In 1987, a reporter asked George Bush senior whether he recognized the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists. Mr Bush’s reply has become infamous:
“No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.”
To see how outrageous this is, substitute ‘Jews’ for ‘atheists’. Bush’s bigoted remark was not an isolated mistake, blurted out in the heat of the moment and later retracted. He and his spokesmen stood by it in the face of repeated calls for clarification or withdrawal . He really meant it. And knew that it posed no threat to his election.
But what, after all, is an atheist? Far from having horns and a tail, an atheist is simply a person who, when thinking about such matters at all, holds a particular view of the cosmos and of human nature. It is an academic matter, like favoring the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory, hardly worthy of the sort of social and political ostracism that the word atheist almost universally provokes. In practice, an atheist is a person who feels about Yahweh the way any decent Christian feels about Thor, Baal, or the Golden Calf. As has been said before, we are all atheists about most of the gods humanity has ever believed in ? some of us just go one god further. Even if we define an atheist more theoretically, as one who seeks only naturalistic explanations and believes there are no supernatural beings of any kind, this surely qualifies as the kind of academic philosophic belief that a person is entitled to hold in a civilized democracy without being vilified as an unpatriotic, unelectable non-citizen.
Nor are we numerically as weak as you might think. The U.S. Census asks no questions about religion, but in 2001 the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), made by an authoritative team at the City University of New York, followed up the 1990 survey known as the NSRI (National Survey of Religious Identification) . It makes surprisingly encouraging reading. Christianity, of course, claims the lion’s share of the population: nearly 160 million adults. But what do you think is the second largest group, convincingly outnumbering Jews (2.8 million), Muslims (1.1 million), Hindus, Buddhists, and all other religions put together? The second largest group, numbering nearly 30 million adults, is the one described as nonreligious or secular. That figure has more than doubled since 1990.
When political analysts are asked why the Jewish lobby is so much stronger politically than voting numbers would suggest, they typically draw attention such factors as wealth, influence in the media, education, and intelligence. How do atheists measure up in these departments? Neither ARIS nor NSRI break down their data by socio-economic class, educational achievement, or IQ. But a recent article by Paul G. Bell in Mensa Magazine provides some straws in the wind. Mensa is an international organization open only to those of high measured IQ. Not surprisingly, therefore, its magazine displays an interest in questions of intellectual ability. From a meta-analysis of the literature, Bell concludes that:
Of 43 studies carried out since 1927 on the relationship between religious belief and one’s intelligence or educational level, all but four found an inverse connection. That is, the higher one’s intelligence or education level, the less one is likely to be religious . . .”
In 1998, Larson and Witham polled the cream of American scientists, those who have been honoured by election to the elite National Academy of Sciences . Among this select group, belief in a personal God dropped to a shattering 7%. About 20% call themselves agnostic, and the rest are atheists. Similar figures obtain for belief in personal immortality. Among biological scientists elected to the National Academy, only 5.5% believe in a god.
We have reached a truly remarkable situation, then: a grotesque mismatch between the American intelligentsia and the American electorate. A philosophical opinion about the nature of the universe, which is held by the great majority of America’s top scientists and probably by the elite intelligentsia generally, is so abhorrent to the American electorate that no candidate for popular election dare affirm it in public. If I am right, this means that high office in the greatest country in the world is barred to the very people best qualified to hold it, unless they are prepared to lie about their beliefs: American political opportunities are loaded against those who are simultaneously intelligent and honest.