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Undercover Atheists?

March 26th, 2012 · 18 Comments

Writing at The American Prospect a few weeks back, Patrick Caldwell expressed puzzlement at the view, seemingly widespread on the right, that the hegemonic forces of secularism are somehow forcing believers out of the public square:

When I first read Santorum’s comments though, I was mostly struck by how off base his statement is from the actual reality of our political class. People who lack a specific faith are the ones typically closed out from government service. Out of 538 members of Congress, California Rep. Pete Stark is the only self-avowed atheist. For as much as Republicans opine about the secularist goals of Obama’s presidency, he has stocked his cabinet with Catholics and other gentiles. The highest court of the land has six Catholics and three Jews.

A Gallup poll last December had 15 percent of Americans list their religious preference as none, atheist, or agnostic, though another Gallup poll from earlier in the year found that 7 percent claim to have no belief in God. By either measure, Americans lacking allegiance to an organized religion are vastly underrepresented among public officials.

It’s worth saying, first, that Santorum’s complaint is not so much about religious people being somehow hounded from public office, but about the secularism of mainstream political discourse. Which is just to say that we generally expect political actors in a pluralistic country to offer justifications for their preferred policies that do not hinge on one’s sharing a particular interpretation of a particular sacred text. Santorum thinks it should be perfectly sufficient to say: “It should be illegal because the Bible condemns it,” and he’s irritated that even believers mostly feel obligated to focus on religiously neutral “public reasons” that could be accepted by people who don’t acknowledge the authority of (that reading of) the Christian Bible. He’s not empirically wrong about this (and a good thing!), he just has a repugnant, medieval vision of how things ought to be.

That aside, though, I suspect “self-avowed” is a key qualifier in the passage quoted above. Whatever they check off on their census forms, the political class in D.C. have always struck me as pretty secular. Maybe they’re just quiet about their faith—praying quietly in private, regularly attending worship services on the weekend without making much fuss about it. And I certainly wouldn’t claim that people I happen to know socially are anything like a representative sample of “the D.C. political class.” Still, if you asked me to guess what percentage of the under-40 political professionals in this town—hill staffers, pundits, journalists, wonks, and activists—are agnostic or atheist in their private beliefs, I’d hazard a number much higher than 15 percent. If you expand that definition to encompass what I’d call “operational atheists”—people who might tell a pollster they’re whatever faith they grew up in, and might “believe” in some vague abstract sense, but whose nominal religion plays no discernible role in their thinking or everyday life—you’re probably well over 50 percent.

Of course, there are obvious reasons for Congress to be unrepresentative.  Given the widespread popular prejudice against atheists, they’re probably disproportionately likely to self-select into think tanks and magazines and various other supporting roles. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some smart, ambitious young people with political aspirations either consciously or subconsciously made a pragmatic decision, maybe at some point in college, that there was no real benefit in subjecting this particular corner of their belief systems to special scrutiny. Most of us, after all, hold thousands of beliefs with little better warrant than “I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere”—so it would be easy enough for a would-be politico to conclude there’s no sense rocking this particular epistemic boat.

But it’s still very, very hard for me to believe that there’s really only one atheist in the United States Congress. Not everyone who concludes, in an hour of quiet reflection, that religious doctrines are probably false feels compelled to shout it from the rooftops as loudly as Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. Lots of them are even perfectly happy to go through the motions at appropriate occasions, for the sake of family (presumably not everyone who converts at marriage has a genuine theological epiphany) or because they enjoy the sense of community, or even just because the ceremonial trappings have grown familiar and comfortable.  People fake it—so routinely that a Google search for “coming out atheist” brings up an incredible deluge of stories and discussions about people making the decision to leave the closet after years of going along to get along… or not. YouTube is packed with similar testimonials. Historically even intellectuals felt obliged to play along: David Hume (to pick one famous example from a rich pool) halfheartedly professed to be persuaded by the “Argument from Design”—then gives all the most devastating arguments in his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” to the skeptic who demolishes that argument.  It strains credulity to think there aren’t at least a few—and maybe more than a few—comparable closet cases in a profession where success depends on convincing this cycle’s electorate that you’re deeply committed to whatever it is they believe… even if it’s the opposite of what the last electorate believed.

