THIS CAMPAIGN season, much has been made of Mitt Romney’s faith and whether his Mormonism represents an insurmountable barrier in his quest for the presidency.
But there is a far more potent religious prejudice in our country than suspicion of Mormonism at work. And to appreciate it, one need only conduct a simple thought experiment. Picture a truly impressive, highly-qualified candidate. Imagine that this candidate has just given a rousing speech, officially announcing a campaign for the presidency. And then imagine that the candidate, responding to a reporter’s question, says this: “I do not believe in God.’’
The campaign would be declared dead on arrival.
A 2007 Gallup poll asked Americans if they would vote for a “generally well-qualified’’ candidate who belonged to various groups. Ninety-five percent said they would vote for a Catholic, 94 percent said yes to someone who is black, 72 percent for a Mormon, and 55 percent for a homosexual. Yet last of all - the only category that did not earn a majority - was the hypothetical atheist, with just 45 percent saying they’d be willing to vote for one. A more recent study asked how much subjects trusted different categories of people, and found atheists in a statistical dead heat with rapists.
As America has matured as a nation, it has faced its prejudices and started the work of setting things right with minority groups. Women and blacks have made enormous advances, and gays have begun the long journey toward civil rights. Now it is time for the United States - “In God We Trust’’ - to confront its prejudice toward those who do not believe in a supreme being.
Part of the problem is that despite the slew of “new atheist’’ manifestos, by Richard Dawkins and others, there has been little public conversation about anti-atheism. One reason is that all prejudices are not created equal. Many are driven by fear (think white attitudes toward blacks) or by feelings of disgust (toward gays, for example). But with anti-atheism, the defining negative emotion is one of distrust, according to Will Gervais, a researcher at the University or British Columbia who recently published an investigation into the psychology of anti-atheism.
The prejudice typically manifests, he says, not with violent emotions, or overt conflict, but a general sense that an atheist may not be as trustworthy as a person of faith. He found that the prejudice was stronger among those who are deeply religious, but also powerful among liberal, secularly minded college students. The prejudice tends to come into play in situations where trust is most salient - hiring a nanny or a teacher, for example.
“Our participants seem to think that without a belief in God, atheists lack a moral compass,’’ says Gervais. “One of the main drivers is the feeling that people can only be good if they think God is watching them.’’
A 2002 poll found that 47 percent of Americans believe that a belief in God is “necessary’’ for moral behavior. Clearly religion can inspire good deeds, just as it can inspire evil ones. And, yes, psychology has shown that people tend to behave slightly better if they feel they are being observed, though the watcher need not be a deity. But it would be absurd to argue that people require the looming threat of an angry god to do the right thing. If you see a child in distress, do you first cower at the threat of divine sanction before helping? Look at a list of the world’s most irreligious countries - a list that includes Sweden and Denmark - and you see places that are generally peaceful and caring; the United States is relatively devout and markedly violent. The roots of violence and amorality are many, but atheism is not one of them.
Whatever you may think of President Obama or his politics, his election in 2008 testified to an amazing capacity for change in the American mind. I feel tremendous pride to live in a country that can go, in a few generations, from lynching black men to electing a black man to the highest office. I would be prouder still if, someday, we could elect a president who believes in making America great by making it good, but who does not believe in God.