Can Americans elect a non-Christian president?

On President’s Day, Pew Research highlighted the religious faith of America’s presidents:

With the exception of Democrat Bernie Sanders (who is Jewish), all of the presidential hopefuls are Christians and most are Protestants.

In addition, all of the current presidential candidates have spoken openly about the importance of faith in their lives (again, with the exception of Sanders, who describes himself as “not particularly religious”). Our recent survey shows that many Americans care about their leaders’ faith. For instance, half of all American adults say that it’s important for a president to share their religious beliefs. And more people now say there is “too little” religious discussion by their political leaders (40%) than say there is “too much” (27%).

Historically, about a quarter of the presidents – including some of the nation’s most famous leaders, like George Washington, James Madison and Franklin Roosevelt – were members of the Episcopal Church, the American successor to the Church of England.

The next largest group of presidents were affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, which has roots in Scotland. Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, all of whom had Scots-Irish ancestry, were among the commanders in chief who belonged to the denomination.

Protestants have dominated the office yet just two denominations – Episcopalians and Presbyterians – have supplied nearly half (19 out of 43) of the presidents. Arguably, Americans might not care exactly what denomination or particular doctrinal beliefs a president has as long as they identify as a Christian. This may be part of American civil religion where particularities are not encouraged but a general Christian faith is helpful.

In a continuing trend, a sizable number of Americans say they are unwilling to vote for atheists for president though more younger voters are open to it:

As the 2016 presidential election field takes shape, more than nine in 10 Americans say they would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who is Catholic, a woman, black, Hispanic or Jewish. Less than half of Americans would vote for a candidate who is a socialist…

Among religious identities, while the large majority of Americans would vote for a Catholic or Jewish presidential candidate, smaller majorities say they would vote for a candidate who is Mormon (81%), an evangelical Christian (73%), Muslim (60%) or an atheist (58%)…

At least two-thirds of adults younger than 30 say they are willing to vote for a candidate with any of the characteristics included in the survey.

How this influences the 2016 election remains to be seen.

Why is football “the sport that most closely aligns itself with religion”?

NFL player Arian Foster is out as a non-religious player:

Arian Foster, 28, has spent his entire public football career — in college at Tennessee, in the NFL with the Texans — in the Bible Belt. Playing in the sport that most closely aligns itself with religion, in which God and country are both industry and packaging, in which the pregame flyover blends with the postgame prayer, Foster does not believe in God.

“Everybody always says the same thing: You have to have faith,” he says. “That’s my whole thing: Faith isn’t enough for me. For people who are struggling with that, they’re nervous about telling their families or afraid of the backlash … man, don’t be afraid to be you. I was, for years.”

He has tossed out sly hints in the past, just enough to give himself wink-and-a-nod deniability, but he recently decided to become a public face of the nonreligious. Moved by the testimonials of celebrity atheists like comedian Bill Maher and magicians Penn and Teller, Foster has joined a national campaign by the nonprofit group Openly Secular, which plans to use his story to increase awareness and acceptance of nonbelievers, especially in sports. The organization initially approached ESPN about Foster’s willingness to share his story, but ESPN subsequently dealt directly with Foster, and Openly Secular had no involvement…

Religion may be football’s sole concession to humility, perhaps the only gesture that suggests the game itself is not its own denomination. Nowhere is the looming proximity of Christianity more pronounced than in the SEC, where, in the time of Tim Tebow, a man named Chad Gibbs was inspired to write a book — God and Football — telling of his travels to every SEC school to decipher how like-minded Christians navigate the cliff walk between rooting for Florida and maintaining their devotion to Christ. These religious currents aren’t confined to football, of course: Big league baseball teams routinely hold “faith and family” days; players appear at postgame celebrations to give their testimonials, and Christian rock bands perform well into the night. In football, though, public displays of faith can be viewed as a necessary accessory for such a dangerous and violent sport.

I’m more interested in why football might identify more with religion than other sports. (And I’m a bit skeptical of whether this is true.) Is it:

1. The physical nature of the game? Perhaps it reminds the athletes more of their own mortality. Plus, careers are short due to the physical demands. Perhaps playing football reinforces religiosity.

2. The connection between football and certain areas of the country? This article cites the Bible Belt and SEC schools. So this connection between football and religion could really be a relationship between football and the South? This could be an example of a spurious correlation.

3. The people who play football are more religious and/or come from more religious families? In this explanation, the religiosity comes before football rather than because of football (different causal order).

