Why is it so hard for atheists to get elected to Congress?

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(The Conversation) – Midterm elections are likely to return elected representatives to Congress who hold a range of religious beliefs.

But while self-identified Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus currently rub shoulders in the corridors of power, one group is conspicuously absent: atheists. And despite a growing number of openly non-religious candidates running for office, it remains difficult for atheists to gain a foothold in Congress.

Of 531 members of Congress included in a 2021 survey (at the time, four seats were unfilled), 88% identified as Christian, followed by those of the Jewish faith, with 6%. Indeed, according to this survey, only two people in Congress do not openly identify with any mainstream religion: Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, who identifies as a “humanist,” and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who describes herself as as religiously unaffiliated. But neither identified himself as an “atheist.”

A list compiled by the Political Action Committee of the Free Thought Equality Fund indicates that atheists are running for a few seats in the US Congress, and many more are doing so at the state level. But throughout history, only one self-identified atheist in the US Congress comes to mind, the late California Democrat Peter Stark.

“Among atheists, they do not trust”

This puts the country at odds with democracies around the world that have elected openly godless – or at least openly skeptical – leaders who have become revered national figures, such as India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Sweden’s Olof Palme, Jose Mujica in Uruguay and the Golda Meir. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, the world leader who has arguably weathered the coronavirus crisis with the most credit, says she is agnostic.

But in the United States, self-identified non-believers are at a distinct disadvantage. A 2019 poll asking Americans who they would vote for in a hypothetical presidential election found that 96% would vote for a black candidate, 94% for a woman, 95% for a Hispanic candidate, 93% for a Jew. , 76% for a gay or lesbian candidate and 66% for a Muslim – but atheists are below all that, at 60%. It’s a big chunk who wouldn’t vote for a candidate simply on the basis of their non-religion.

In fact, a 2014 survey found that Americans would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who had never held office before, or had an extramarital affair, than an atheist.

In a country that changed its original national motto in 1956 from the secular “e pluribus unum” – “over many, one” – to the faithful “in God we trust”, it seems that people do not trust someone who doesn’t. to believe in God.

As a scholar who studies atheism in the United States, I have long sought to understand what lies behind such antipathy towards nonbelievers seeking employment.

Brand problem?

There seem to be two main reasons why atheism remains the kiss of death for aspiring politicians in the United States – one is rooted in a reaction to historical and political events, while the other is rooted in a baseless sectarianism.

Let’s start with the first: the importance of atheism within communist regimes. Some of the most murderous dictatorships of the 20th century – including Stalin’s Soviet Union and Pol Pot’s Cambodia – were explicitly atheist. Bulldozing human rights and persecuting religious believers were central to their oppressive agendas. Talk about a branding issue for atheists.

For those who saw themselves as lovers of freedom, democracy, and the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion, it made sense to develop a chilling distrust of atheism, given its association with such dictatorships. brutal.

And even though such regimes have long since met their demise, the association of atheism with a lack of freedom lingered long after.

The second reason atheists struggle to get elected in America, however, is the result of an irrational connection in many people’s minds between atheism and immorality. Some speculate that because atheists don’t believe in a deity watching and judging their every move, they must be more likely to kill, steal, lie, and cheat. A recent study, for example, found that Americans even intuitively associate atheism with necrobestiality and cannibalism.

Such fanatical associations between atheism and immorality do not correspond to reality. There is simply no empirical evidence that most people who don’t believe in God are immoral. On the contrary, the evidence points the other way. Research has shown that atheists tend to be less racist, less homophobic, and less misogynistic than those who profess a belief in God.

It may also explain why, according to my research, states in the United States with the least religious populations—as well as democratic nations with the most secular citizens—tend to be the most humane, safe, peaceful, and prosperous.

Free Thought Caucus

Although the rivers of anti-atheism run deep in the American political landscape, they are beginning to thin. More nonbelievers are openly expressing their ungodliness, and a growing number of Americans are becoming secular: Over the past 15 years, the percentage of Americans reporting no religious affiliation has risen from 16% to 26%. Meanwhile, some find the image of a Bible-wielding Trump disturbing, opening up the possibility that Christianity is suddenly grappling with a branding problem of its own, especially in the skeptical eyes of young Americans.

In 2018, a new group emerged in Washington, DC: the Congressional Free Thought Caucus. Although it has only 16 members, it portends an important shift in which some elected members of Congress no longer fear being identified as, at the very least, agnostics. Given this development, as well as the growing number of non-religious Americans, it should come as no surprise that one day a self-identified atheist would make it to the White House.

Will that day come sooner rather than later? God only knows. Or rather, only time will tell.

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on October 5, 2020.

(Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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