Sunday, November 8, 2009

To Believe or Not to Believe

Do you think we'll ever elect an atheist as president in this country?

The babe posed the question this evening. Before I had a chance to answer, she posed a second one.

Would you vote for an atheist for president?

It was honestly something I'd never thought about before, and I had trouble figuring out how I felt about it.

My first instinct was that I'd prefer someone who's not an atheist - I characterized this as someone who holds some belief in a power greater than themselves.

After that, the conversation went in all sorts of unruly directions, involving discussions about the merits of a number of our 3L friends' possible performance as President of the United States. The babe was surprised by my response, her vote being clearly for an atheist president. And I guess in some ways, I was too.

I'm still not sure where I stand on this - it's hard to separate out a single trait like this and make any reasonable statement. Any person running for president is so much a package that I'm not sure I would ever make a decision on it (when she asked whether I'd still have voted for Obama if he had been atheist, there was no question - yes). But that doesn't really make sense, because I feel so strongly that I never want to vote for anyone who characterizes themselves as part of the religious right - so I'm obviously able to separate that part out. Except that I guess that's the point - I'm not separating it out. Fair or not fair, I view it as a sign of the kind of person they are - conservative, intolerant.

So I guess the issue here is that I associate religious belief or non-belief with traits that I want or don't want in a president. In trying to explain this to the babe (who, just for reference, basically grew up in a home-grown moot court competition), I identified humility. I think believing in something greater than yourself (and humanity in general) evidences a sense of humility that I appreciate. But then we talked about nature or science as being that thing, and I would say that any person could be equally humbled by the power of nature or science.

So is it just that I want someone who believes like I believe? Am I just operating under my own scheme of intolerance? I'm not sure. I can't for the life of me seem to figure out what my spiritual beliefs are, but I think I value some sort of mysticism associated with the belief in a god. I'm not sure whether that matters in a president - at the end of the day, will the country be affected by whether the president believes or doesn't believe? Especially when we're talking about these religious/spiritual beliefs that fall so far on one end of the spectrum - i.e. somewhere between believing in some sort of amorphous all-encompassing god and no god at all.

There's so much more to say on this, but it's almost so much that it's overwhelming. Also, there's a decidedly non-philosophical vibe in the living room now as the babe turns to me and says, "Andy Reed drafts linemen like it's his job." Although I guess football is a religious event - judging from the number of times people cry out god's name or pray for assistance. And of course, there are the receivers who point him out after every good play.

At any rate, mostly this is just on my mind, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

It could happen, if other issues are more pressing than their faith. I don't think it's terribly likely though.

Would I vote for them? Probably not, generally for the same reasons you laid out about wanting them to believe in something greater than themselves.

Your post leads me to a different question though: are there so few atheists in politics because they can't get elected, or is there something about atheism itself that dissuades atheists from running for office?

(In)Sanity Gal said...

the babe would say there are so few atheists because atheists have been marginalized and maligned in our society. true, i think. i would actually think that atheists (i love these broad generalizations that i'm making)might be more interested in getting into politics because they might feel more of a sense of humanity to control events than, say, someone who believes in a more spiritual hand in things.

the babe said...

lawdevnull - i challenge the underlying assumption in your question. i think there are lots of atheists--or at the very least agnostics--in politics, but the political climate in this country makes it impossible for them to be honest. it's not for me to challenge any particular individual's public proclamation of faith, but a lot of them don't seem particularly genuine to me. in fact, more often than not, god seems to be invoked not as a sign of humility, but as a symbol that they deserve forgiveness or that they have some higher calling and shouldn't be held accountable by human standards.

but, accepting your premise, i think there aren't as many "out" atheists in politics because they won't get elected. up until 1961 there were states that still required a declaration of belief in the existence of god in order to hold public office (e.g. Maryland). In 1961, the Supreme Court held that requirement was unconstitutional for the FIRST time in Torcaso v. Watkins. given that people on the far right persist in calling the u.s. a christian country, and at most 9% consider themselves atheist (though some surveys put this number as low as 1.5%--those atheists are hard folks to track apparently), its not hard to see why atheists can't get elected.