It’s something of a cliché at this point to talk about the “paranoid style” of conservative politics—and the seeming migration of that paranoia from the fringe to the mainstream. But maybe in part it has roots in a perfectly common real-life experience that must, to believers, seem a bit like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: The bright young child everyone was so proud to ship off to a prestigious university comes back over break subtly different somehow… dutifully says grace at supper, but seems (for reasons you can’t quite nail down—maybe just that hint of a smirk?) to be humoring the ritual. For Americans who (mistakenly) take faith to be a sort of minimum prerequisite for moral conduct, this has to seem like the ultimate form of deception: Lying about even the general possibility of being honest. What had been understood as a kind of polite dissimulation—yes, of course your newborn is the most beautiful baby in the history of babies—starts to look downright insidious.

Previously faith could more or less be taken for granted—maybe the candidate makes a passing reference to the church they regularly attend—and that’s all there is to it, really, because of course everyone’s a believer of one stripe or another. Increasingly, isn’t so—that there are actually quite a lot of unbelievers, many of them effectively operating in stealth mode. This was probably always the case, but outside the academy and a few urban enclaves, nobody was terribly vocal about it—you certainly didn’t have anything like a visible public “movement.” Suddenly, if you’re someone who thinks of faith as a minimal prerequisite for decency, what was previously tacitly understood has to be signaled with extra vigor.

A comparison with gay rights may be apt here: Go back a few decades and the idea is so marginal that nobody really thinks of it as a political issue. (Note that in some of the most virulently homophobic societies, you also see a lot more normal physical affection between men that would be normal in the U.S., possibly because it’s so beyond the pale that nobody worries about sending the wrong signals.)  Roll forward another decade or two and it’ll so normalized that nobody can quite understand why there was ever a fuss about it: Every city has plenty of nice gay families, and everyone can see they’re not fundamentally different from the nice straight family next door. You get “culture wars” in the middle: When a phenomenon is prevalent enough to seem threatening, but not yet (visibly) prevalent enough that it becomes obvious it’s not actually a threat at all.

I’ve always found the more aggressive, proselytizing sort of atheism a bit distasteful: Do we really need a People-who-don’t-play-chess club or a non-basketball-team? As a writer or pundit or whatever I am, it’s no surprise that I’ll occasionally bring up this aspect of my worldview, but since most of us don’t think our fellow citizens have souls that need saving, shouldn’t the modal atheist just go on quietly not-believing, and hope polite circumspection on these issues catches on? Maybe, though, there’s a case for being a little more vocal—for coming out secular—at this particular historical moment, in the interest of hastening the journey across the valley between invisibility and normalcy.

Tags: Religion · Sociology



18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dan Koffler // Mar 26, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Leon Wieseltier’s unsurprisingly awful review of Daniel Dennett a few years back included a bit in which Hume’s purported acceptance of the argument from design is used as evidence that “even the great Hume blah blah blah”.

  • 2 Gabriel Rossman // Mar 26, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    “Whatever they check off on their census forms”

    You mean “Whatever they would tell a pollster”

    The US Census Bureau hasn’t collected religion data since the 1930s. In fact, the Census doesn’t even allow people to self describe their ethnicity as “Jewish” (or related words like “Ashkenazi”) and when people self-describe as Jewish the Census codes their ethnicity as “998 — other responses”

  • 3 Gabriel Rossman // Mar 26, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    “Note that in some of the most virulently homophobic societies, you also see a lot more normal physical affection between men that would be normal in the U.S., possibly because it’s so beyond the pale that nobody worries about sending the wrong signals.”

    You might like the work of Ari Adut at the University of Texas. He has a model of scandal that’s kind of like this.

  • 4 MFarmer // Mar 26, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    This was the topic over the weekend on Chris Hayes’s show. Dawkins was on and he made a good point re: challenging politicians on their facile statements of faith. Hayes thought that this is the wrong way to go about dealing with the issue, that atheists should not be quite so offensive toward the believer. Like you say, many people only claim a religion to prevent being ostracized, and many politicians claim religion for political purposes. The Santorum types need to be challenged because they’re too cocksure of the superiority of their beliefs as they relate to morals applied to current social issues, but when Santorum is pricked a bit, he tends to fall apart.

  • 5 Elias // Mar 26, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    This probably isn’t quite as visible in your environment JS, but I think there are a few more closet atheists than most people realize.

    I grew up in a mainstream Protestant Church and was raised around the Catholic Church. I can discuss Catholic teachings better than a lot of Catholics can and I can argue both sides of your classic works vs. grace debate well. But I’m not a religious man anymore.

