Politics and atheists: the good news and the bad

June 6, 2011 • 7:26 am

It seems like barely yesterday that Obama was elected, but everyone’s already getting juiced up about the 2012 elections.  Reader Sigmund called my attention to this new Pew survey of what voters are looking for in a political candidate.  (Note: if you download the pdf file, you’ll see that the date on the front page—June 2, 2010—is off by a year.)  The good news is that Obama is way ahead of any possible Republican candidate, and that no Republican candidate stirs much enthusiasm, even among Republican voters:

That, of course, will change as 2012 approaches.

The bad news is that, among traits that candidates could have, one of them is absolute political poison. You know which one it is:

“Not believing in God” is the worst trait of all, much worse than having had an extramarital affair.  The Pew report finds that this figure is “little changed from four years ago.”  America remains a nation deeply disapproving of atheists. (I wonder what the figures would be in Europe.)  The unchanged level of disapprobation is a bit disconcerting, but at least gives the lie to accommodationist claims that vociferous atheism is turning people off.  And we know that lack of religious belief is still increasing everywhere in America.

I wonder what the figures would have been if “Approves of Hitler” were a category!

55 thoughts on “Politics and atheists: the good news and the bad

  1. (I wonder what the figures would be in Europe.)

    I don’t know about the rest of Europe, but here in the Netherlands, most people wouldn’t even think of asking the question. Of course we don’t have an elected president here, but the same would go for elections of our representatives. Either a politician is a member of one of the religious parties, in which case it’s pretty obvious what he believes about God, or he’s running for one of the secular parties, in which case it doesn’t matter what he believes about God. It’s one of the advantages of having a wider spectrum of parties to choose from – both as a voter and as a candidate.

    1. I should add that at the most recent election, the Christian parties combined received about 32% of the votes. I suppose you could take that as a rough proxy for the proportion of people in the Netherlands who care whether their candidate believes in God or not.

  2. I find it interesting, and heartening, that the numbers for “homosexual” and “does not believe in God” are almost exactly reversed. Maybe in two decades or so, atheism will be that acceptable:-))

    1. My thoughts too – quite astonished in fact. The sample was of 1,509 adults – must include areas where homosexuality is quite accepted as well as areas where it is still unmentionable.

  3. No surprise, really, but it does seem marginally encouraging that, for more than a third of those polled, a candidate’s not believing in a god would either make no difference or be seen as a positive attribute.

    1. Except that “no difference” may also mean “no way I’d vote for that person”. Personally I can’t imagine how to craft questions to eliminate the inherent aversion to the godless (and other unpopular categories listed).

      1. I’m curious how the question is worded: is it ‘in the case of two identical politicians, but one has quality X, which one would you vote for?’ or without that qualifier. I mean, I’m probably less likely to vote for a Mormon, but that’s mostly because they tend to run under platforms I strongly disagree with. If somehow I get a choice between the gay-marriage-supporting, first-amendment-loving, progressive dreamboat who happens to be a Mormon and the anti-everything gun-happy conservative atheist, I’m going to wonder if I fell into the Mirror Universe, but I’m voting for the progressive.

  4. I wonder what the figures would have been if “Approves of Hitler” were a category!

    Good question! I suspect there’d be an increase in “Less likely” (and probably a small one in “More likely”) but that it wouldn’t be a huge jump.

    What a sad state of affairs.

    1. I suspect that if you polled Americans, more than 50% of them would answer that a person who “Doesn’t Believe in God” is likely to “Approve of Hitler”.

    1. There are also a huge number of atheists in Canadian politics, including the leaders of several major federal parties. Even Ralph Klein who was a long-term premier of Alberta, one of Canada’s most notoriously conservative province, was reportedly an atheist.

      Politicians regularly meet with religious groups but actually talking about God is treated with some suspicion. Even major Christian groups seem to dislike it, possibly because it’s seen as sectarian.

      1. There are two Prime Ministers on the list – Clement Attlee, probably the most reforming P M ever, and Jim Callaghan. Portillo is probably the most surprising name on the list . . . maybe it was his gay youth.

  5. Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but I think a big part of this is that voters in the US (for the most part) haven’t had the chance to vote for an out-atheist. A big part of this is fear of the unknown IMO.

