Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Most Persecuted ‘Religious’ Minority Group:

Are the atheists.

The Volokh Conspiracy has an excellent thread (scroll down) covering the attitudes of Americans towards atheists. The results of various national surveys relating to these attitudes, while not altogether surprising, are quite jarring. Here are some of the numbers from one of the polls (but read the whole thing):

Group - - - - - - - Very - - - - - - Mostly - - - Mostly - - - - - - Very
- - - - - - - - -- favorable (%) - favorable - unfavorable - unfavorable

"Catholics" - - - - - - 24 - - - - - - - 49 - - - - - - 10 - - - - - - - 4

"Jews" - - - - - - - - -23 - - - - - - - 54 - - - - - - 5 - - - - - - - - 2

Christians" - - - - - - 17 - - - - - - - 40 - - - - - - 14 - - - - - - - 5

Americans" - - - - - - 9 - - - - - - - 46 - - - - - - 16 - - - - - - - 9

"Atheists, that is,
people who don't - - 7 - - - - - - - - 28 - - - - - - 22 - - - - - - -28
believe in God"

This is quite incredible, I think. Atheists polled lower than Muslims (who I would presume be subject to some fairly unfavorable attitudes), by a very large margin. No other group had anything close to the negative opinion of atheists.

Another poll asked “Would you consider voting for a political candidate who did not believe in God?” The responses were Yes: 26%, No 69%. Clearly, there is a significant potion of the population who feel very strongly that an atheist is not able to represent them in political office.

Thinking about the implications of this, however, I would argue that atheists differ from the average voter in more important ways than someone who merely practices a different religion. Varying faiths have, despite claims to the contrary, pretty much the same fundamental beliefs. Atheists, on the other hand, are rejecting the very principle by which religious people choose to live their lives (and many atheiests criticize religion with a rather disgusting arrogance). For a religious person, this rejection of one of their core values will of course be VERY important in terms of deciding if this person should represent you in government. This doesn’t make the bias against atheists any more acceptable, but it does establish that it is not necessarily "discriminatory" that many people will not support atheists in elections. This does avoid, however, the troubling fact that if we replaced the word atheist in any of the questions asked in these surveys with another minority group, there would be (and should) significant outrage:

Quite a few of the comments to my earlier posts suggested that there isn't that much wrong with people saying that they had an "unfavorable" view of atheists, or that they wouldn't consider voting for an atheist candidate. Let's say that the posts were instead about Jews, not about atheists, and the data was:

1. A poll question asked "Would you consider voting for a political candidate who [was religiously Jewish]?" The responses were: Yes: 26%; No: 69%. (The real question asked was "Would you consider voting for a political candidate who did not believe in God?")
2. A poll question asked whether "your overall opinion of [people who are Jewish by religion] is very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?" The answer was 7% very favorable, 28% mostly favorable, 22% mostly unfavorable, and 28% very unfavorable. (The real question asked about "your overall opinion of Atheists, that is, people who don't believe in God.")

Would people be troubled by such results, results that show that 69% of the public wouldn't even consider voting for a religiously Jewish political candidate, and that 50% of the public had an unfavorable view of people who are Jewish by religion (22% mostly unfavorable, 28% very unfavorable)? If you are, then is there any reason to be less troubled by the same results as to atheists?

One counter to all this is to look at how atheists feel about supporting believers. Or to put it more broadly, how does one feel about supporting politicians who hold vastly different views than their own? Using an actual example might be useful (and because one actually exists!): In the next-to-last Canadian election, Stockwell Day’s (then leader of the Conservative party) creationist beliefs became a political issue. Apparently (although I have no idea if this is true), he believes that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together 6,000 years ago. Many were critical that his beliefs were brought into the public sphere; it didn’t matter what he thought about the creationism/evolution debate, as it has nothing to do with governing. At the time (as well as now), I disagreed with this response. While I don’t care about his beliefs about the origin of humanity per se, I do care about how he makes decisions. And anyone who can look at the overwhelming evidence supporting evolution and still come to the conclusion that the Earth is 6,000 years old is not a sound decision-maker in my book. I want politicians making decisions based on sound science and through careful analysis of facts and data, not via strongly-held faith-based beliefs. While I certainly would still potentially vote for a believer in creationism, it would certainly make me less likely to vote for that candidate.

A commenter at Hit & Run, who led me to the Volokh post, had this to say:

Back to the real issue at hand, It think that the public's discomfort with atheists in government stems from a fear of what they represent. They represent a troubling answer to this question: "How can a person be good and decent without God?" If an atheist can be a decent person without doing so to please a vengeful deity, then for some people, the whole system is shot. Nobody wants to be a fool.

True enough. And nobody wants to have their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, eliminate themselves from ever being able to be elected to political office.

ADDENDUM: All of this led me to do some thinking about religion and politics, and I think there might be some interesting parallels between those who are very religious and those people likely to seek political office. One characteristic of many religious people is the notion that they need to “save” others. They’re full of good intentions about this and they truly believe in their goal – just like politicians, who all believe that they have the prescription to save society from all its ills. As was said by G. James: “Remember that the key words in the sentence ‘I want to help you’ are ‘I want’.”


At 9:57 AM, Blogger Molly said...

This is a conversation I’ve had before, and a line of conversation that I find extremely troubling. A few thoughts:

I agree that there is a large divide (both perceived and real) between those who are religious and those who are not, but feel that the statistics do not reveal some important information. If there is such a large difference between the perception of moral value (fair?) of those who are religious and those who are atheists, then we also need to question whether there is an equally strong bias against those who are lapsed in their religion, or those who would call themselves agnostics. In other words, is it that people mistrust those who do not make God a big part of their lives, or only mistrust those that deny the existence of a god?

Raised as a Catholic, I know that many in my family group do not practice any kind of religion, but admitting to atheism is still taboo, and there is still an urge for people to go to the church for the significant moments in their lives (births, deaths, and marriages). It is as if being a lapsed religious person, or perhaps a self-professed agnostic, is better than being an atheist, which is (I think) the point where the negative stereotype begins.

I do think that there is an arrogance to atheism, and I don’t think that this must necessarily be negative. Regardless of the nature of that religion, those who are religious share some sense that their lives are defined by some larger meaning, some structure to the world that is outside, and greater than, themselves. Even agnostics, or those who have lapsed in their practice of religion, do not deny that this larger order might exist. Atheists do, and, in denying that any larger order exists, they fundamentally challenge others’ conception of the world. Atheists also draw the meaning of their existences entirely into themselves, and, in doing so, perhaps demonstrate sufficient (I would say) or excessive (other might say) confidence to live their lives to live without such external structure, some meaning outside of themselves.

I also think that much of the bias revealed from the statistics stems from the question of moral codes. Religion as an institution provides people with fixed concepts are “good” and “bad,” which lose their meaning when that external system no longer exists. Can people maintain internal moral codes when there is no external reinforcement? I would say yes, but know that there are many who would not agree with me. I do understand why those who were raised with these structures might distrust those who deny their value. I don’t buy their argument, but I see it.


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