    Doesn’t mean that I don’t claim to be. My family still thinks I attend a protestant church. No need to convince them that I’m bound for hell. At work I claim to be a Catholic (I chose Catholic because one of our supervisors is a bigtime fundie who loves to talk and preach religion and I figured Catholic would be more fun). Letting my bosses know that I’m an atheist could seriously gum up any hope I have of ever promoting. Almost as much as admitting that I’m a Democrat would.

    During a recent discussion with my landlord she asked me if I “believed”. I honestly told her that I did not. What a mistake that was. I got a stern lecture about how I would be going to hell and that in the meantime I would need to find another place to live by the end of the month. IANAL but I bluffed my way through a discussion of civil rights, tenant rights, and whatnot. I sounded like I knew what I was talking about.

    There’s a lot of discrimination in this country against atheists. It’s not as bad as that against women, or blacks and latinos, or against gays; but admitting that one is an atheist is far worse in most eyes than admitting that you belong to a different religion. Far better to tell a fundie that you’re a Catholic than to admit you’re an atheist.

  • 6 John Thacker // Mar 27, 2012 at 9:17 am

    “And I wouldn’t be surprised if some smart, ambitious young people with political aspirations either consciously or subconsciously made a pragmatic decision, maybe at some point in college, that there was no real benefit in subjecting this particular corner of their belief systems to special scrutiny.”

    All politicians (successful ones who represent large, heterogeneous constituencies) are forced to take contradictory stances on issues; sometimes simultaneously, sometimes over the course of time or to different audiences. It’s why so many lawyers are successful politicians, as the skills are similar. Like the most successful lawyers, the most successful politicians are those who are able to truly “believe” two contradictory things at the same time.

    Ironically, it’s the politicians who are internally consistent who come off seeming the most phony or fake, since they’re worse at the inevitable pandering. To take examples, Romney and Obama don’t flip-flip or pander any less or more, but Obama seems realer precisely because he is more fake (or mentally flexible).

    And yes, there’s lots of discrimination in this country or anywhere else by the in-group against the out-group. But that goes for any in-group versus out-group. There certainly are places where theists (and even more for libertarians, or worse, conservatives or Republicans) feel as though they must hide their views or face discrimination. The experience can be more shocking for people who are used to being the in-group, and I understand not having as much sympathy for people who are normally in the majority, but the experience is the same. That’s how human nature works.

    Luckily in most cases, people don’t actually need to hide their views as much as they think. But yes, some people are that way.

    Pew did a survey about the tendency to defriend/block/etc on social network based on politics. Results here: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Social-networking-and-politics/Main-findings/Social-networking-sites-and-politics.aspx

    As it turns out, self-described liberals (on social media) have considerably more “epistemic closure” than moderates or conservatives. Certainly it’s possible, based on the numbers, that the more close-minded conservatives are simply less likely to use social media (since it has a lower usage rate among conservatives.)

  • 7 John Thacker // Mar 27, 2012 at 9:27 am

    I also will add that it’s possible that conservatives are less likely to have friends of different political views on social media in the first place to block or unfriend.

    But then again, Haidt’s recent book offers another example of epistemic closure by liberals– compared to moderates, libertarians, and conservatives, they are significantly less likely to successfully complete surveys based on “answer this how you think a self-described conservative” (or libertarian, or moderate, or some other group) would answer this.

    Not that any sort of data is ever really enough to overcome personal experience. (And the same is true in my case; my experience is that religious people learning of your atheism are annoying in their worry and concern, whereas liberal people learning of your Right-leaning views view you as evil.)

  • 8 tls // Mar 27, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    typos! please proofread! spell check!

  • 9 Operational atheists or perfectly normal believers? | The Uncredible Hallq // Mar 29, 2012 at 9:48 am

    […] Sanchez has a post titled “Undercover Atheists?” that makes a number of interesting points, but the one I want to comment on is about the number of […]

  • 10 Luis // Mar 29, 2012 at 10:20 am

    I liked this essay, Julian, but any discussion of political atheism is glaringly incomplete without citing to the survey data on who people will vote for. Atheist politicians have a very strong reason not to be “out.” From this prospect article: “So which is more harmful to a politician: to have Americans believe that you’re a Muslim or that you’re an atheist? If you believe the polls, the answer is “atheist.” In a 2007 Pew survey, 49 percent of respondents said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate who was a Muslim, but 63 percent would be less likely to vote for someone who was an atheist. And in a poll last year, Gallup found that 67 percent of Americans would vote for a gay candidate for president, but only 49 percent would vote for an atheist.”

