I was recently made aware of a new Gallup poll which was presented to me in the form “Look how many people would vote for an atheist president!” Indeed, the poll shows that 54% of surveyed people would vote for a qualified atheist candidate. This number definitely shocked me, as atheists are considered by the public to be as trustworthy as rapists, and serves as a good soundbite for secularists like myself, but what is the context? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but atheists are still the least “trusted” group in the entire survey.
The main findings of the Gallup poll were presented in the table below:
Taking a closer look, it is easy to see that atheists have a long way to go. If you compare atheism with the next largest faiths in America, the difference is significant. For example, the difference between atheists and Catholics in the survey is a swing of 40 percentage points (and Muslims are in the same boat).
[As a side note, it is heartening to see how many people would vote for a gay/lesbian candidate. It is a definite marker of social progress on the issue.]
A slightly more hopeful story is presented in the second table:
The table shows that over the years this survey has been given all groups have seen significant increases in people who would vote for them, atheists included.
But even though the percentage of respondents who would vote for an atheist has seen a major improvement (from less than 1 in 5 to a slight majority), I would point out that it is nearly the worst improvement out of all the categories. Not only that, but atheists have been behind by at least 37 points in comparison to the other major faiths for the last 54 years.
The last table however does give me hope for the next generation:
As I see it, the younger generation is becoming more and more tolerant of historically ostracized groups. Again considering atheism, the difference in voting responses between 18 to 29-year-olds and 30 to 49-year-olds is 14 points.
The willingness to vote for a gay/lesbian, Muslim, or atheist president has the greatest swing between this younger generation and older voters, perhaps suggesting that the moral zeitgeist is chugging along to a more accepting environment. But even with this acceptance, the numbers are not in an atheist candidate’s favor. Considering that in the 2008 US presidential election the 18 to 29-year-olds only made up 18% of the voters (with the next two age brackets making up 66% of the voters), I do not see how this valuable acceptance could make a significant political force in the short-term.
The number of people who would vote for a qualified atheist president is as high historically as it has ever been, and is certainly not a negative sign. Indeed, it is a mark of significant progress, overcoming the obstacles of having a relatively small and sometimes fractured constituency, as well as little political influence. However, noticing how a political race would actually be run in this country, I am not sure that it is time for secularists to celebrate.
Keep in mind that these survey questions were asked as discrete variables, meaning that they were not worded in opposition to each other (e.g., “Would you rather vote for a Catholic presidential candidate or an atheist candidate?”). Given that the vast majority of America is religious, that by statistics alone there will most likely be a religious candidate in any race for president, and that the difference between the likelihood of voting for a candidate of faith over an atheist can be as much as 40 percent, I do not see an atheist getting elected anytime soon. Acknowledging the widespread distrust of atheists (something that would surely be relentlessly capitalized upon in any attack ad), if an atheist presidential candidate is running against a religious one, the numbers still heavily favor the faithful.