Why there are no atheist politicians

Posted in Society at 10:50 by RjZ

A few polls have suggested that U.S. Americans would rather elect a homosexual or muslim than an atheist to the presidency.

The most often cited reason for this appears to be that a religious president is more likely to share moral views with a religious voter, even if she isn’t the same religion. I’ve already discussed this fallacy of where our morals come from in some detail, but I overlooked another challenge potential non-believers face in the political arena.

In spite of constant onslaught to the contrary (starting at comment number one!), atheism and agnosticism are not religions. The only thing you know for sure about one atheist or another is what they do not believe.

Like Christians, Hindus, and the rest, there are morally good atheists and weak ones. Unlike the religious, though, regardless of their behavior, you can’t really question whether their acts are in tune with their non-belief. What does belief vs. non-belief say about their morals either way? We can’t have any idea what the world-view is of someone who’s only claim (to which we’re referring anyway) is that they don’t accept faith as evidence of the supernatural. When a Christian leader is found guilty of homosexual relations with a drug-dealing prostitute, we can safely assume he’s been a hypocrite to his stated beliefs. Were an atheist politician found out to be engaging in the same behavior we can only be disappointed if he held staunch anti-drug and anti-prostitution positions, after all, wasn’t that the assumption for this evangelical preacher?

This is where the difficulty lies for politicians trying to communicate their position to voting public in a tiny sound-bite. When an Idaho Senator says he’s a Christian, his constituents generally assume they know a thing or two about his morals (and are quite surprised to find out otherwise). He need only state his religion and voters are content that they have an idea how he thinks.

Of course, voters automatically conclude a few things about atheists too. They imagine morally bereft satanists who stubbornly do not believe in God (Yaweh/Allah/Shiva/Buddha) in spite of the obvious evidence to the contrary. Much of this is silly, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, but this lack of a packaged belief system that can be suggested in a 30 second commercial is a huge impediment to the non-believing political candidate and even if folks lose the picture of non-believing satanists they’ll be no closer to knowing what necessarily goes on in one atheist’s head or another.

The problem lies with the voting constituency and not with the religious or agnostic politicians. The difficulty lies in the patently false assumption that what a person says, especially when they employ convenient labels that package whole collections of assumptions, is a fair predictor of their future actions. Lying is a human skill that is distributed fairly equally amongst people regardless of their religious affiliation. Actions and reputation speak louder than words and are a far more reliable guess about behavior in the future.

Potential disbelieving politicians face a challenge in packaging their reputation into a 30 second advertisement but voters would be wise to demand the same from their religious contenders.


  1. Angus said,

    July 14, 2011 at 14:15

    “Actions and reputation speak louder than words and are a far more reliable guess about behavior in the future.”

    I’m not so sure about that. Politicians that use allusion to blocks of emotional ideas rather than personal example sow confirmation biases that are extraordinarily successful. Hope, change, Morning in America…in the end, people get something completely irrelevant to what they thought they were asking for, and really don’t care about that as much as the lingering message. In the end, in the words of someone else, what we are is the product of all we sacrificed to get what we used to want.

  2. RjZ said,

    July 14, 2011 at 14:55

    Excellent points. My point is not that actions always speak louder than words, but that they *should*. in your examples people are voting for other claims than religious affiliation but they are still estimating future performance based on claims and less on evidence. Would that hints were different.

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