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Bad news for atheists

Lopez Island church.

A church on Lopez Island, Wash. Credit: Chuck Taylor

In an election cycle where we learned (with relief) that an African-American man can be elected president we’ve also seen evidence of continuing discrimination. Anti-gay marriage measure Proposition 8 passed in California, and the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that hate crimes are up since the election. In the “Reich” of Idaho — which has worked hard to make us forget the Aryan Nations era — school kids chanted “Assassinate Obama!” on the school bus and a man suggested a public lynching for the new president by hanging a noose from a tree.

Will we ever get over prejudice? Slate magazine takes a look at the prospects for various other identity groups — Jews, women, gays, Mormons, etc. — in the years ahead and assesses their prospects for attaining the highest office in the land. A Gallup poll from 2007 revealed — early in the election cycle — that a majority of Americans say they would vote for a Jew, woman, Hispanic, Mormon, thrice-divorced person, 72-year-old geriatric, or homosexual for president. In general, electoral tolerance for diversity seems to be growing.

Who scored less than 50 percent? Which group remains at the bottom of the presidential barrel in terms of public opinion? Atheists. Ronald Lindsay, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, told Slate‘s writer via an e-mail that “Atheism spells political death in this country.” American is not yet ready for an unbeliever, secular humanist, freethinker, or heathen in the Oval Office.

It’s interesting to know that even a convicted felon like Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens fared better than an out-and-out atheist would have. Slate notes that there is only one member of U.S. Congress who is an admitted atheist, Rep. Pete Stark, a Bay Area Democrat. But even Stark goes to church: he’s a Unitarian.

I can understand that any group might become unpopular if its most vocal proponent is lefty apostate political writer Christopher Hitchens who, by the way, has his moments (I think he clearly kicked butt in this debate on religion.) Atheists are often terribly obnoxious blowhards who try to woo the world with the absolute rightness of their logic.

Hitchens rails against the sky-God dictatorship of monotheism. He compares God to North Korea’s lunatic strongman Kim Jong Il — amusing but not likely to win over wavering Christians, Jews, and Muslims. And his rants are against not only God but religion itself. This turns off even many non-believers who still make room for in their lives for the sacred and mysterious. Militant atheism is not content to argue against God, but faith itself.

But militant atheism bravely carries an important banner by demanding that arguments in the public square come down to more than simply, “because God said so.” It patrols the borders of church-state separation. And its adherents also carry water for many religious minorities by expanding the boundaries of religious tolerance. If American can tolerate its irritating atheists and if the definition of religion covers all faiths and non-faiths, then big tent covers pagans, Swedenborgians, even Scientologists.

However, demanding the removal of the crutch of religious conviction from public debate threatens to effectively silence most moralists and religious hypocrites (so who’d be left, Vulcans?). And it robs our rhetoric of some its most soaring achievements and ability to inspire: “Thank logic, almighty, we’re free at last” won’t move many people.

That makes Hitchens and his ilk the great American party-poopers, and no one likes those, one reason why Hitchens’ minority group has little shot at the White House. Americans want to be led by people like us, not people who tell us how foolish our deepest convictions are, even if they have a point.

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