What If We Elected an Atheist President?

This isn’t a letter-to-the-editor.

It’s an opinion piece by Beverly McPhail, appearing in the Houston Chronicle.

How often do you see writing like this accepted for publication in your local newspaper?

Some days it seems as if candidates are running for the nation’s office of first cleric rather than commander in chief. It is ironic that believing in invisible beings and hearing their voices is viewed as a qualification for an office in the West Wing when traditionally it qualified one for a room in a psychiatric ward. However, the majority of Americans seem to want a candidate who believes in God as well as America.

Go on…

We atheists are a small and misunderstood minority. Only 3 percent to 9 percent of Americans report that they do not believe in God. Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi‘s review of psychological studies reveals that atheists are less authoritarian and suggestible than religious believers, less dogmatic, less prejudiced, more tolerant of others, law-abiding, compassionate, conscientious, highly intelligent and well educated.

Some religiously inclined mistakenly believe that atheists are amoral. However, we atheists tend to subscribe to the highest moral principles and do so without being motivated by fear of hell or hope of heaven.

In some cases, the number of people that have no religious affiliation or are atheist/agnostic is much higher.

What would be the benefits to having an atheist president?

One benefit of having a president who is atheist would be that policies would be adopted or rejected due to science and reason rather than a religious creed that may not represent the beliefs of all Americans. Issues such as stem cell research, evolution and gay marriage would be considered on their merits and in accordance with the Constitution rather than human interpretations of religious texts.

Another benefit of having an atheist president is that bloodshed could be less likely. Some of the most brutal episodes in world history, including the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch burnings, genocides and bombings by Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, have been conducted in the name of God. Other countries might well be more trusting of our motives if religious subtexts were absent.

If religious tests were no longer required for public office and more atheists were elected, believers could focus more on their traditional realm of feeding the hungry and clothing the poor. The faithful could seek spiritual enlightenment rather than elected office.

There must be a downside, though:

A disadvantage, however, is that journalists and voters would have to focus on substantive policy positions held by candidates rather than their professed beliefs. No longer could a voter hold up a Christian Bible, as one questioner did at a recent Republican debate, and ask if candidates believed every word in the book. Perhaps candidates would have to pledge, instead, that they have read and believe every word in the Constitution.

Wow.

Nice.

McPhail’s email address is at the bottom of the article. I’m sure she’d appreciate some words of thanks.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • http://blueollie.wordpress.com/ ollie

    Unfortunately, this is the type of garbage we get in our (Peoria) paper

    As recounted in a special last month on PBS’ program, “Nova,” a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled in 2005 that teaching intelligent design in the classroom violates the constitutional ban on teaching religion in public schools.

    I realize, therefore, that what follows – since it could conceivably find its way into schools somewhere or other – might result in my being dragged off to jail and beaten with a rubber hose.

    Now, I am not an unquestioning advocate of intelligent design, much less the more fundamental concepts of creationism. But what strikes me as completely irrational is the idea that this all “just happened” and that there is no particular rhyme or reason to this incredible scenario that is life and death, the seasons, and the great globe itself.

    To deny that there is some reason, some intelligence, behind all this is to deny common sense, which is in woefully short supply these days. […]

    So what is the point of all this? If we accept without question the legally approved concept that it all just happened and that to bring an intelligence – God – into the picture verges on the criminal, then there is no point. It becomes a cosmic joke with no punch line and very little laughter […]

    The fact that to teach otherwise might be legally unacceptable is to deny what the vast majority of people believe. So we must be taught that we have evolved after some mysterious big bang occurred, and then some kind of creature crawled out of the sea and evolved, eventually, into a species called man with the ability to reason, to laugh, to think and to tie his own shoes.

    Talk about a fairy tale.

    If you believe this, I know of a nice bridge for sale cheap. It’s blue and it is made of steel beams and lots of rivets and it has a sturdy concrete deck and it wasn’t made by anybody. It just happened . . . by accident. Can you believe it?

    Unfortunately, the author of this article is very popular with the general public.

  • http://thisislikesogay.blogspot.com Duncan

    Referring to the President as “the nation’s … commander in chief” isn’t quite on target either. The president is the head of the Executive Branch, and commander in chief of the military, but he’s not my commander. I’ve had some interesting disputes with military personnel who thought that I, a civilian, am supposed to do whatever the President tells me. Is this letter writer a military nut? I’m glad to learn, once again, how thoughtful and well-informed my fellow atheists are.