T said...

i want an atheist in office specifically because i hope that would mean there would be a fundamental belief in humanity and an understanding regarding the consequences of political actions. if there is no god to save you from the effects of a bad decision, you'd sure as hell better do your best to make the right one.

i also am not really sure what you mean by atheist. for example, are humanists atheists? what if it's just a lack of interest in a god and a focus, instead, on people and society? wouldn't that, truly, be the ideal politician?

i think my parents would say i'm campaigning for the antichrist. oops. oh well.

Anonymous said...

@the babe: you've got a legit point on folks professing a belief for convenience but not really following it. That implied premise was from inapt wording on my part. I'm thinking more along the lines of intent, the speed of effecting change, and maximizing impact.

First, let me confess now I'm both oversimplifying and probably misrepresenting things a bit here, so I apologize for that up front :) -- religion has never been my strong point

But taking as an example someone believing in one of the 3 main monotheistic religions, they've got certain tenets they're supposed to live by and certain things they're supposed to do before they croak -- meet those criteria, and everything's good for the afterlife. Getting involved in the slow-moving government to help people is a no-lose proposition: if they succeed that's great, but if they can't get anything pushed through before dying or leaving office, at least they tried. Either way they're place in the afterlife is still secured.

Taking an atheist at the other end, there is no afterlife. Their natural focus then would fall on humanity as a whole, and trying to improve humanity to the greatest extent possible before they croak. Is a slow-moving government the most effective way of doing that, versus something like non-profit work, public interest law, running a business employing folks, etc?

Borrowing language from economics, I think you're probably right that there's a demand-side problem, e.g. atheists wouldn't get elected because the voters don't like them. But I'd argue that there's a bigger supply-side problem that exists before a demand-side problem could be proved, namely that the structure of government limits the potential impact of any individual so an atheist would focus their efforts elsewhere to achieve their moral objectives.

(In)Sanity Gal said...

the babe - you know how feeling like i'm discriminating against a minority tugs on all my i'm a good person strings.

T - interesting point about focusing on humanity and society INSTEAD of on god. I guess I've never really thought of it that way because my the message of my church growing up was that believing in God (they were talking with a big G) includes believing that all people are his (I also grew up believing God was a boy) creation and thus should all be cared for. You could, of course, make the argument that people should be cared for no matter whose creation they are. But my point is that I don't view believing in God and caring for people as mutually exclusive. I also don't think that my spiritual life has ever included a notion that god or God would get me out of bad decisions that I've made. For me, it's been more along the lines of recognizing that everyone else is a divinely-created being and deserves the same respect, love, etc, as me. But then, a lot of Christian folks out there would probably want to throw rocks at me right now if they were reading this. So, I'm not saying that I want someone in office who wants to make decisions willy-nilly and have God pick up after them. The more I think about it, the less I'm sure that the belief about a divine being is really what matters - I think my bigger concern might be what the person believes about people (and I think I developed much of my belief about people from my spirituality). Anyway, this is becoming sort of a post in itself. I'll end it by saying that all of this conversation so far has been really good and thought-provoking.

the babe said...

lawdevnull-- i see where you're coming from with your thought process, but in the end, i think its too broad of a generalization about atheists and about how atheists perceive government. first, i don't think everyone's goal when they enter politics is to make the world a better place. atheists, agnostics, believers in god, and followers of a religion can all be attracted to politics to change the world/country, get power, be famous, or any other reason. A lot of people in office now all say they believe in god, but i'm not sure they follow a particular religion or even believe in an afterlife. i think a lot of politicians also go into office because they do think its a good way to effect a lot of positive change in the world.

in the end, i think there is no demand, or rather negative demand, which prevents atheists from openly holding office. More than anything except, perhaps, obesity, discrimination against atheists is still a bastion of acceptable discrimination.

Insanity Gal - you know i'm not saying it to pull on your heart strings. especially because every time we talk about a particular atheist running for office, you support them :)

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