We witnessed the United States reach a significant milestone three years ago when the American people elected a black president. Abraham Lincoln, viewed historically as the savior for the black race, once said in referring to the black man, “he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment”. Of course Lincoln also went on to say, “But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of every living man”. Despite any political differences a person may have with President Obama, it is very difficult not to feel a sense of pride when seeing him on television or on the internet and appreciate the historical nature of his Presidency. The question I often think about is; how long will it take for America to elect an atheist President?
There can be many arguments made that we may have already elected one or several without even knowing it. Many hold the opinion that President Obama is a closet atheist. With all of the bright leaders this country has seen in the last 230+ years, it is difficult to think that not one of them had doubts about the existence of a god. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote “, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
It may be more than likely that we have had several Presidents that were atheists, but never made it public. Historically, the United States was and is one of the most religious countries in the world. Although religion itself seems to be on the decline, most people still believe in some form of a higher power. I will not explore that issue at this moment, but there is an argument to be made that Americans are becoming more private in their feeling towards god.
If a Presidential candidate were to run openly as an atheist in this country, there is no doubt that the only party that would nominate him/her would be the Democratic party. The Republican party relies heavily on the Christian voters to win elections. All of the candidates know that without wearing faith on their sleeve, there is no chance that republican voters will nominate them. The Democratic party and base of voters tend to hold more diverse requirements of choices for a candidate, provided the candidate fights for their economic and social interests. The Democratic base of voters have more secular viewpoints, similar to our founding fathers opinions on the role of religion and government in our society.
There is a secret hope among many liberals that, if re-elected, President Obama will come public with his non-belief. Many liberals understand that president Obama would lose many voters if he admitted that he was a non-believer before the election. If he is re-elected, there is no reason for him to remain quiet about his true thoughts on religion and god. President Obama is the first President in our nation’s history to publicly recognize atheists as part of this country. When he said that “We are no longer a Christian nation”, that was very important step in progress for atheists and non-Christian believers.
If he or any future Presidential candidate were to make public their lack of belief before an election, what would be the proper way to articulate it without losing the confidence of the faithful voters? The candidate would first have to establish that they support the Constitutional right of the American people to freely worship privately. Additionally, it would be imperative that the candidate would have to explain their path to non-belief and that being a non-believer does not equate to being a bad person. Thirdly, they would have to express their deepest appreciation for life and how understanding the laws of nature in the universe leads to a beautiful and unique vision in all aspects of it.
The candidate would have to also make clear that although the constitution supports and protects the rights of the American people to freely worship the god of their choosing without interference of the government, it also guarantees the right of the American people to have a government that passes laws which are free from the influences of those places of worship. The candidate would do no harm in admitting that we live in a very religious country. They would also have to admit that we live in a country that was set up to have a secular government.
Over 230 years ago, our founding fathers could not have predicted the amount of scientific knowledge about life and the natural universe that would be discovered. For our country was formed just a little over 150 years after Galileo confirmed that Copernicus was correct in his assessment that the earth was not the center of the universe but about 150 years before Edwin Hubble looked into the sky and saw that the universe was bigger than we could have possibly imagined. The founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence just under 100 years before Charles Darwin forever changed our understanding that life is a natural process subjected to natural laws and all living species are related and Louis Pasteur discovered that tiny microorganisms living inside of our bodies were causing many of our illnesses. Major scientific discoveries and advancements in science were yet to come and the founding fathers were long gone, unable to absorb the new information and apply it to their rational minds.
As we have been introduced to the beginning of the American Atheist movement in the last couple of decades, even the most devoted people of faith cannot deny that atheists are characterized as pit bulls ready to attack the moral fabric of our society, but should be feared no more than the average domestic house cat. Like a house cat, atheists are forever curious about our surroundings but cautious in how we gain the information. Atheists are independent and freethinking like a house cat, always doubting the intentions and motives of our masters. Whereas the devoutly faithful tend to be more like a domestic dog, trusting creatures of comfort loyal to their masters and never relinquishing that trust and comfort for a moment of doubt towards them. Both can be caring and loving, however, it is only the dog that requires constant affection and attention in order to feel worth.
So it is at this moment that our society must accept that believing in god is no longer a prerequisite to a moral life or to leading our country. It really never was in the first place. “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”
Let us hope that President Lincoln’s words about the black man in 1858 can resonate with the American voters one day in its application of atheists. Atheists are morally equal to those of religious persuasion. We see life as it describes itself to us through natural laws. We have no quarrels with religion so far as it remains out of public discourse and isolated in private matters. Maybe one day in the near future, a Presidential candidate will be unafraid to voice his true opinions on the present day myths of the world and run on his own merits and visions for the country. Hopefully the voters will stop equating lack of belief with lack of morals. Most Americans just a decade ago could have never foreseen that a black man would be elected President within a few years, let alone in their lifetime. It would say so much about the progress of our society and even more so if we elected a non-believer. It would mean that we would have cast away our fears and prejudices and exchanged it for our inner desire to see and judge candidates on the “content of their character” and not the fruitfulness of their faith.
(Below is Pete Stark, Democrat from California and only open Atheist serving Congress)