The emerging 2008 presidential race has spawned a myriad of candidates spanning gender, racial, and religious lines. The question of whether or not you would vote for someone of a particular minority group has probably never been so relevant. However, a new Gallup Poll shows that on a whole we are becoming a reasonably tolerant populace. 94% would vote for a Black person, 88% for a woman, but only 57% for someone over 72 (sorry Mr. McCain). Note that at the absolute bottom of the list are atheists. Only 45% would vote for one, ranking atheists a full 10 points under homosexuals.
I’ve said before that atheists are a largely unrecognized oppressed minority, and this would seem to support that position. Regardless, the comparative ranking to other minorities is striking in a new way. What makes atheists so threatening? Is it simple ignorance? Maybe, but I suspect not. I think the difference is that all the minority categorizations on the list say something about the candidate, but only atheism says something about the voter.
If I’m a thrice divorced 75 year old Catholic Hispanic homosexual woman, those labels reflect something I am or choices I’ve made. They say nothing about you. By supporting me, there’s no inherent admission (or even inclination) that your manhood, your Jewish faith, your stable marriage, or your Asian heritage are wrong. But I think atheism is different.
As an atheist, I can accept your belief in God. I may not believe that God actually exists in reality, but I can believe that the idea of God is very real to you. And further, that this belief is appropriate and healthy for you. Your belief is a good thing for you. I do not require that you be wrong or crazy to keep my world view in tact.
However, as a theist, it is not nearly so easy to reconcile atheism. Theology says that God does exist in a very real, albeit intangible, way. Further, most western theologies (especially Christianity) teach that those not of the faith are either unaware (in need of education and conversion) or oppositional (in need of being culled from the flock). So whom would a theist vote for, the ignoramus or the heretic?
I think other religions are easier for theists to accept than atheism. This is especially true among Christians, Jews, Mormons, and Muslims. They all share books of the bible, certain mythologies, many philosophies, the same God, and even some of the same prophets. They are flavor variations, more similar than not. But you can’t stretch faith around atheism – pretty much by definition. Atheists may be unexposed to the Word, they may be wrong, misguided, or nuts. But they can’t be right. Their position is definitionally untenable in the theistic world view.
I think it is this world view dichotomy which will make atheists one of the hardest minorities to accept. If I’m straight, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong for you to be gay. But if I’m a theist, it does make it wrong for you to be an atheist. I’m not sure how we get past that. To that end, I’ll encourage any readers who are theists and who have come to a way to reconcile atheists without contradicting their faith to share that reasoning with the blog.