    Furthermore, what someone tells a pollster about a single issue and what one actually votes for are not the same thing.

    1. Anyone who wants to be the first out atheists in US politics will have a tough run as they’ll have to funnel a lot of money into ads defending themselves from the onslaught of religious attack ads. Even if she thought she could win in the end, who needs the extra fight?

      I’m hoping for some governor or politician on their last term in office to decide that they don’t have anything to lose by a bit of honesty and reveal that they’ve always been an atheist. More realistically, I think it would come from the lower ranks. Look at Harvey Milk who was the first openly gay US politician – came in on a passionate grass-roots effort.

  6. In some items I suspect that “no difference” may mean “no way in hell I’d vote for that candidate anyway”. For example, “homosexual” – you could interpret the figures as 3% more likely to vote for the person, 33% wouldn’t vote for a homosexual president and indicate that by choosing “less likely to vote for”, and 62% for whom there would be no difference because they’d never vote for a homosexual anyway but don’t want to be seen as someone who would say they wouldn’t vote for the person simply because they were gay. I suspect “Mormon” would be in a similar category (but I may be wrong – after all Mitt Romney made it to governor). Now why would the Pew ask about “Mormon”, “Hispanic”, and “Homosexual” but not “Muslim”?

    1. Romney got elected governor in Massachusetts, where the “would you vote for an atheist?” statistics would probably look much different than in a national poll. If anything, an atheist gubernatorial candidate who didn’t talk about his beliefs would probably do better in this state than a Christian who wouldn’t shut up about them.

      And it bit Romney on the ass because a Massachusetts Republican is still a socialist according to mainstream Republican thinking in this country. Well, that and he created the (apparently successful) healthcare model that inspired Obamacare.

  7. Not sure about the majority in the UK, but everyone I know seems to feel very uncomfortable when a politician is religious. They see them as someone with questionable sanity that possibly hears voices.

    1. “you talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you’re a nutter” – T Blair (who should know)

    2. I second this. Here in the UK, most people are at best census-form Christians or de facto atheists through total lack of interest in religion, and there’s no social or political stigma attached to unbelief. In fact, for a politician to be effusively religious in the style of many in the US would be a huge turn-off to the majority of voters here. We have Northern Ireland as a constant example of a place where people take religion seriously, and most mainland Brits have no wish to emulate it.

  8. I would be more likely to think highly of an atheist candidate for President but less likely to support one, because I know that no out-atheist could currently win the Presidency. I have no desire to guarantee of a Republican win. The tipping point is somewhere in the future, but not yet. Let’s talk again where there at least 20 out-atheist Congressmen.

    1. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy… That’s every third party candidate’s problem, too: They can’t win, so no one will vote for them/ No one will vote for them so they can’t win. And with polls like these, the two main parties will never put an atheist on their ballot. Sucks.

      1. It’s strategic decision making, which is why I don’t support also-ran candidates in FPTP elections either. Most of the rationalists I’ve met don’t go in for futile or counter-productive gestures. I would certainly like to see more out-atheist candidates. But, when we can only get one single Congressman on the record as an atheist, we are still a long way away from where an out-atheist is viable for President.

      1. Well, based on everything I’ve learned about politics in the 10 years or so since becoming politically aware, s/he would lie.

  9. Of course the stat that makes the most real difference is the 25% who won’t vote for a Mormon. Romney may be marginally in the lead among Republicans, but when a quarter of your own party won’t vote for you, you don’t stand a chance.

    1. Yeah, but look at how many answered that they’d be less likely to vote for someone who had an affair, yet those Republicans repeatedly caught having affairs get voted in (Hi Newt), year after year.

      I’m more interested to know what percentage has decided which way they’re going to vote before even seeing who the candidates are. I’m guessing it’s not a trivial number.

      1. It’s a number that most likely includes me, at least at the national level, barring some highly improbable occurences…

  10. This is what happens when you are the Party of No. Conservatives (most of them, anyway) hate hate HATE Obama, but they spend so much time hating on him, they haven’t bothered to produce any even vaguely appealing candidates. This is even worse than in previous elections, where some of the possible Republican candidates at least had some moderate charisma to go along with their terrible policy positions.