    Art 2, sec 2: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States…”

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  • Arlen

    Off topic: Is it just me, or have today’s postings seemed a little less “friendly” than usual?

    On topic: Atheist leadership certainly didn’t play out well for the Soviets. But I guess most atheists would see that as a tired, old argument. The simple fact is that power corrupts. There is absolutely no reason to suspect that an atheist leader would act any more morally than a theist one. All of America’s bad presidents have been Christian, true, but all of its good Presidents have been Christian, too. That accidentally rhymed.

    One point on which I agree with the author is that every American needs to stop and take the time to look at a candidate’s actual positions on actual issues instead of just using that candidate’s faith, party affiliation, or race as a shorthand. The power-hungry win when we stop paying close attention.

  • http://foo.ca/wp richard

    I tried not to respond on the thread… it didn’t take long for the old standards of “Hitler was a Christian” and the converse “Pol Pot was an atheist” to be brought out to play.

    I am not responsible for the sins of my great great grandfather, let alone those who are genetically unrelated to me.

    Trying to inject some sanity (heh) there as “xinit”

  • Claire

    But I guess most atheists would see that as a tired, old argument.

    Yes, so why bring it up? And why does no one ever seem to think that maybe it was, say, the communism that caused the problems?

    There is absolutely no reason to suspect that an atheist leader would act any more morally than a theist one.

    Maybe, maybe not, but there is every reason to think that an atheist leader might act more rationally. There is every reason to think that an atheist leader might look to the constitution rather than a bible to guide his actions. Either one of those would be a pleasant and positive change from what we have now.

    Even better, if there was an atheist in the White House, it would be nice to know that the person in charge is NOT in favor of the middle east going up like a tinderbox as a preface to the second coming or the rapture or some other damn thing, as the current occupant quite possibly is.

  • AJ

    Arlen,

    Read the article, read what Hemant writes. It seems like the points that Atheists bring up against faith are never read or understood. Your response completely ignores the points of the article, instead using guilt by association, true but unrelated catch phrases, and a strawman for good measure.

    Atheist leadership certainly didn’t play out well for the Soviets. But I guess most atheists would see that as a tired, old argument.

    That’s already been refuted over and over again. Are you saying the problem with marxism-leninism and stalinism was that it was implemented by Atheists? Do you see many Atheists suggesting that if only Fascism of the 20th century had been run by Atheists, it would have all worked out?

    The simple fact is that power corrupts.

    Is this advocating anarchism, or are you suggesting, for instance, bans on stem cell research are not theological in nature? Somehow I doubt that an Atheist in power is going to ban something because of interpretations of holy text.

    There is absolutely no reason to suspect that an atheist leader would act any more morally than a theist one.

    At first reading that seems to be a point the article doesn’t make. The shocking announcement in the article being that Atheists aren’t amoral, and that they “tend to hold to the highest moral principles”, which I took as opinion, and mentions nothing of Theists.

  • http://blueollie.wordpress.com/ ollie

    I do find this frequent mention of Stalin to be interesting.

    I’ll say this bluntly: most of the atheists that I know (either personally or via the internet) would have been quickly killed by Stalin; the vast majority of us are freethinkers which is diametrically opposed to Stalinism and its relatives.

    Remember that Stalin also suppressed science when its conclusions were in conflict with his agenda, often with disaster as a consequence.

  • http://foo.ca/wp richard

    ollie; that’s like what I used to tell my anarchist friends. They were, to a person, scrawny, pale, and weak. Anarchy would have been a very very unhealthy model for them…

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I don’t think the simple fact of having an atheist as President is going to necessarily put an end to America’s imperialistic tendencies. For instance, let’s suppose that Karl Rove ended up being that atheist president. Is he likely to be a better option than, say, Dennis Kucinich, who believes both in God and in UFO’s, and also believes in fair trade, universal health care, electoral reform, poverty reduction, ecological sustainability, peacemaking, etc.?

    It’s the policies, not the metaphysical beliefs, that I’ll be voting on.

