Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Step Forward For American Atheists?

To put it mildly, I am over the moon that Barack Obama will be our next president and Joseph Biden our next vice-president, not only because their progressive positions defeated that angry old man McCain and his looney-tunes running mate Palin, but in doing so Obama has also placed the rabid Republicans in disarray—at least for the time being.

Moreover, Obama's win as a black man represents a giant step forward for American minority groups. As many others during the course of the campaign have pointed out, when Obama was born in 1961, African Americans were still struggling for the right to vote in many states. What a difference forty-seven years have made.

While the situation for atheists in America is not as dire as that of blacks in the segregation era, we are still not accepted as equals in society. For instance can you imagine what would happen if a professed non-believer ran for president?

But who has to imagine how even being labeled an atheist can hurt someone who is running for political office in America? A concrete example of such anti-atheist bigotry is an incident that occurred in and may have determined the outcome of the senate race in North Carolina. Candidate Kay Hagan sued the incumbent Elizabeth Dole for picturing Hagan as "Godless".

It wasn't enough for Hagan to just say that Dole was wrong (which she was) or to even challenge Dole to prove her assertion. Hagan was so insulted (or perhaps just pragmatically concerned that simply denying the label would cost her votes) that she filed a court action over the matter. In the end, Dole's "accusation" appears to have backfired because voters didn't believe her, and if that wasn't the sole reason that she lost the election, it certainly contributed to her defeat. Yet Dole apparently felt that given the negative image of atheism, this campaign tactic was a chance worth taking.

The point of this digression is that in America, especially in the South (no surprise) belief or non-belief in God is a obviously a major issue and being "accused" of atheism can be the kiss of death for a politician. Yet, although Obama is a religionist, I would like to think that the atmosphere for non-believers, secularists, and other advocates of rational thinking in America will be less toxic than what we have had to breathe through now, especially under the faith-based, theocon- dominated Bush administration. One basis for my cautious optimism is Obama's speech in 2006 , "Call to Renewal". Although this speech address deals with his belief about the importance of religion in the public sphere, at the same time Obama addresses pluralism as a fact of life in American society and the dangers of sectarianism.

In short, maybe—just maybe—Obama's victory has opened the door so that one day it will become possible for an atheist in turn to be elected president. However, that may still be several decades away. According Your Friendly Neighbourhood Atheist, a Newsweek article published in 2007 shows that 62% of registered voters said that they would not vote for an atheist.

But if and when a non-believer achieves that office, America will have matured to the point that it can truly call itself the land of equal opportunity.