I never thought this day would come. President Obama spent several minutes discussing atheism — and the stigma against atheists — with comedian Bill Maher. The segment appeared online Friday night, though other portions of their interview were shown on HBO’s Real Time.
MAHER: I don’t know if anybody from my tribe of atheists ever thanked you for giving us a shout-out at your first inaugural…
OBAMA: I did.
MAHER: … but you did mention non-believers.
OBAMA: That’s right.
MAHER: I think–
OBAMA: More than once!
MAHER: More than once.
OBAMA: I mean, it’s not just in that speech. I’ve done it often.
MAHER: Well, we appreciate it. Because we do feel like untouchables to a degree. I mean, I don’t know if you saw the latest religion survey, but almost a quarter of the country are Nones. I don’t mean the ones who hit me on the knuckles with a ruler in Sunday School — I mean they put “None” for religion.
OBAMA: None of the above.
MAHER: Right… they’re atheists, Agnostics, or they just don’t want to get up on Sunday morning. And we have no representation in Congress. If our numbers were represented, there’d be over a hundred congresspeople who felt that way. It just seems like we are not included in the basket of diversity in America, which is odd because we are the biggest minority. That is a bigger minority than any other minority you can name. Don’t you think we should get a little more love?
OBAMA: You know, I guess — my question would be whether there is active persecution of atheists. I think that there is certain… well, I think for a candidate… I think you’re right, that there are certain occupations — probably, most prominently, politics — where there would be a bias against somebody who’s Agnostic or atheist in running for office. I think that’s still true. Outside of that arena, though? You seem to have done alright with your TV show… I mean, I don’t get a sense… to the extent that they’re boycotting you, it’s because of your other wacky views rather than your particular views on religion…
MAHER: [Laughs] What are my other wacky ideas? I usually agree with you!
OBAMA: I think the average American, if they go to the workplace, somebody’s next to ’em, they’re not poking around trying to figure out what their religious beliefs are. So here’s what I would say, that… we should foster a culture in which people’s private religious beliefs, including atheists and Agnostics, are respected. And that’s the kind of culture that I think allows all of us, then, to believe what we want. That’s freedom of conscience. That’s what our Constitution guarantees. And where we get into problems, typically, is when our personal religious faith, or the community of faith that we participate in, tips into a sort of fundamentalist extremism, in which it’s not enough for us to believe what we believe, but we start feeling obligated to, you know, hit you over the head because you don’t believe the same thing. Or to treat you as somebody who’s less than I am.
MAHER: But we might be more pro-science in America if we were less religious, don’t you think?
OBAMA: Well… you know, I think that the issues we have with science these days are not restricted to what’s happening with respect to religion. There are a lot of very religious scientists around…
OBAMA: … I think the problem here is that in our school systems, and to some degree — and this is where it is relevant — with school boards around the country that are mandating curriculums and textbooks, you start seeing this weird watering down of scientific fact so that our kids are growing up in an environment — and this connects to what I was saying earlier abou the media — where everything’s contested. Where nothing is true. Because if it’s on Facebook, it all looks the same. And if you’re reading something from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist next to some guy in his underwear writing in his basement, or his mom’s basement, on text, it looks like it’s equally plausible. And part of what we have to do a better job of, if our democracy is to function in a complicated diverse society like this, is to teach our kids enough critical thinking to be able to sort out what is true and what is false, what is contestable and what is incontestable. And we seem to have trouble with that. And our political system doesn’t help.
And yes, there are religious scientists out there. They’re in the minority, no doubt, but at the very least, Maher should know that evangelical Christian Francis Collins runs the National Institutes of Health. (I’m not kidding. Maher really should know that. He interviewed Collins in his documentary Religulous.)
Obama was also wrong to dismiss the very real de facto discrimination atheists face in the workplace (and elsewhere). While the laws may be on our side, that doesn’t mean our atheism can’t be used as a weapon against us. If it ever comes out, there’s a very real chance we could lose our jobs. Or, hell, custody of our children. Bill Maher may be doing just fine for himself, but that doesn’t mean other atheists are immune from discrimination.
Overall, though, Obama’s answer was pretty much what you’d expect. He’s absolutely right to respond to Maher’s frustration about the lack of atheists in public office by saying we don’t face any serious overt discrimination in that regard.
There aren’t laws preventing us from running. (Even the seven states that literally forbid atheists from holding public office in their constitutions can’t enforce those archaic rules.)
That said, subtle discrimination is very much in place. (Have we forgotten how a Democratic National Committee staffer suggested using Bernie Sanders‘ alleged atheism against him?)
What’s stopping us is the long held stigma against atheists and a lack of strong openly non-theistic candidates. But both of those things are rapidly changing. 58% of Americans now say they would vote for an atheist President, and that number jumps to 75% when we’re talking about voters under the age of 30. There are also more open atheists running for state and federal office this Tuesday than ever before. At some point, you have to believe we’ll start winning those seats.
Sure, I would love to see Obama give us more love than the obligatory mentions, and I’m still frustrated by the fact that he allows religious groups to do charity work with taxpayer funds even when those groups discriminate in hiring, but I don’t need a President who agrees with my theology (or lack of it). I need one who respects my non-belief and isn’t actively fighting against it. To that end, it’s hard to argue with the way Obama has treated us. He didn’t get in our way.
He could’ve done much more — like giving us a seat on his Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships — but I never had to worry about him.
Good luck feeling that way about any current Republican leader.
(This article has been updated since initially going up.)