The demonization of atheists

Good Without God T ShirtAfter former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gave his speech on the role of religion in public life, more than a few pundits and columnists criticized it for not including atheists and agnostics in the “symphony of faith.” But while the chattering class chattered, I didn’t see too much in the mainstream media. Truth is that atheists have a much more difficult voting audience than Mormons. Here’s how Jacob Sullum put it in Reason magazine:

In a December 6-9 Gallup poll, nearly half of the respondents endorsed an even stronger anti-atheist statement, saying they would refuse to vote for “a generally well-qualified person” of their own party “who happened to be an atheist.” The corresponding number for a Mormon candidate was 17 percent, about the same as before Romney’s speech.

Considering this rather dramatic statistic, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more coverage of this small but vocal minority. So it was nice to see Agence France Press contribute to the matter. Unfortunately it wasn’t terribly well reported or written. Or edited. There’s a quote by someone whose last name is Stark (about how Jimmy Carter did a “wonderful job” as president) that is not previously introduced in the piece. Here’s the lede to the ironically headlined “Non-believing US voters feel demonized“:

One presidential hopeful is a preacher, another proudly Mormon, and most openly tout their Christianity. In an arena where faith can make or break a politician, the one in 10 Americans who profess no religion feel left in the cold.

“They’re very disconcerted,” said Darren Sherkat, an atheist sociology professor specializing in religion at Southern Illinois University.

“They’re horrified by both the Democratic and Republican rhetoric surrounding religion — that people who are not religious … are immoral, that they’re not qualified to serve in public office,” he said.

The anonymous reporter goes on to cite an incident of a young man running for a local school board being campaigned against — by one individual — on account of his atheism. But I think Sherkat’s quote could use some better support. If Democrat and Republican rhetoric is that atheists are immoral or unqualified, there should be plenty of examples of that rhetoric. Go ahead and quote some of them.

Instead the piece just quotes leaders of atheist groups complaining that candidates face a test of their faith credentials:

“Atheists and agnostics find all the candidates distressingly religious,” said Michael Shermer, an atheist writer and publisher of Skeptic magazine.

“Legally, there is no religious test for office, but culturally there obviously is,” he said, as polls showed Republican Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, surging ahead in key early nominating states.

Religion surfaced prominently when Huckabee’s rival Mitt Romney, a member of the Mormon church, made a bid this month to reassure the powerful conservative Christian voting bloc.

“I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty,” Romney said, fighting to dispel mistrust of his denomination, which some dismiss as a sect.

“Yeah, well, what about the approximately 30 million American nonbelievers, Mitt?” Shermer retorted, in comments to AFP. “You have no plans to represent us, or to protect and defend the constitution for us?”

I think it’s great to include a quote like Shermer’s. But it’s not like Romney wasn’t asked about this after his speech. His response should be included in a mainstream news piece. Here’s what Romney said about the matter when asked by Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press:

MR. RUSSERT: But when you say freedom requires religion, can you be a moral person and be an atheist?

GOV. ROMNEY: Oh, oh, of course. Oh, of course.

MR. RUSSERT: And participate in freedom?

GOV. ROMNEY: Oh, of course. . . .

MR. RUSSERT: So if you determined that the most qualified person for the Supreme Court or for attorney general or secretary of education happened to be an atheist or an agnostic, that wouldn’t prevent you from appointing them?

GOV. ROMNEY: Of course not. You, you, you look at individuals based upon their skills and their ability, their values, their intelligence. And there are many who are agnostic or atheist or who have very different beliefs about the nature of the divine than I do, and, and you evaluate them based on their skills.

In a country that fuses religion and political rhetoric as much as ours does, stories about the plight of atheists and agnostics are important. They’re so important, in fact, that they should be done much better than this.

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  • Matt

    The unidentified “Stark” is almost certainly Pete Stark (D-CA), the first openly “non-theistic” member of Congress.

  • Jerry

    Two other non-theists are Buddhist: Hank Johnson, Congressman from Georgia, and Mazie Hirono from Hawaii, although some Buddhists might be theists.

    I know many Christians feel under siege today, but I’ve also heard from atheists as well who have the same feelings based on the points Mollie raised. From a certain perspective, it looks like two groups both claiming that the other is culturally dominant and suppressing their point-of-view.

  • http://www.DaneAndrade.com Dane Andrade

    I know many Christians feel under siege today, but I’ve also heard from atheists as well who have the same feelings based on the points Mollie raised. From a certain perspective, it looks like two groups both claiming that the other is culturally dominant and suppressing their point-of-view.

    I’m sorry, could you demonstrate where this appears to be the case? Are you implying because some of us would ask that government endorsement of religion be neutral that this is somehow putting the 83% majority of this country “under siege”? Is this because Golden Compass didn’t provide the family fun bloodsport that Passion of the Christ did?

