In a political season when we’ve seen the first openly gay presidential candidate, the first Black woman to run for Vice President, the first whatever-the-hell-Marianne-Williamson-was, why is it still shocking to consider an openly atheist candidate running for federal office? Rep. Jared Huffman is openly Humanist — the only non-theist in Congress willing to say that — but even he came out after getting elected.
Why is there still such an antipathy to electing atheists?
That’s what Phil Zuckerman tries to answer in a piece for The Conversation. Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College and author of What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life, says that there are two reasons people don’t feel comfortable voting for an atheist:
There appear to be two primary reasons atheism remains the kiss of death for aspiring politicians in the U.S. — one is rooted in a reaction to historical and political events, while the other is rooted in baseless bigotry.
Let’s start with the first: atheism’s prominence within communist regimes. Some of the most murderous dictatorships of the 20th century — including Stalin’s Soviet Union and Pol Pot’s Cambodia — were explicitly atheistic. Bulldozing humans right and persecuting religious believers were fundamental to their oppressive agendas. Talk about a branding problem for atheists.
The second reason atheists find it hard to get elected in America, however, is the result of an irrational linkage in many people’s minds between atheism and immorality. Some assume that because atheists don’t believe in a deity watching and judging their every move, they must be more likely to murder, steal, lie and cheat. One recent study, for example, found that Americans even intuitively link atheism with necrobestiality and cannibalism.
I would add another reason to the list: People just aren’t used to it. It sounds paradoxical, but if more atheists were elected, more atheists would be elected. Or, if more politicians came out as atheists after election, it wouldn’t be such a burden for future candidates. Voters just need more examples of atheists in office so they can see that the sky isn’t falling.
There’s also a sideways approach to the matter: Openly atheist candidates can be elected simply by downplaying that aspect of themselves since it’s not necessarily relevant to policymaking. It would be strategic — and honest — for candidates to admit they’re not personally religious before explaining why they value evidence-based policies and care about the issues that matter locally. If anyone tries to use atheism against you, throw it right back at them like you’re an Amy Coney Barrett defender discussing her Catholicism. Use the opportunity to pivot to issues that matter to other voters.
That sort of approach is precisely what more than one hundred candidates for statewide and national office have been doing this year.
According to research from myself and the Center for Freethought Equality, those candidates are on the ballot this November, many of them having survived primary challengers, and are not shying away from using non-religious labels. None of them, to my knowledge, have made atheism a central part of their campaign. They’re just not running away from it.
That’s the key to winning. And the more of them who succeed, the easier it’ll get for other atheists during the next election cycle.
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