To atheist political candidates: Come on in, the water’s fine now.

To atheist political candidates: Come on in, the water’s fine now. April 20, 2019
atheists politics taboo american humanist
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California) and his family. Rep. Huffman is the only openly avowed nontheist in Congress. (Lygsbtd.wordpress.com)

Finally, some rare good news for American political candidates who are atheists: They’re no longer taboo, apparently.

Although the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests being applied to candidates for public office, the American Humanist Association (AHA) notes that atheist politicians have long been “one of the greatest taboos in American politics.”

However, the status quo appears to be changing.

AHA reported recently that a poll it commissioned late last year by Lake Research Partners found that “being non-religious or atheist need not be considered an impediment to a candidate’s electoral success.”

Religious bias ebbing

Strikingly, the survey showed that a large majority of people of every political persuasion overall were willing to back nonreligious candidate if they liked their proposed policies. The poll showed that 79 percent of Democrats would vote for a politically like-thinking nonreligious candidate, 69 percent of Independents, and 68 percent of Republicans.

AHA also reported that results show a “growing preference” for secular candidates overall among Democratic voters. Seventy-four percent of pro-choice and pro-marriage-equality Democrat respondents indicated it would “make no difference” to them whether a candidate was “not religious” or “agnostic.” Voter attitudes toward atheist candidates was only slightly less mild, at 72 percent, and 14 percent said they preferred nonreligious candidates.

AHA concluded that this is good news for nonreligious candidates, recommending in its post-poll report:

“Nontheistic, progressive Democrats in non-swing districts should no longer feel hesitant to be public about their religious identity. And while it still could be a challenging factor in swing districts, it’s no longer the taboo it once was.”

A political divide in tolerance

The data revealed an unsurprising political divide. Overall, only 48 percent of Republicans polled indicated they would be less likely to vote for an atheist whose policy positions the shared.

But it was a different story for younger Republicans. Sixty-eight percent of those under 35 said it would make no difference to them whether a candidate were an atheist, and 54 percent of Republicans under 50 expressed the same indifference.

“It’s heartening to see that the political bias against atheist and humanist candidates is disappearing,” says Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the AHA and the Center for Freethought Equality (CFE). “This poll demonstrates that voters care more about a candidate’s policy stances, than his or her religious identification.”

AHA pointed to the 2018 mid-term election of California Democratic congressman Jared Huffman, a nontheist, as evidence that the taboo against nonbelievers is ebbing in American politics. Because Rep. Huffman garnered 76.4 percent of the vote in his mid-term run, and only slightly less (76.9 percent) in 2016, the Lake Research Partners study concludes that Huffman’s nonreligious views were a non-factor in his re-election.

AHA’s CFE is urging political candidates to be buoyed by these findings and feel empowered to throw their hats in the ring.

“People who have stayed out of the political arena because of the bias against atheists and agnostics should be encouraged by these findings … to be fully and openly engaged in our democratic process.” says Ron Millar, CFE’s political and PAC coordinator. “Our political system depends on the active participation of all our citizens.”

Surge of ‘Nones’ driving change

The study credits the rapidly growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, including atheists and agnostics, with the eroding political bias against nonbelief. The percentage of so-called “Nones” in the populace has jumped from 16 percent in 2007 to about 23 percent today. The terms derives from nonbelievers checking the “None” box concerning religious preference on surveys.

Nones now comprise the largest “religious” group in the Democratic Party, according to Pew Research Institute, which surveys American religious trends. A third of millennials, young Americans born late in the last century, are Nones, which bodes well for continued growth in religiously unaffiliated citizens.

The slide in voter wariness toward religious nonbelievers has been gradual but relentless. In a 1958 Gallup poll, only 18 percent of respondents said they would vote for an atheist; in a 2015 Gallup poll 58 percent indicated they would.

Tolerance is age-related

Age and political affiliation of voters is a strong indicator of tolerance toward atheism, with intolerance increasing with years, the study reported. Whereas only 48 percent of people 65 and older said they were willing to vote for an atheist, a robust 75 percent of those 18-29 were. Among political parties, the percentage of those who would vote for atheists ranged from 48 percent for Republicans, 61 percent for Independents and 64 percent for Democrats.

“The findings from this survey and other research should encourage candidates and elected officials to be authentic about their religious beliefs,” Millar wrote in the poll report. “Discriminatory attacks on atheist candidates and elected officials will no doubt continue, but as revealed by this research, such attacks will probably not affect the outcome of an election and may, in fact, offend voters in both political parties.”

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