    If the intended neutral stance of government towards religion is putting Christians under siege, perhaps we should, as an enlightened society, review what exactly is holding up the pillars of the faith. If you are even remotely comparing the situation of an honest and open atheist running for public office with that of an honest and open Christian running for office, consider yourself privileged and ignorant, and know that you should feel ashamed.

    Atheists ARE the most untrusted minority in America, for no good reason. Can you imagine if you were judged based solely on what you didn’t believe?

    I should invoke Godwin’s Law here, and point to another group of people who felt “under siege” by a minority of their citizens…
    But I won’t.

  • Dave Griffey

    As a former agnostic, I was always flattered by how folks wanted us on their side: religious groups said we acknowledged something, so aren’t really atheists. Atheists said since we rejected everything and doubted most things – leaving only a slight sliver of possibility that something exists – you might as well call us atheists. I wonder about these 30 million and 10% numbers. Does that mean 10% are pure-blood materialist, naturalist, atheists. Or does that include folks who say, “Sure there’s a god, but I believe it’s a personal thing and don’t buy into organized religion.” As an agnostic, I followed the Einstein view (probably because somewhere along the line I heard Einstein said it, and that was good enough for me). Sure there is some force, being, or intelligence behind it all. It’s just all the religions happen to be wrong (a bold statement. Ah, I was young and foolish). But the thought that I would have been lumped into ‘he don’t believe in no god either’ group would have brought out a quick protest on my part. So I wonder about the stats. (trivia: It was my looking at logical flaws with claiming to be an agnostic, and subsequently trying to become an atheist, that eventually led me into the Christian Faith. Go figure).

  • JLFuller

    Our isolation may be part of the distrust we feel towards others who think differently. As Americans, we have the opportunity for the most part, to live where we choose and usually choose to live amongst others like us. We really are living a post-modern tribalism. After WWI, transportation and the ability to sustain ourselves independent of the family farm allowed us to migrate to where ever we chose. But, like tribalism, we still preferred to live amongst those of our kind. Nothing has changed since, at least in large numbers. Our friends often are of the same general religious economic and political back ground. So it is no wonder atheists and agnostics feel dis-fellowshipped. They are. In tribal communities they stand out as foreigners and someone who is not trusted, maybe even dangerous. Their rituals and myths are different and looked upon with disdain because they do not parallel what we observe and believe. It is only through integration that the fear and distrust is replaced with understanding. I say understanding because that is all we can hope for in a really pluralist society.

  • JLFuller

    Agnostics and atheists have really brought a lot of this on themselves. They have been successful at removing other peoples rituals and myths from the public square and replaced them with their own, which is no public display of religious rituals and myths. Christmas and Santa Claus are just two examples of what is no longer acceptable except in private. Rather than trying to come to some reasonable accommodation they have bullied their way through their neighbors objections to get what they ant. Their is zero tolerance fro any religious expression in schools, public hospitals or government places. Previous Christmas lunches are now replaced with winter lunches as an accommodation to the less tolerant among us. Fear of recourse draining law suits by the ACLU strike terror in the hearts of public officials and business owners who do not go along with this new anti-religion. So, isolation and terror by the minority replaces the willingness to accommodate the stranger and bullying replaces common courtesy.Agnostics and atheists have really brought a lot of this on themselves. They have been successful at removing other people’s rituals and myths from the public square and replaced them with their own, which is no public display of religious rituals and myths. Christmas and Santa Claus are just two examples of what is no longer acceptable except in private. Rather than trying to come to some reasonable accommodation they have bullied their way through their neighbor’s objections to get what they want. There is zero tolerance for any religious expression in schools, public hospitals or government places. Previous Christmas lunches are now replaced with winter lunches as an accommodation to the less tolerant among us. Fear of recourse draining law suits by the ACLU strike terror in the hearts of public officials and business owners who do not go along with this new anti-religion. So, isolation and terror by the minority replaces the willingness to accommodate the stranger and bullying replaces common courtesy.

    What works is the mutual appreciation and respect for the good things each group offers us. We best love ourselves when we choose to learn about the other. When we sacrifice of ourselves for someone else we get more in return. That is what religion brings to us. Removing it from the the public place darkens our lives and makes us weaker. Accepting others strengthens us.

  • JLFuller

    Agnostics and atheists have really brought a lot of this on themselves. They have been successful at removing other people’s rituals and myths from the public square and replaced them with their own, which is no public display of religious rituals and myths. Christmas and Santa Claus are just two examples of what is no longer acceptable except in private. Rather than trying to come to some reasonable accommodation they have bullied their way through their neighbor’s objections to get what they want. There is zero tolerance for any religious expression in schools, public hospitals or government places. Previous Christmas lunches are now replaced with winter lunches as an accommodation to the less tolerant among us. Fear of recourse draining law suits by the ACLU strike terror in the hearts of public officials and business owners who do not go along with this new anti-religion. So, isolation and terror by the minority replaces the willingness to accommodate the stranger and bullying replaces common courtesy.
    What works is the mutual appreciation and respect for the good things each group offers us. We best love ourselves when we choose to learn about the other. When we sacrifice of ourselves for someone else we get more in return. That is what religion brings to us. Removing it from the public place darkens our lives and makes us weaker. Accepting others strengthens us.

