Q. Atheist actor and writer Ricky Gervais is working on a new show, Afterlife , which features “an atheist who dies and goes to heaven.” If Gervais hopes to bring cultural acceptance of non-belief to mainstream America, he faces an uphill battle. Polls show that many Americans distrust atheists and nearly half say they would not vote for one. Should it matter whether or not a politician believes in God? As mainstream acceptance of other minority groups grows, will atheists still lag behind?
As an atheist, I just about always vote for political candidates who say they believe in God. Not because I’m impressed by their professed God beliefs, but because I have no other choice-unless I cast a write-in vote. Of course, in reality atheist politicians have received hundreds of thousands of votes, though their constituents likely didn’t know they were voting for closet atheists. Currently, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Cal) is the only uncloseted atheist in Congress, but I’m hoping we will see many more such courageous and honest politicians in the years to come.
I generally vote for candidates whose views on important issues seem closest to mine. These candidates give sound, evidence-based reasons for their positions, without a need to invoke a deity. I am aware that these candidates belong to a religious denomination, because they view such membership as a requirement for public office. However, I draw the line at voting for a politician who claims a god told him or her to run for office or what position to take on an issue. I just won’t vote for someone who seems loony to me.
I wish everyone would judge candidates on their political positions, and not on their professed religious beliefs. But that might be a dream of mine more difficult to achieve than the dreams of Martin Luther King. Those who won’t under any circumstance vote for an “immoral” atheist, or whatever pejorative adjective precedes the A-word, are letting their blind faith and stereotyping get in the way of common sense.
America is the most religious Western democracy in the world, with the overwhelming majority believing in a personal God. By contrast, only 24% in Denmark and 16% in Sweden are believers. Americans pride themselves on our high quality of life. However, taking into account measures of income, health, freedom, unemployment, climate, political stability, life-satisfaction, and gender equality, countries like Denmark and Sweden (but not America) rank in the top 10. Moral imperatives of most religions include caring for the sick, elderly, poor and infirm; practicing mercy, charity and goodwill toward others; fostering generosity, honesty and communal concern. Statistics show that these are best put into practice in the most nonreligious nations in the world today.
Religious countries (and Bible Belt states) also have much higher rates of violent crime and teen pregnancy than more secular countries. I wonder what would happen if we elected more secular politicians.
I look forward to seeing Ricky Gervais’ new show, Afterlife, which features an atheist. I hope it will call attention to a much-underrated movie directed by and starring Ricky Gervais in 2010. The Invention of Lying is about a culture in which nobody can lie. There is not even a word for “lie” or for “truth.” Then one person develops the ability to lie. With the best of intentions, our liar-hero, Mark, tries to comfort his dying mother by telling her that she will be going to a wonderful afterlife. Naturally, she and others believe him. Soon everyone is begging for information about this afterlife. He then tells the world there is a Man in the Sky who is responsible for everything, and they will be happy up there with him after death. When asked if the Man in the Sky is also responsible for cancer, Mark has to grapple with theodicy, the question no monotheistic religion has been able to answer: Why is there evil in a world created by an all-powerful and benevolent god? The movie’s theme was that Man in the Sky religion is possible only in a world where it’s possible to lie.
To add to John Lennon’s “Imagine no religion,” imagine a world where politicians don’t lie. More realistically, I’d just as soon imagine an American electorate that doesn’t much care about the private religious views of elected officials, and politicians don’t make them part of their public campaigns.
Herb Silverman | Jul 20, 2011 9:49 AM