    Hopefully this will not change in the coming year. I could sorta see someone like Pawlenty being a viable candidate (jeez, I sure hope not, but out of this list…) The rest, I just don’t see it. (Though I don’t really know anything about Cain, Hunstman, or Johnson…)

    1. I don’t know much about the Cain or Huntsman but Johnson is the triathalon-running libertarian who vetoed more bills in his first term than every other governor in the continental U.S. combined. He was on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” last week. He’s like, super libertarian. Not one of those “the markets should be free but we need to regulate your uterus” types. I think most Republicans want to regulate uteruses tho, so he’s probably doomed. Which is good, libertarians are scary.

  11. I would love to see some polling done of the 61% who would not vote for an atheist candidate, regarding their reasons for the refusal. Because an atheist congressperson has no motivation to be keep promises? Because an atheist senator has no understanding of right and wrong? Because an atheist president will remove God’s protection from our country? Because an atheist politician simply must be irrational, since the evidence for God is just so overwhelmingly convincing to anyone with the common sense of a goat? Because an atheist in government will weaken my conviction that faith matters more than anything else and I might stop believing in God myself?

    All of the above? Other?

    1. It could also be because of the constellation of political and cultural attitudes that seem to accompany atheism.

      Just reading the comments here and on Pharyngula, it would seem that the vast majority of atheists are:

      — Politically left-wing, even on economic matters

      — Transnationalist rather than patriotic

      — Urban/suburban rather than rural

      That certainly characterizes the one open atheist in the House of Representatives (Jim Moran).

      There are a few exceptions, like Derbyshire of National Review. But by and large, it would seem that being atheist on religion correlates well with being left-of-center on economics.

  12. I’d rather vote for an atheist, because I feel that they are more in touch with reality. And I absolutely won’t vote for anyone who is a creationist.

  13. I feel that the most rational use of your vote (and support) is to pick the best candidate that actually has a chance of winning. To support and vote for someone who can’t possibly win is a waste of time. You might make a statement but you won’t affect the election’s outcome.

    More importantly I suspect that many others feel the same way, and that if a poll asked “if you could decide who would take office” rather than “who would you support”, the results would be very different.

    1. The possibility of the results being very different would increase with the abolition of the Electoral College.

      1. And the adoption of preferential voting.

        If the American public would demand one or the other of these, things could get a lot better in a hurry.

  14. The unchanged level of disapprobation is a bit disconcerting, but at least gives the lie to accommodationist claims that vociferous atheism is turning people off.

    Well let’s not forget that some accommodationists have themselves been energetically working to turn people off atheism and atheists, and that some of those accommodationists have ready access to major media outlets.

  15. I’m curious about the 3% of people (0.03 x 1500 = 45 individuals) who claim to have never heard of Sarah Palin.


  16. Things are different in some European countries. Even when secularists or non-believers dominate, the religious still seek to retain special privileges. This is because there is (or was) a general political apathy among such populations.

    Now that’s changing, but let’s not pretend that atheists are necessarily politically savvy or liberal.

    As we know, we have some pretty irrational atheists (accommodationists) and so atheism is a step, but not a solution to social problems.

    While I think new atheism is step number two, we are still new and forming, and working things out. New atheism politics is mostly liberal but those atheists at step one can be anywhere else on the political spectrum.

    We should be careful about those atheists at step one.

  17. I see being a Mormon is worse than smoking pot (yes, I understand confidence limits). And only slightly better than being gay.

  18. Well, in Australia we theoretically have an atheist Prime Minister. There was a bit of chatter about it when she first came in, but nothing too dramatic.

    The real pity is that although she is from the Left faction of the (theoretically Left) Labor party, and appeared to espouse sensible progressive values, she has virtually abandoned these to curry favour with conservative voters. The political cynicism of the move was (and is) breathtaking.

    1. Yeah, our atheist PM would certainly have approved of the increase in funding for the chaplaincy in schools program. Maybe in the US they can use our Aussie PM as an example of an atheist politician: Don’t worry, the PM may not believe, but she will pander to your beliefs just the same.

  19. In a perfect world Obama will win a second term in office. Upon this he will announce his atheism to the world, just when you thought he couldn’t get any cooler. And I’m English.

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