  • JLFuller

    Sorry about that editing hitch above. Old eleven thumbs strikes again.

  • mark Finch

    It isn’t good to demonize any group but you have to admite the world has had a hard time with atheists in the past 100 years. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot were all atheist. If you add up the number of people that they were responsible for killing you would get 100 million. Atheist have killed more people then almost all of the other wars of the world history combined. There is nothing more dangerous then the an atheist with a mission. Far more dangerous then a Catholic with a mission. I don’t know why this is maybe it’s because one of the ten commandments from god is you shouldn’t kill people. Were as atheists such as marx were all about killing. Infact promoted it.

  • http://denniswine.blogspot.com/ Dennis

    I’m pretty certain that there is evidence that Stalin and Hitler weren’t atheists. Obviously it is hard to speak of the beliefs of historical figures.

    Hitler wrote and talked about his notion of God, I believe.

    Stalin, a former monk, was reported to sing old hymns while drinking and worried about God at the end of his life. He came to an agreement with the orthodox and reopened thousands of churches that had been closed under Lenin (mostly to get the support of the Orthodox in the war against Germany).

    As for Mao, the first President Bush (W’s father) wrote in his campaign autobiography that Mao had told him that he believed in God.

    Yes Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge did horribly murder and torture monks, these Theravadan monks would likely be classified by you as “atheists,” too.

    Mao and Stalin may have led states that were officially atheistic (although Nazi Germany was not) but that doesn’t tell us a thing about their belief in the divine.

    The old claim that the great dictators were all atheists because, well, because we would like to think so doesn’t hold water.

    They may not have believed in a standard notion of God. But I think that the jury is out on whether their murderous deeds were committed by atheists or by heterodox believers.

  • Dave G.

    Hitler was no atheist, but he was no devout believer. He combined a hodgepodge of Christianity, paganism, Darwinian social theory, the occult, eugenics, and just about anything else. He was, at the end, not an uncommon specimen in early 20th century Europe.

    Stalin rejected God for the bulk of his life. His final days’ worries about God is up in the air. But he helped enforce the non-religious aspects of the USSR for most of his reign, and used the lack of any higher authority to buttress many of his philosophies behind national policy.

    Mao typically is shown as an atheist – though some have suggested he had some belief in something. It is hard to base such things on one or another meeting and subsequent journals reflecting on such a meeting. That China has basically been politically anti-religious since Mao’s time is pretty much accepted as fact.

    At the end of the day, religion actually played small roles in most of the major international crisis of the first part of the 20th century. It often played little to no role in the societies that went Communist. Whether Nazi, Communist, or simple Nation Building, religion was in the back of the bus, and few serious historians try to hang the major horrors of that century around the neck of religion (or at least they didn’t back in my day). Likewise, the strong, forceful, and deliberate eradication of religion from society prominent in the Communist regimes cannot realistically be separated from the policies and the terrors that they implemented.

  • Martin Kelly

    can’t say i’m terribly surprised to see the “Hitler was an atheist” trope trotted out here. incorrect, as has already been pointed out – there’s very little as good for motivating millions of people to do evil, stupid stuff than religion, and even if he didn’t beleive it himself, which i can credit, he certainly knew how to leverage it.

    i mean, it can’t have escaped a lot of you that he used the christ-killer blood libel as a way to justify murdering jews, right?

    either way, as i was saying to another woolly-head the other week, it’s nice to hear the “let’s play nice and all” thing but it isn’t going to happen until theists are in the minority, which is a couple of generations away yet at the current rate of decline of religion in the us. i’ll still be around to see it. get back to me then about us tolerating you lot :)

  • Dave Griffey

    Actually, religion is declining in the West, but exploding around the world. Fortunately, the West is also declining, so it should even out. Hitler was no atheist, but he was no Christian. He believed a potpourri of everything from Christianity to paganism to scientific racial theory (yep, it wasn’t just religious types who had formulated reasons that folks like Jews were inferior). To pin atheism on Hitler is a mistake – and silly, when you have anti-religious Communism butchering more people than every other war of the 20th century combined.

  • John Franson

    Atheism wasn’t the cause of Stalin and Mao’s evils. If that were the case, you would expect to see mass starvation, torture and death in the Nordic countries and Japan, which have the lowest incidence of religious belief in the world. In fact, these are the countries with the world’s highest quality of life.


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