. However, it is not uncommon for people to group people into stereotypes which, while unrealistic, are easier to think about and easier to dismiss. I suspect that an effective percentage of the large majority of American voters, who are religious believers, are prone to doing this. Since Dawkins and his would be T. Huxley, Dennett, have made themselves the public face of atheism in the English speaking world, his excesses, insulting the majority for absolutely no good reason, except perhaps his own ignorance, are something you are going to have to deal with.

    Dembski is a supporter of pseudo-science, however, he’s no dope as far as politics is concerned. He doesn’t have to win the scientific argument to prevail politically. All he has to do is get enough Supreme Court Justices to agree with his position and if Bush gets another, or some other Republican who panders to the religious right does, he wins. Dawkins and the impractical atheists who would rather insult religious believers than make common cause with those who support science (as Michael Ruse suggests) are handing the IDers a gift it isn’t necessary to give them. Dawkins views aren’t the issue, his actions are and his actions are the sign of an immature and a selfish and foolish man. That is if science is his main value, something for which I see very little practical evidence. He’s a publicity hound.


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