Bless America. The formation of a more perfect Union defines us in word and deed. A country steeped in slavery has at its helm a black man; a nation that denied women the right to vote nearly voted into its highest office a woman; and a Republic that chased Mormons to the frontier has two Mormons chasing the presidency.
Our ever-broadening moral horizon now contains those once maligned and ostracized. Italians, Irish, Jews, Catholics, Asians, and a host of minorities of various stripes have all trod the path from pariah to partner, from ghastly “other” to just another. Undoubtedly, Latinos, Muslims, and gays one day will be similarly embraced. But what about non-believers?
Outside of extremist and other fringe groups, perhaps no demographic is viewed with more skepticism than Atheists. A 2006 study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota bears this out. It concluded: "Americans rate Atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in 'sharing their vision of American society.' Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.”
The study’s lead researcher, Penny Edgell, notes that public perceptions of non-believers run counter to the general trend of America’s increasing tolerance. She speculates that this hostility stems from the perception that Atheists aren’t quite American: “It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common 'core' of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that 'core' has historically been religious…Americans believe they share more than rules and procedures with their fellow citizens—they share an understanding of right and wrong. Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good."
Edgell’s theory seems to be borne out by a 2007 Pew poll that asked respondents whether they would vote for a “well-qualified person for president” who also happened to belong to a given minority. Only seven percent said they could not pull the lever for an otherwise qualified Jew, two percentage points higher than for a capable black, and three points more than for a credible Catholic. However, a plurality, 53 percent, said they could not vote for a competent non-believer, fully ten percentage points higher than the tally for the runner up, a well-qualified homosexual.
Atheists often may be assumed to lack “core” values, as Edgell claims, but on what basis? If religious piety were correlated with morality then the absence of faith would warrant concern, yet no evidence exists whatsoever that the tax cheat, sexual deviant, or public urinator is more likely to be a non-believer than someone of spiritual devotion. In fact, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, non-believers are more law abiding than the devout, as less than one percent of incarcerated Americans are Atheists.
The hostility towards non-believers has a lot to do with the specter of nefarious “secular humanists,” who are presented as a demonic threat to all that is good in (Christian) America. Yet once again the reality is quite different. It is not zealous non-believers imposing their agenda on the embattled righteous—unless maintaining a division between church and states can be considered an “agenda”—but rather religious fundamentalists seeking to impose their theological views on all others, including the devout who may not share their interpretation of scripture or who simply believe that religion, as James Madison wrote, “flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of government.”
That no serious political candidate for any high office could fess up to being an Atheist stands in sharp contrast to our tolerance for deranged claims of religiosity. Few batted an eye when George W. Bush reportedly told a Palestinian official, “I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, 'George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.' And I did. And then God would tell me, 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.' And I did." Nor has Michelle Bachmann’s claim that God endorsed her running for president derailed her electoral prospects. On the contrary. It likely helped them.
Why should an assertion of having a direct relationship with God be considered mundane if not commendable but the lack of belief in something for whose existence is entirely without proof damning? It is a question worth pondering given that the country, facing overwhelming challenges, desperately requires enlightened leadership governed by reason. But it is also a question that has no easy answer.
God knows why.