Could an atheist be elected president?

The Ides of March is not a great movie, but it has its moments of liberal porn, where we see presidential candidate George Clooney saying things that we wish liberal candidates knew how to say.  Here is how he responds in a debate to his opponent’s charge that he isn’t a practicing Christian:

I’m not a Christian. I’m not an Atheist. I’m not Jewish. I’m not Muslim. My religion, what I believe in, is called the Constitution of United States of America.

(This is a rehearsed talking point — we see his aide Ryan Gosling reciting it during a sound check before the debate.)

Good enough, I suppose.  But could a presidential really get away with not being a Christian — or worse, being a self-proclaimed atheist?  I mentioned in a comment that Richard Dawkins believes we should judge candidates on their religious beliefs, like the bizarre mythology of Mormonism.  But of course this isn’t likely to happen.  Evangelicals may grumble about Romney, but the mainstream media — and liberals — will both sing from the same hymnal: a person’s religious beliefs are a private matter.  Even if those private beliefs are arrant nonsense.  But what about a candidate’s lack of religious beliefs?

Of course, the problem isn’t likely to come up, because virtually every American politician professes some level of religious belief.  Wikipedia’s interesting article about Discrimination against atheists notes that only one member of Congress — Pete Stark of California — has “come out” as a nonbeliever.  Since the percentage of nonbelievers in Congress is far below that of comparably educated groups, these politicians are probably either self-selecting (atheists don’t even bother going into politics) or lying about their beliefs.

With good reason.  This article states that 52% of Americans wouldn’t vote for a well-qualified atheist to be president — more than those who wouldn’t vote for a Muslim.  The study reported on here puts the number at 45%.  According to the study, atheists are considered about as trustworthy as rapists. Interestingly, atheists also tend to trust religious people more than other atheists.  One of the comments on the article sums up the problem nicely (the spelling is in the original):

The reason people won’t trust an athiest is plain and simple: Athiests have no moral foundation for what they believe in because they do not believe in anything. How can you have faith in someone who has no faith to stand for.

Better to believe in the truth of the Book of Mormon than to believe in science.

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6 thoughts on “Could an atheist be elected president?

  1. A Pew Research Center study (http://www.pewforum.org/Science-and-Bioethics/Scientists-and-Belief.aspx) found that 83% of Americans in 2006 believed in God, and 95% in God or a “higher power.” So is it surprising that a significant fraction of the population would show preference for a president who at least somewhat shared this important view?

    You keep raising science vs religion, but a Pew study of scientists in 2009 found that 33% of AAAS members expressed belief in God, and 51% a belief in God, spirit, or some higher power. This doesn’t make religiously inclined scientists kings of the hill, but it doesn’t exactly make them outliers, either.

    Back on your original question, I would most likely vote for a religion-free presidential candidate who shared my political views over a candidate from my own church whose politics seemed wacky to me. Maybe a George Clooney type (I haven’t seen the movie). The “self-proclaimed atheists,” at least in the current mix, tend to be a bit strident and narrow for my tastes. What I really want is West Wing’s President Bartlett.

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    • The West Wing was liberal porn on network television. One of my favorite over-the-top moments from it occurred after the president’s secretary was killed in a car accident, and Bartlet started arguing with God. In a cathedral. In Latin. Presumably He’ll pay more attention to you if you talk to Him in His native language (or maybe second language, after Hebrew).

      I’ll get back to the percentage of scientist who are atheists point in more detail later. I’ll just say that the statistics prove my point that American politicians are an outlier. Half of scientists don’t believe in God (or something like God); 5% of the general population don’t; and .2% of Congress.

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  2. Is Maureen Dowd “mainstream media”? She is the one who lambasted Romney for the baptizing after death thing.

    I guarantee you that if the election is close, Dowd and the rest of the crowd will have no compunction about taking on Romney’s religious beliefs.

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  3. Pingback: How religious are scientists? | richard bowker

  4. Pingback: What explains differences in levels of belief? | richard bowker

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