Why We Won't Have An Atheist President Anytime Soon

Ah, the religious.

These are people who think putting mac and cheese and a roast beef sandwich on the same plate can damn your soul. They're people who think the Prophet Muhammad flew from Mecca to Jerusalem atop a magnificent steed with the face of a woman, the wings of Pegasus, and the plumage of a peacock. For almost two millennia, they've been arguing over who possesses the Holy Foreskin of Jesus. Some of them think the Earth is only 6,000 years old, which makes it difficult to explain why archaeologists have found 40,000-year-old statues, and primitive tools that date back 3 million years, according to LiveScience.

And then there are the Scientologists, who believe in the fantasies of bad science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. This is a man who, while commanding a ship in the Navy, once mistook a magnetic deposit for a Japanese submarine off the coast of California, and spent the next three days firing depth charges and shells at air bubbles, Skeptoid notes. Somehow, Hubbard managed to convince thousands of people that all human illness and depression are the result of an evil plot by a villain known as the Intergalactic Evil Lord Xenu.

So when an analysis of the Pew Research Center's annual Religious Landscape survey suggests it will be at least a decade before Americans are ready to elect an atheist president, I'm tempted to ask, "You expect magnanimity from these people?"

To understand what rational people are up against, pull up any YouTube video of "Long Island Medium" Theresa Caputo working a room, and watch people's jaws drop in astonishment when Caputo guesses one of them lost a relative to a heart attack.

Seventy-one percent of Americans insist they've had a paranormal experience, reports LiveScience, based on polling data from Gallup and The Associated Press. Another 65 percent think Ouija boards are genuinely dangerous, and 37 percent believe houses can be haunted.

At the same time, eight states still have laws on the books prohibiting atheists from holding public office. Even though religious tests for public office are illegal, Fox News noted that, technically, atheists are forbidden from holding office in Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

But there's a glimmer of hope for people who think our leaders should be chosen based on qualifications and skill, not religious affiliation.

A record 58 percent of Americans said they'd consider voting for a qualified atheist candidate, according to a 2015 Gallup poll. As CNN notes, that's a record high for Americans, up from 18 percent who said they'd vote for an atheist candidate in 1958, the first year polling firms began posing the question to American voters.

Similarly, the Pew poll shows about one-third of millenials don't identify with any particular religion, and are less likely to view religious affiliation as a major factor in supporting a candidate.

Overall, Americans are shifting away from personal religious tests for candidates, albeit slowly. Polls show tolerance for non-religious candidates ticking up by a handful of percentage points every few years. If things continue in that direction, atheism or nontheism won't be the albatross it has been for decades in politics.

It is heading that way already, in this year's presidential campaign -- while neither Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump nor Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are atheists, they're not overtly religious either. Aside from the lagging Republican pack still hoping to court evangelicals, the only serious candidate pandering to the religious is Hillary Clinton.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with religion. It's the basis for many of the social pacts that keep people honest. Churches are often focal points of American communities, and religious groups -- like Catholics -- provide more food, shelter and free health care to the needy than any nonprofit or private organization in the world.

Church organizations educate people, provide beds for the homeless, and work in the poorest communities of the most impoverished countries, serving people everyone else has forgotten about. It's impossible to quantify the social good church organizations do, that's how significant it is.

But there are good reasons why the Founding Fathers saw the need to separate church and state, and it's too easy for even the sleaziest politicians to drape themselves in a veneer of respectability by giving lip service to God.

As attitudes change, the best we can hope for is that actions speak louder than words when Americans head to the voting booth.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: Pew Research, CNN, Gallup, SkeptoidLiveScience (2) / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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