  • http://thewayward1.blogspot.com/ Brett

    MikeClawson,
    I’m a Kucinich supporter and I completely understand your point, but I think what’s being put forward as potential benefits of an atheist for president has little to do with the candidate’s position on the imperialistic tendencies of America. It has more to do with the idea that an atheist prez would not use his fath-based belief systems to derive his positions on issues, but rather a rational inquiry-based and merit-based thought processto do so instead. This, in my opinion, is a highly desirable characteristic in a national leader.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    It has more to do with the idea that an atheist prez would not use his fath-based belief systems to derive his positions on issues, but rather a rational inquiry-based and merit-based thought processto do so instead.

    Sure, but there are plenty of theist candidates who would do the same, so I don’t see the relevance of atheism vs. theism to who I should choose.

    Also, would you say that the neo-con positions of an atheist like Karl Rove are “rational inquiry-based”? If yes, then that ought to be proof that “rational inquiry” is no guarantee of good policies. And if no, then that is proof that being an atheist is no guarantee of making rational decisions.

  • http://thewayward1.blogspot.com/ Brett

    Since when is Rove an atheist? There were reports that he had confided in others about his agnosticism, but when he was asked about it, he said that he was a christian.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Since when is Rove an atheist?

    Last I heard Christopher Hitchens had “outed” him as an atheist. Where did you read that he had denied it?

    Or if you don’t think Rove actually is, take Hitchens’ own neo-con tendencies… or any other atheist that agrees with the neo-cons for that matter – there must be some out there. It doesn’t matter what name you fill in the blank.

  • Arlen

    Claire:

    Yes, so why bring it up? And why does no one ever seem to think that maybe it was, say, the communism that caused the problems?

    Of course! My point is that, for every leader, regardless of his or her stance on God/god/FSM/etc, there are a hundred million reasons that guide their decision-making. It’s just as silly to say Stalin or Pol Pot was a horrible leader because they were atheists as it is to argue that George W. Bush or Hitler are/were horrible leaders because of their faith!

    Maybe, maybe not, but there is every reason to think that an atheist leader might act more rationally.

    I, respectfully, don’t buy it. A Christian leader may act irrationally because of the influence of his or her faith, but it doesn’t follow that an atheist leader will act rationally because of his or her lack thereof. Experience has taught me that people will be irrational for a great many reasons, many of them unrelated to religion.

    If I may put just a few words in your mouth: I think you might say that given the choice between two exactly identical potential leaders, one of whom is a Christian and one of whom is an atheist, you would choose the atheist to lead because, of the two, he is the one who has not yet demonstrated irrationality.

    It is a fair point.

    To that I would argue that a democratic leader must rule by compromise and consensus, therefore having a large base of supporters would be quite helpful. As Christians have proven themselves politically active, organized, and very supportive of their own, all things equal, any potential leader would do well to align himself or herself with that group. Thus, looking back to the hypothetical question above, perhaps it is actually the professed atheist (who may automatically lose large numbers of Christian supporters) rather than the professed Christian (who may not automatically lose them) who is actually acting irrationally.

    AJ:

    are you suggesting, for instance, bans on stem cell research are not theological in nature?

    In a universe devoid of politics, Bush’s nonsensical ban on stem cell research would have been a very clear example of religion-gone-wild at the White House. I think the reality is somewhat less clear-cut. One has to remember that Bush was elected by infinitesimally small margin, largely on the backs of religious fundamentalists; it is absolutely critical for the Bush administration’s solvency that it not alienate that support. I would call Bush’s decision at least as much religious pandering as religious conviction. Perhaps the lesson from this is not “don’t elect Christians,” but “don’t elect someone who owes too much to too specialized an interest group.”

  • http://apostasist.livejournal.com Jim

    I just sent a very friendly letter to the author. Thanks for the link :D

  • AJ

    Lots of people who vote Democrat are against it. Half of people who vote Republican are against it. White Evangelical Conservatives, Bush is one, are more likely to be against it than the average Republican.

    It’s disengenuous to say fundamentalists are the only ones who want to ban stem cell research, abortions, and don’t believe in Evolution. Ignorance and faith is much more widespread than that.

    The article is advocating an Atheist President, voted in by people who know they’re an Atheist, that judges policies through science and reason. At the very least not judging policies through human interpretation of religious texts.


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