The Economist Recognizes Underrepresented Atheists

MITT ROMNEY hopes to become America’s first Mormon president. But, if he pulled off an unlikely victory, he would not be the first Mormon to take high office: his father was a governor and two current senators are Mormons. Nor would he be the first to break a religious barrier. John Kennedy was the first Catholic president; Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, was Al Gore’s presidential running mate in 2000. And a Muslim congressman took his oath of office on a Koran in January, another first.

Mr Romney recently gave a speech extolling religious liberty, decrying religious “tests” for office, and invoking the faith of some of America’s founding fathers. All this, naturally, was designed to help his quest for the presidency. The speech thrilled many religious conservatives, and plenty of pundits thought it served him well politically too. But members of one minority with virtually no political success in America were left sputtering with frustration. America’s atheists and agnostics felt excluded when Mr Romney said that “freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom…freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”

According to figures compiled by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), almost 30m people claimed “no religion” in 2001, a doubling from 1991. This dwarfs America’s 2.8m who describe themselves as Jews according to the same survey (although other estimates suggest that the Jewish population is much larger, at about 6m). Catholicism, the country’s largest Christian denomination, boasts 51m followers. In other words, irreligion claims a surprisingly large number of adherents. Mr Romney’s attack on disbelievers prompted Christopher Hitchens, a well-known polemicist and the author of “God Is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything”, to describe him as “Entirely lacking in dignity or nobility (or average integrity)”. Others cited Thomas Jefferson’s ruder comments about religion. Even some conservative columnists chided Mr Romney for not saying, as George Bush has, that people of no faith at all are Americans too.

And yet those with no religious beliefs are shut out from political power. Earlier this year, a secularist group offered $1,000 to the highest-ranking politician in the land who would publicly proclaim no belief in God. This turned out to be Peter Stark, a Democratic congressman from the San Francisco area. He is the only congressman, of 535, who professes no belief in the Almighty.

Mr Stark suspects that many of his colleagues secretly agree with him. But they dare not do so publicly, even Democrats. And every one of the Democratic presidential contenders has talked about God; they even submitted to an awkward debate on religion, in which they were asked about their biggest sin and their favourite bible verses. The Republicans were not put through a similar inquisition; their religious bona fides are apparently not in any doubt.

The author goes on to point out some of the issues facing the so-called “atheist movement.” Read the article HERE.


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