Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I was recently asked if I would ever consider running for public office. Without hesitation, I responded with a simple, "no" and didn't think much of it. However, a few days later, the question, which I had been asked several times before, passed through my mind again and I asked myself, "Why not? Why not run for public office?"

Simply put: my religion, or my lack thereof. Sure, my support for democratic socialism would also deter some voters, but according to a recent study done by the University of Minnesota Department of Sociology, atheists are "seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public."

According to the study, 39.6% of respondents listed Atheists, well ahead of Muslims (26.3%); Homosexuals (22.6%); and Jews (7.6%) when asked to identify the group that "does not at all agree with my vision of American society." Conservative Christians drew a negative response from 13.5% of those surveyed, slightly ahead of recent immigrants at 12.5%.

The researchers at the university did say that tolerance levels of non-mainstream groups have gone up, but tolerance for atheists has increased minimally, and there hasn't been much improvement over the last 50 years. This may because atheists are viewed in one of two general ways, according to the study.

"Some people view atheists as problematic because they associate them with illegality, such as drug use and prostitution -- that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the social hierarchy." Presumably, this might be rooted in the claim that only religion can provide an authentic moral compass, and that without a deity (and the presumed punishment in an afterlife), people have little to lose by engaging in certain immoral, sinful behaviors."

"Others saw atheists as rampant materialists and cultural elitists that threaten common values from above -- the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else." In both cases, atheists are perceived as "self interested individuals who are not concerned with a common good."

This kind of stereotyping of a minority group is not uncommon. The United States was founded on the principle of "all men are created equal," a phrase coined by white, land-owning men who allowed citizens to vote only if they were white, land-owning males, and viewed women and African-Americans as inferior. Women did not vote in a Presidential election until 1920, 144 years after the country was founded. Similarly, African-Americans were only counted as three-fifths of a whole person when the "Three-Fifths Compromise" was passed in 1787, which created a compromise between Northerners and Southerners regarding the counting of slaves in determining representation in the House of Representatives. African-Americans didn't get the right to vote until 1870.

African-Americans didn't have a representative in the House until 1870, when Joseph Rainey of South Carolina was seated and subsequently re-elected four times. Women did not get a representative until 1916, when Jeannette Rankin was elected to represent the state of Montana.

To this day, there has not been one atheist or agnostic Congressperson representing the United States of America. Even homosexuals, another vilified group in this country, have had representatives in Congress (former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, for example), though they may not have ran with the public knowledge of their homosexuality. The lack of godless representatives makes literal the phrase, "taxation without representation."

There are even groups in athletics representing the different religions, such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but none for atheist athletes.

Women gained the right to vote by being integral contributors to the success of the United States during and after World War I, and African-Americans gained their right to vote when the Civil War ended and the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. In each case, it took a war for the oppressed groups to first become able to vote, and then to run for public office.

For atheists to gain representation, they need not a war, but tolerance from the religious sects of the United States. Atheists, like African-Americans and women, are people just like everyone else, and any negative stereotypes you hold them to are probably wrong. To make a blanket statement that atheists are without morals is not only wrong in principle, but wrong factually, as well. Atheists and agnostics make up 8-10% of the United States population of a whole, but only 1% of the prison population.

It has been 230 years since this nation was founded. It is about time the godless get a representative in Congress. Atheists have always had the right to vote, but never anyone to vote for. The United States of America, which prides itself on being the most culturally diverse country on the planet, has left the atheist section of the country out in the cold. Atheist representation, though, does not come from up top; rather, it comes from the middle -- the voters and those they vote for.

Source: (registration required).

While Democrats and Republicans, seemingly the only two parties in the American political system, disagree on a number of issues, the one thing they can both agree on is that being openly atheist is a death wish for a run at public office, especially for those running for public office in the Bible Belt, which includes Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Florida, and everything in between (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Furthermore, Gallup research claims "close to half of Americans -- 48% -- unwilling to support an atheist for president while 49% say they would." In contrast, only 30% of people in 1958 were willing to vote for an African-American for public office, but now over 90% (as of 1999) would vote for an African-American.

Non-religious representation in government would have some great effects in America from the change in perspective alone. For example, religious people who believe in an afterlife would be more willing to sacrifice the future in favor of the comfort of the present. This is most prominently exemplified by President Bush's claim that God told him to invade Iraq. Of course, there were many other contributing factors to the invasion and eventual toppling of the Hussein regime in Iraq, but diplomacy would have been a much more utilized tool with a godless President.

In addition, Gallup polls show a correlation between doubt in the existence of a supernatural being and education, where 92% of people who have at most a high school-level education believe in God, as compared to 77% who are post-graduate.

The 41st President of the United States, George H. W. Bush, once said, "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."

It is time for atheists to remove the negative stigma attached to them and end 230 years without representation.

Further reading: University of Minnesota Dept. of Sociology Study.