Obama – the First Atheist President! (In my Dreams)


Editor’s Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Atheist community here: “Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends” http://www.patheos.com/Topics/2014-Religious-Trends.html and http://www.patheos.com/Topics/2014-Religious-Trends/Atheist.html

I was one of the thousands of people cheering wildly on the National Mall as Obama delivered his first inaugural address.  I had campaigned for him in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia and while I’ve lived in Washington, DC long enough to be skeptical of politicians, I really did have hope for the country under the leadership of an intellectual, liberal, biracial President. I didn’t care much about religion. The fact that Obama was not a conservative Christian who made decisions based on his conversations with God was enough for me.  It still is.

I’m disappointed though, that President Obama is obviously not going to live up to my dream of proclaiming himself an atheist while in office.  My dream started at the inauguration when I was applauding enthusiastically along with the rest of the huge crowd after almost every sentence that Obama spoke.  Then he said this: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.”  I cheered even more wildly than before, while the crowd as a whole went quiet.  There were no boos or hoots.   It was more of a “what the…?” moment.  I figured people were unprepared for a president to acknowledge the existence of a rare breed of citizens – the “non-believers.”  Nonetheless, that’s when my hopes foolishly soared and my dream began.

Here’s how my dream scenario goes:  After being re-elected to his second term and maintaining a Democratic majority in the congressional midterms, the lame duck President Obama proclaims his atheism!  Well, he may not exactly proclaim it and maybe doesn’t even call it atheism, but he starts talking about his background more openly.  He might point out, as he did in his book, Dreams from My Father, (p. 50) that his mother was a “lonely witness for secular humanism.”  He might casually mention his stint in Unitarian Sunday school as a boy in Hawaii, or that he joined the very liberal United Church of Christ only as an adult with growing political aspirations  (The Audacity of Hope, pp.206-208).

When directly addressing the subject of religion, he cites court cases related to separation of church and state that atheists have won as positive signs for ongoing religious freedom in the US.  In my dream, one Sunday morning, the President takes his family to one of the more humanist Unitarian congregations in the DC area.  Another Sunday, the Obama’s go up 16th street to the Washington Ethical Society that describes itself as “a humanistic congregation that affirms the worth of every person.”  Later, in the spirit of Ecumenism, the first family travels a short way down the same street to Machar, the Secular Humanist Jewish congregation that “…enables people of any ethnic or religious background to cherish Jewish history, culture, and ethics without worshiping or praying to a supernatural being.”

The press catches on and asks Obama point blank to clarify his personal religious views.  Obama responds firmly and clearly, first stating, as any good president would, that he respects all religions.  Then he asserts that he does not believe in supernatural forces:  He stakes his ground as a secular humanist, an atheist, an American!

This is where my dream ends. I wake up exhilarated, then quickly realize it was just a dream.  The reality is that almost six years into his presidency, Obama still says, “God bless” after his speeches (is this necessary?) and rarely mentions us non-believers anymore.  While we may not be a part of his usual rhetoric, I suspect we’re still in his heart.  Maybe sometime after leaving the presidency, when his legacy is secure, he’ll speak out again about the strong humanist principles he learned from his mother, and he’ll be clear about his own lack of religious belief.

After all, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, right?

Photo Credits

Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo, U.S. Air Force – http://www.defenseimagery.mil/imagery.html#guid=4de8e17b0fbfafb8edfb0fa6cec854eaecfc1d42

Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Meneguin, USAF – http://www.defenselink.mil/HomePagePhotos/LeadPhotoImage.aspx?id=12613 http://www.defenselink.mil/dodcmsshare/homepagephoto/2009-01/hires_090120-F-6184M-007

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About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • Kent Truesdale

    My ‘read’ on Obama is that, like most pragmatic realists, he is a de facto agnostic who ignores the supernatural in his day-to-day governance. For what it’s worth, he told David Brooks that “his favorite philosopher” is Reinhold Niebuhr (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/26/opinion/26brooks.html).

    • Linda_LaScola

      Thanks, Kent – I remembered that Brooks column so went to check it out. Here’s the new link: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/26/opinion/26brooks.html?_r=0

      And here’s the key passage:

      Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”

      Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

      So I asked, What do you take away from him?

      “I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
      Pretty sophisticated stuff and so much better than “God Bless.”

  • Machintelligence

    Who knows, even the Democrats may be ready for it. Remember that the motion to add God to the party platform by voice vote during the 2012 convention failed three times before they declared (wrongly) that it had passed.

