Would You Vote for an Atheist or Agnostic?

Tom Shipka

Would you vote for an atheist or agnostic for President of the United States? If you would, you're a member of a distinct minority, particularly if you are religious.
This is the message sent by a recent study which appeared in the American Sociological Review. (1) This study reports the attitudes of religious people in the United States toward non-religious people. Based on a telephone survey of 2,000 households and in-depth interviews with 140 people, the study concludes that believers do not trust non-believers, view them as selfish and uncaring, and oppose their children marrying them. Religious faith, believers say, is central to being a good American and a good person. (2)
These views are worrisome, to put it mildly.
In the first place, they fly in the face of these facts:
1. Article VI of the Constitution says that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
2. Our political system is built upon the separation of church and state.
3. The word "God" does not appear in the Constitution even once.
4. Many of our founders, including Jefferson, repudiated traditional religion.
5. Some 30,000,000 or more Americans profess no religion. (3)
In the second place, these views denigrate the many atheists and agnostics who compare favorably on the virtue scale with believers and who have made important contributions to our civilization.
On this point, let me drop the names of a few infidels.
Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, the two richest people in the world, are arguably the world's two greatest living philanthropists. Ted Turner, founder of CNN, gave $1,000,000,000 to the United Nations. Actor Angelina Jolie, a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, has invested her time and treasure in refugees and children in Africa and Asia. Many other respected actors who have entertained us, past and present, are also non-believers. They include Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Jodie Foster, Jack Nicholson, Margot Kidder, John Malkovich, Christopher Reeve, and Katherine Hepburn. Musicians Barry Manilow, Billy Joel, and James Taylor are non-believers, as are Las Vegas headliners Penn and Teller, comedians Julia Sweeney and George Carlin, humor columnist Dave Barry, 60 Minutes curmudgeon Andy Rooney, and golfer Annika Sorenstam. Non-believers also include Nobel laureates Francis Crick and James Watson, co-discoverers of DNA, economist Milton Friedman, and chemist Linus Pauling. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was a non-believer. Cancer-survivor and cyclist extraordinaire, Lance Armstrong, and former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith, are non-believers. Hall-of-Fame baseball player, Ted Williams, who gave up several years of baseball during his prime to serve his country as a fighter pilot in two wars, was a non-believer. Hundreds more names could be added to these.
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that all atheists and agnostics are pillars of virtue. Shock-jock Howard Stern, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, and Karl Rove, the President's alter ego, come to mind. (That"s right, friends, Karl Rove is an agnostic.) (4) I am saying that whether a person does or does not profess religion tells us nothing about his or her character or whether he or she enhances the lives of others. It's high time for people on both sides of the religious divide to recognize this.
1. April 2006
2. mndaily.com, March 24, 2006
3. American Religion Identification Survey
4. Interview with Wayne Slater on "Fresh Air," NPR September 5, 2006. Slater, with James Moore, wrote The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power.

Tom Shipka 2007