Among the 21 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, virtually every ethnic, religious and sexual identity is represented. There’s a gay man, six women, three African Americans, a Chinese American, multiple Catholics and Protestants, even a Hindu. (Hindus are 0.7 percent of the population.) But there is one conspicuous absence: Not a single candidate publicly identifies as an atheist. That’s not to say they are all religious believers. But if they aren’t, they are keeping it to themselves.
Yes, even, Bernie Sanders. Although raised Jewish, Sanders has acknowledged that he is “not actively involved in organized religion.” But asked about his faith during the 2016 campaign, he equivocated: “It’s a guiding principle in my life, absolutely. You know, everyone practices religion in a different way. To me, I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings.” So a candidate who doesn’t mind calling himself a “socialist” refuses to say that he is a secular humanist — if, in fact, that’s what he is.
The reticence is understandable given that animus against atheists is one of the last prejudices still acceptable in polite society. A 2015 Gallup poll found that more respondents would refuse to vote for an atheist for president (40 percent) than for a Muslim (38 percent), gay (24 percent) or Jewish (7 percent) candidate. Other surveys have shown that Americans don’t want atheists marrying their children or teaching them. Eight state constitutions even prohibit nonbelievers from holding public office.
Yet people who profess no religious identity (“nones”) are one of the largest and fastest-growing demographic groups in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, 22.8 percent of Americans are “nones,” slightly fewer than the number of evangelical Protestants (25.4 percent) and slightly more than Catholics (20.8 percent). No other religious identification comes close. Of course, not all “nones” are atheists; Pew found that 27 percent of them believe in God. But not everyone affiliated with a religious faith believes in God. I am, for example, part of the 17 percent of American Jews who don’t believe in God. I identify with Judaism ethnically and culturally, but I’m not religiously observant.
Conventional public opinion surveys are thus misleading when they find that only 3 percent of Americans are atheists. A University of Kentucky study suggests that as many as 26 percent of Americans are actually nonbelievers.
Atheists are looked down upon because of the erroneous assumption that you can’t be good without God. An international survey showed that people are likely to assume that a serial killer is an atheist. This is despite all of the terrible acts, such as the Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, carried out by religious zealots. And it’s not just Muslim extremists who are culpable. The gunman who is accused of attacking a Poway, Calif., synagogue was a conservative Presbyterian who blamed Jews for the death of Jesus. No doubt the Catholic priests who sexually abused children also considered themselves to be paragons of faith.
There are too many examples of evil committed in the name of God to assume that people act morally because they are afraid of divine punishment. More likely, people are social animals who develop moral codes so they can live at peace with their neighbors. That’s why almost all societies, whether religious or not, have similar taboos against murder, robbery, rape and other sins.
Most of China’s 1.4 billion people have no religious affiliation, and fewer than 7 percent are monotheists. Is there any reason to believe that China is a less moral place than the United States, where 70.6 percent profess to be Christians? Or that Europeans act worse than Americans because only 27 percent of them believe in the God described in the Bible, compared with 56 percent of Americans? In fact, by many measures, such as crime rates and social welfare, Europe is actually a more moral place.
The outsize political role of pastors in U.S. politics has sometimes been good and sometimes bad; both segregationists and civil rights activists cited the Bible. Today, the consequences are often simply perverse. Some evangelicals condemn Pete Buttigieg, a Christian combat veteran, for being gay, yet insist that God selected Donald Trump — a thrice-married adulterer and serial liar whose life has been devoted to the pursuit of mammon — as president.
Trump shows how immorally a supposed Christian can behave. Winston Churchill is the flip side of the coin, showing how righteously a nonbeliever can act. Churchill was a nominal Anglican but he had no belief in God. “In the absence of Christian faith, therefore,” writes biographer Andrew Roberts, “the British Empire became in a sense Churchill’s creed.”
If atheism was good enough for Britain’s greatest prime minister, it should be good enough for a U.S. president. We’ve had closeted freethinkers as president but never one who was out and proud. Thomas Jefferson, a deist who rejected the divinity of Christ, bridled when he was called an atheist by his opponents. Given how many taboos we have already shattered — making it easy to imagine a female president who is of Jamaican and Indian descent — I look forward to the day when we will finally have an unapologetic atheist in the Oval Office. But probably not in 2021.