Can Atheists Be Our Leaders? – Editorial The Standard Times – Nov 6, 2010

Can Atheists Be Our Leaders?

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Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño C. — © 2010

Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth 

Aatheistsand agnostics are among the most educated citizens in the United States. They rank highest not only in knowledge about science, American history, literature, politics and the role of religion in public life, but also in awareness about world religions. 

religionUsing a 32-question survey on religious knowledge, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a non-governmental organization based in Washington D.C., interviewed 3,400 adults during May and June of 2010. A 78-page report of the significant findings was released this past Sept. 28 (Inset Logo from the Pew Report available online). 

Knowledge about religion correlated with level of education. Responders holding a post-graduate degree knew, on average, 22 out of the 32 questions in the survey; college graduates responded correctly to 20 questions; those attending college were right about 17 to 19 questions; and the high-school-educated — or less — were correct in only 10 to 12 questions

Atheists and agnostics followed by Jews and Mormons ranked consistently higher in the overall assessment of their religious literacy than evangelical Protestants and Catholics. 

US CongressIf atheists and agnostics are highly educated, would Americans elect them as their leaders? Apparently not; according to a Gallup Poll (2007), atheists rank last with only 45 percent voters to favor them in a potential presidential election, followed by homosexuals, who would theoretically receive 55 percent of support, or candidates of “72 years of age” (57 percent), or who are “married for the third time” (67 percent), or Mormon (72 percent), Hispanic (87 percent), a woman (88 percent), Jewish (92 percent), black (94 percent, it already happened), or Catholic (95 percent). (Photo inset the United States Congress in Washington DC, Photo © G. Paz-y-Miño C. 2010).

Sixty-seven percent of liberals would vote for a qualified atheist if he or she runs for president of the United States, but only 29 percent of conservatives would do it. Indeed, political ideology determines voting preferences for a “non-traditional candidate,” and atheists rank last regardless of being among the most literate Americans. Moreover, liberal, moderate and conservative voters would prefer any other type of candidate over an atheist (Gallup Poll, 2007). 

Twenty million Americans, or 7 percent, are either certain that God does not exist (atheists), or are not sure about it (agnostics), which contrasts with the high levels of religiosity among most of the general population. Seventy-three percent are convinced of the existence of a deity, 14 percent think that God probably exists and have little doubt about it, and 5 percent believe in God but have a lot of doubt about it (Gallup Poll, 2006). Religiosity, however, decreases with educational attainment; highly educated people are less religious than the least educated. 

According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project (2007), 57 percent of Americans think that God is necessary for morality, yet there is no indication that atheists and agnostics are less moral than the general or religious populations. 

OutCampaingIn fact, the list of world-prestigious American intellectuals who have admitted to be atheists or agnostics is impressive. Here are some from the 19th and 20th centuries: Ralph Waldo Emerson (author and poet), Henry David Thoreau (philosopher), Andrew Carnegie (philanthropist), Mark Twain (author), Pearl S. Buck (author), Thomas Edison (inventor), Clarence Darrow (lawyer), Carl Van Doren (English professor and biographer of Benjamin Franklin), and Ernest Hemingway (novelist). 

The list above does not include the 93 percent of the current and prominent members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (Larson and Witham, 1998), neither the 70 percent of the 630,000 faculty teaching full-time at colleges and universities in the United States who admit to be nonbelievers (Ecklund and Scheitle, 2007; Gross and Simmons, 2009). 

oedLike any highly educated citizens, atheists and agnostics are probably concerned about illiteracy trends in the United States, and not only regarding world religions knowledge — where they ranked highest above all believers — but also international trends on the ranking of our youth in mathematics, reading and science, where the United States placed 26th, 15th and 21st among 57 other nations, respectively (data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, reports 2003/9). 

And we can forecast that atheists and agnostics, who rank top in understanding the legal separation between church and state (82 percent, according to the Pew survey), would support the teaching of evolution in public schools and oppose the smuggling of intelligent-design creationism into the education curriculum. 

It is time for our modern societies to accept the open participation of atheists and agnostics in building our democracies, more so if — as demonstrated by national polls — they are among the most educated citizens. Their lack of religious affiliation and identity should not discourage them from contributing to significant public service as secular humanists, nor should it deter the public from electing them.

The human experience consists in building equality for all and, in this particular case, in hearing the voice and benefiting from the talent of the nonbelievers. — © 2010 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved