Picture this scene: A recently elected president announces that he will decline to place his hand on a Bible when taking the oath of office. When people object, he replies that he doesn't believe in God, so it wouldn't make much sense for him to go through the motions of a religious ritual when he does not share that religion's beliefs.
Chances are you think such a thing is unlikely. After all, the politician would never have gotten elected in the first place without proclaiming his belief in God. It has happened, however—just not in America. The current prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, is forthright about her atheism and did not put her hand on a Bible at her 2010 swearing-in, generating a meaningful but not outsize controversy.
Back here in the United States, however, our politics seem to be consumed more with religion than they have been in quite a while. That's partly because we're in the midst of a contentious Republican primary in which candidates are competing to see which totems of identification they can brandish with the most vigor, and religion is high on the list. So Newt Gingrich says that President Barack Obama "has basically declared war on the Catholic Church" because his administration thinks that the Church's affiliated organizations don't have the right to decide which laws they will obey and which they won't. Rick Santorum believes that Satan is "attacking the great institutions of America," and that mainline Protestantism "is in a shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it," views which have won him the adoration of evangelical Republicans across the country. And as is the conservative habit in recent years, much of the rhetoric centers on the idea of victimization: that Christians are being hounded and oppressed by an aggressive secular state out to destroy their faith.
To which most atheists would reply: Were we engaged in a powerful conspiracy to destroy religion? I must have misplaced my War on Christianity organizing committee meeting invitation.
The right, however is undeterred. More than a few conservatives believe Barack Obama to be simultaneously a militant secularist and a devout Muslim, which seems like a contradiction only if you don't grasp the ground on which these arguments so often play out. What matters is that Obama is not One Of Us, and his true beliefs are whatever admixture of otherness that seems handy. Which is why Gingrich, when asked what he thinks of the fact that so many people persist in the fantasy that Obama is a Muslim, responds, "Why does the president behave the way that people would think that? You have to ask, why would they believe that? It's not because they're stupid." Instead, it's because "he is desperately concerned to apologize to Muslim religious fanatics while they are killing young Americans, while at the same time going to war against the Catholic Church and against every right-to-life Protestant organization in the country. I just think it's a very strange value system."
A strange value system indeed. 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.
Yet people with no religion are America's fastest-growing religious group. In the American Religious Identification Survey conducted at Trinity College, 8 percent of American adults claimed no religious allegiance in 1990, a number that rose to 15 percent by 2008. In raw numbers, that represented an increase of more than 20 million people who declare no religion. Other surveys have found similar results: The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found in 2007 that 16 percent of Americans declared no religious affiliation (some of those people do say they believe in a god or higher power, even though they don't identify with any organized religion). Over the weekend, thousands of people came to the Mall in Washington for a "Reason Rally," where they heard speeches, music, and stand-up comedy from a collection of secularists.
And Sunday's episode of the extraordinary MSNBC program Up With Chris Hayes (which is to the Sunday shows on the broadcast networks as The Sopranos is to Two and a Half Men) featured something perhaps unprecedented, at least in recent history: a major cable network hosting a thoughtful two-hour discussion about atheism. At one point, Hayes mentioned that while he doesn't believe in God, atheism is way down near the bottom of the list of ways he defines himself. This is probably true for many if not most secular Americans, and when Hayes made the comment, I thought of how I've heard more than a few conservative politicians declare themselves to be "Christians first, Americans second, and Republicans third."
It's no accident that these two trends—an increase in the numbers and visibility of secular Americans, and an increase in the degree to which Republican candidates are relying on divisive religious appeals—are happening at the same time (and we should acknowledge that even with the attention Santorum is getting, things have actually toned down a bit from earlier in the primaries, when Rick Perry was airing ads saying "I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian" and Herman Cain declared his intention to force Muslims who work for the government to take a special loyalty oath). Evangelical Christians make up about one-quarter of the adult population, but they are the core of the Republican Party, and as Republican politicians know well, evangelicalism is strengthened by the continual re-creation of a strong group identity threatened by outside forces. And if the threatening others outside the group seem to be not just a disparate collection of people who are "not like us" but a coherent tribe themselves, able to act with purpose and malice, that threat becomes all the more powerful a motivator. So the more visible secularists become, the greater the opportunity to bind evangelical voters more closely to the GOP.
But it won't be easy for secular Americans to become better organized as a political force, even as they increase in number. The major impediment to that kind of organization is the fact that it is very difficult for secularists to conceive of themselves in tribal terms. Most tribes, whether of nations or ethnicities or sports fandom, can easily demarcate their membership—it's the people who look like us, or talk like us, or dress like us. Tribes organized around religious belief have rituals, sacred texts, and physical spaces that all serve to bind the participants together. Atheism has none of these things—most of the time it's an individual choice, made and kept alone.
Nevertheless, we've come a long way from the time in 1988 when George H.W. Bush said, "I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God"—but not too long. But there's still no doubt where Republicans stand on those who don't believe in God. Four years ago, Mitt Romney thundered against "the religion of secularism" and declared that "freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." I haven't seen anyone ask Rick Santorum specifically about his feelings about atheists, but I have a pretty good idea what he'd say.