  • 11 Elizabeth Ames // Mar 29, 2012 at 11:28 am

    Liked your article, Julian. I have always instinctively agreed with the above conclusions Luis states, without knowing the poll data. I think the value of a Chris Hitchens or a Dawkins is to get a conversation going. We won’t be a true Democracy until ones religion or lack of it has nothing to do with getting elected.

  • 12 Derek Scruggs // Mar 29, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    “The bright young child everyone was so proud to ship off to a prestigious university …”

    I was one of those kids. This brings back fond memories of my father demanding his money back because college had turned me into a liberal.

  • 13 “Operational Atheists” « Infinite Regress // Mar 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    […] Money quote: […]

  • 14 RLG // Mar 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Good stuff. You’re right that not all atheists will want to join a “not-club” like your “people-who-don’t-play-chess.” Stress the “a” in “atheism” and what is there to get excited about.

    But atheists might well want to join a club, and we’re starting to see it. (There’s a big subway poster for African Americans for Humanism – AAH.org, at my Brooklyn stop.) They want to for two obvious reasons:

    1) They are sick of the public policy and private scorn that comes out of religious beliefs, and opposing this is of positive value to them. it’s just as being anti-war is being pro-peace, not just being “anti-” something.

    2) They believe passionately in science; they believe in ethics that result from humanist philosophy and not a threat of Hell; or they believe some other good thing worth defending.

    There’s a third reason, probably the least powerful reason to join a group, but salient for some of us: it’s just weird to walk around hearing people professing the power and love and omnipresence of an being no one has ever seen or talked to. We just want to shout from the rooftops “Am I effing crazy, or is everyone else?” My wife, being European, tries to describe moving to the States like this: Imagine moving to a country where everyone constantly professes their real-world belief in astrology, and acts on it, and acts proud of acting on it, and scorns you for not believing in astrology. It starts to make you a little cuckoo; you want to say “You don’t… really believe this do you?” That, too, might want to join others just for the sake of your sanity.

    So yeah. A lot of people can just not care. But a lot of us do care, and we are happy when we find fellow, ahem, believers. Because the human need for fellowship transcends churches. The weakest ever argument for religion is “But people like fellowship!” No s–t they do. That includes people who don’t have fellowship in Jesus.

  • 15 Jimbo // Mar 29, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    The idea that athiests tend not to be visible because there is no event to ‘out’ them can be false. I was stirred in a college class in the 70s where a campus crusade for christ wacko was allowed to present the film ‘Future Shock’ to scare my fellow students, then prothletize to gain converts. To say I was royally pissed off is to put it mildly, although I hadn’t thought too much about it beforehand. This religious horseshit has taken over our country, and I chose then to not let it happen if I had a say. Athiests stand up, remember, no one can prove any god exists. It hasn’t happened through centuries of religious horseshit, it won’t happen today, and it will never happen. Period. Now I get particular pleasure going to our city council meetings, to hear the fools shout out ‘god’ during the Pledge of Alligience because they know I won’t say the word ‘god’. Come out now, and convert as many as you can, if for no other reason than to spare us from the fools.

  • 16 A Little Bit of Heaven | Just Above Sunset // Mar 30, 2012 at 2:22 am

    […] And that leads Julian Sanchez to write a long piece on Undercover Atheists: […]

  • 17 deified // Apr 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Roll forward another decade or two and it’ll so normalized that nobody can quite understand why there was ever a fuss about it: Every city has plenty of nice gay families, and everyone can see they’re not fundamentally different from the nice straight family next door.

    Why, what fantastically grandiose assumptions you have there! And so many of them!

  • 18 Rocky // Jun 7, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    There are tons more on the agnostic/atheist/skeptic spectrum than you might expect. Go talk to the graduates of a Catholic high school, especially a conservative one! Though I was the only out atheist in my class, a lot of us are either no longer practicing or no longer believe.

    A lot of us do live under the radar because we aren’t sure for our safety or social support if we do announce it. Those of us who do- hey, I’m in the heart of the Bible Belt and am openly atheist- are the weirdos and freaks. We’ll become more accepted over time, especially as more of us run for office and make it clear that religion or lack thereof is no qualifier for being a good person and wanting to do what’s in the country’s best interests. I can’t say that for the religious right.