More and more people say they don’t believe in God. So why is it still such a taboo in politics?
When the Republicans wanted to attack Barack Obama in the run up to the 2008 election they tried to claim he was a Muslim. It didn’t work. Despite an environment in which the media use the word Muslim as shorthand for terrorist, he strolled to victory twice. However, they might have had better luck if they used another word: Atheist.
Voting for God
According to numerous polls atheists are among the least likely people to get elected in the USA. Between 40% and 55% of people say they would not vote for a candidate if he was atheist, which is perhaps why politicians tend to be a little wary of being openly atheist. As things stand there are no open atheists in Congress.
According to some Obama is and was one of them. After an interview in which Obama acknowledged the difficulty atheists face in politics, the comedian Bill Maher described him as being ‘drop dead atheist’.
Atheist he may or may not be, but what is clear is that in a world which is becoming increasingly secular, atheists still seem to be hiding in the closet and this is not just a problem with America.
Here in the UK where we like to think of ourselves as a little more enlightened more than 50% of people describe themselves as having no religion. Even so, around 20% of people say they would not vote for an atheist making it one of the biggest barriers to getting elected.
Politicians who follow a faith can’t wait to tell you about it. Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May all claim it guides their decision-making process. Those that do not, on the other hand, tend to get quite evasive.
When quizzed on the matter, Jeremy Corbyn was at pains to point out that he wasn’t an atheist. True he didn’t follow any particular faith, but he was definitely interested in them all, and the goals of the Labour party are very much in tune with the goals of Christianity.
Nick Clegg came closest. He initially admitted he didn’t believe in God, but once again he has protested this doesn’t mean he’s an atheist. Instead he is open minded and ‘on orders’ from his wife is raising his children as Catholics.
Does it matter?
All of which begs a basic question: yes and so what? People don’t like atheists? Big deal – take the pledge: sit in church or mumble something about being ‘deeply spiritual; if you don’t have a God to go against where’s the harm?
It means the concerns of religious group get a disproportionately high profile in the halls of power which is a problem because, when God does get involved with politics, it rarely ends well. He’s been attributed with ideas such as convincing George W Bush to run for power, Tony Blair to invade Iraq or Theresa May that everything is going well. If we’re to believe some he would have also voted for Donald Trump.
It stands to reason. They say we get more right wing as we get older. If that’s so God’s political views must be terrifying.
At every stage progress seems to be confronted by religious groups, whether it’s stem cell research, equal rights for women, same sex marriage and even the teaching of science in science lessons.
And yet it’s atheists who the public don’t trust and who seem to lack confidence in their faith.
Turning the tide
So, what’s the solution? The obvious move is for atheists to gain a voice in politics. Here in the UK the British Humanist Association regularly lobbies parliament. In the USA the Secular Coalition for America was set up in 2003 to allow continuous lobbying on behalf of non-theistic Americans. Although not quite of the scale of the religious right, it has had enough influence to attract the rage of right wing attack dogs such as Sean Hannity – so they must be doing something right.
It’s a fight worth having. Reason, rationality and evidence often struggle to get heard in the corridors of power. What’s more than a little bit disappointing, though, is the fact that it’s a fight that needs to be had at all.
About the author
Tom Cropper has spent the last 15 years writing mainly about business, technology, politics and anything else he can persuade people to publish.
Follow Tom on twitter @Cropp77