  • ctcss

    I guess I can understand your dream, to a certain extent. But why would having Obama come out as an atheist actually do anything for you? People already hate him for totally irrational reasons. If he actually were an atheist and said so, that would only make him that much more despised, again for totally irrational reasons. It certainly wouldn’t make things any better, any more than Barney Frank coming out made things any better.

    At least as I see things, atheists don’t need celebrity atheists to help normalize things for the rank and file by putting famous faces in play. Celebrities have long been known for having quirks and odd ideas, but they get a pass because they are famous. There have always been famous atheists, but that hasn’t seemed to change things for the rank and file, who don’t get the free pass that being a celebrity may offer. Rather, it seems to me that the rank and file need to put their own faces in play so the general public has a sense of what an average person looks like who has chosen to be (or has concluded that they should be) atheistic in outlook.

    All the polls that show people distrusting atheists more than any other group strike me as being based on ignorance of atheists, not personal knowledge of them. So it would seem to me that it would be much more useful to have people learn how the average non-believer approaches important things in life (just as it would help them to learn how any unfamiliar group such as Jews, Hindus, Muslims, etc. approaches important things in life) so they can grasp that here are people who are simply potential friends and neighbours, and that simply have a different (not dangerous or harmful) outlook.

    Basically, a face needs to be given to non-belief, but making Obama that face is not as important as making one’s neighbour be that face, at least IMO.

    • ctcss

      And BTW, I’m not necessarily trying to make people come out. I’m talking about the need for a helpful PR campaign where people like say, Bill Moyers or Charlie Rose, or Oprah, or the View take a serious, helpful, and friendly look into this often unknown area of life.

      Non-believers have long needed helpful PR, but they very rarely seem to grasp how such an effort should be constructed and executed, at least IMO.

    • Linda_LaScola

      I see what you’re saying, and please note that my dream depended on Obama being popular and having a Democratic majority in congress for his second term. That was obviously a dream that didn’t come true!

      I agree that we shouldn’t depend on celebrities to make a difference and love the idea of a more thoughtful approach by journalists. I also want to let you know about a new effort – openly secular – http://www.openlysecular.org/#_/mission that intends to address the issues you raise.

  • John Woodlock

    I would be happy if we could get an atheist Supreme Court Justice. ‘Nones’ are now at least 15% of the US population – shouldn’t we be represented by 1/9th of the court?

  • Yonah

    A person at the bottom of society is not helped substantially by President Obama or atheists. Why is this? It is because of the lack of an instinct for personal sacrifice. This is the chief difference between Obama-atheist and constructive religious culture. President Obama’s political track record is indeed a good icon for atheist values in that he strives to do public nominal good, but not necessarily authentically thorough good. The profile here is one where some amount of good done is too easily called “good enough”. Thus, with housing some are helped, but not those in the most trouble. With health care, some are helped, but not those most trapped in the cracks. With immigration, some are helped, but not the most vulnerable children and families who’ve been deported in higher numbers than under George Bush. And, so it goes. A little bit of progress in isolated cells is called “progress” writ large and “the progressives” march on. (Where has Michael Moore been lately…has he been booted from Progressivedom for being too radical?)

    Let us look then at the field of Social Work. Today it is largely infected with the faux good of incomplete good by virtue of its self chosen captivity to the fee-per-service business model…certainly this is entirely the case with secular agencies where managers’ time is mostly devoted to overseeing billable hours of underlings…and for some reason, there seems to be no moral qualms about running social worker “assistants” into the ground doing all the most difficult direct service work for $7-$9 an hour. This is the same model that public schools follow with special ed assistants. In my experience, these bottom level helping profession non-professionals who find a way to last are usually religious folk with strong sacrificial instincts which allow them to take systemic abuse and horrible pay. These are the people, like home health care workers, who really actually help someone.

  • Sophia Sadek

    I am reminded of the Teddy Roosevelt experience with Booker T. Washington. The racist backlash against the meeting early in Roosevelt’s term pushed Roosevelt further to the right on racial issues. Some have credited that backlash with Roosevelt’s position on the Brownsville Affair which was more embarrassing than Obama’s turn-around on Guantanamo.

    My disappointment with Obama started with his invitation of Rick Warren to the inauguration. It was an inept effort to befriend those who will not be his friends.

  • Jon Drake

    OMG! Considering all the things Obama has done, the lies, the drone strikes, the bailouts, I hope that he eventually announces that he was an atheist all along.

    What a glorious day that will be!!