4. Football players have been more publicly vocal about their faith compared to athletes in other sports?

5. A historical connection between churches and/or religious schools and football?

Could be some interesting stuff to look into…

“The Last Taboo”: Atheists still face uphill battle in American public life

Here is an overview of the hurdles atheists face in American society:

For starters, consider that there is not a single self-described atheist in Congress today. Not one. It wasn’t until 2007 that Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from Northern California, became the first member of Congress and the highest-ranking public official ever to admit to being an atheist. (And even he framed it in terms of religious affiliation, calling himself “a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.”) Stark was elected twice after this, but when the 20-term congressman lost his seat last year, it was to a 31-year-old primary challenger who attacked him as irreligious, citing, among other things, Stark’s vote against our national motto: “In God We Trust.”

Indeed, the same year that Stark came out, the Secular Coalition of America was able to identify only five atheist public officials in the entire United States. After Stark and a Nebraska state senator, the third-highest ranking atheist was a school-board president from Berkeley, Calif.—this despite the fact that, according to a 2012 Pew report, 6 percent of Americans say they don’t believe in a higher power. That leaves at least 15 million Americans without any elected officials to represent their point of view. Basically, atheism is still as close as it gets to political poison in American electoral politics: A recent Gallup poll found (once again) that atheists are the least electable among several underrepresented groups. Sixty-eight percent of Americans would vote for a well-qualified gay or lesbian candidate, for example, but only 54 percent would vote for a well-qualified atheist. Seven state constitutions even still include provisions prohibiting atheists from holding office (though they are not enforced). One of those is liberal Maryland, which also has a clause that says, essentially, that non-believers can be disqualified from serving as jurors or witnesses…

The Cold War changed all that. Atheism began to seem almost treasonous amid tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, because the Soviets were officially and emphatically against religion. Sen. Joseph McCarthy famously used the phrase “godless communists” to bash the political left and others he considered his enemies. In this context, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed laws in the mid-1950s inserting “God” into our Pledge of Allegiance and putting it on all our money. (It had been on most coins earlier, but Eisenhower made “In God We Trust” our national motto, henceforth to appear on all bills.)…

In fact, the fastest-growing religious category in the United States is what are called the “nones”—people who say they have no religious affiliation. One-fifth of Americans are in this group today, according to Pew Research Center polling. Among adults under age 30, a full third count themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Some of them believe in a god or gods; some do not. They are not going to want to be pushed around by any sect one way or another, and as their numbers increase, they won’t have to allow it.

Surveys consistently show Americans are more opposed to atheists than other groups (such as voting for President) even as organized religiosity declines and atheists look to form megachurches. Read more of the Pew report on religious nones which suggests the numbers are growing even as some still have more traditional religious beliefs and practices.

Why would atheist groups want to be known for meeting in “mega-churches”?

I understand the interest in wanting to meet together regularly but why exactly would atheists want to call their gatherings “megachurches”?

Nearly three dozen gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors have sprung up around the U.S. and Australia — with more to come — after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.

On Sunday, the inaugural Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles attracted several hundred people bound by their belief in non-belief. Similar gatherings in San Diego, Nashville, New York and other U.S. cities have drawn hundreds of atheists seeking the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual…

Hundreds of atheists and atheist-curious packed into a Hollywood auditorium for a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection, an “inspirational talk” about forgotten — but important — inventors and scientists and some stand-up comedy.

During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” ”Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game that involved clapping and slapping the hands of the person next to them and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they had started in LA.

I’m a little surprised they would want to be known as “megachurches” as these kind of churches tend to attract some criticism. Here are some critiques: they are big, impersonal, more about entertainment than community, don’t require much commitment from attendees, are devoted to money and programs, encourage a consumer mentality, may not lead to much spiritual growth, and can swell their congregations by taking attendees from other churches. (To be fair, there are others who would praise what megachurches do and can do.)

Here are a few reasons why using the term megachurches might be attractive to atheists:

1. They imply a sizable congregation. The median church in the United States is around 75 people (this was according to the National Congregations study a few years ago). Interestingly, the congregations described in this study sound like they had “several hundred people,” which is not exactly megachurch size. Perhaps these groups will have to pursue church growth strategies.

2. Megachurches tend to get an outsized amount of attention even though most American Christians don’t go to churches that size. Congregations like Willow Creek or Saddleback or Lakeland have well-known pastors and are seen as leading institutions in conservative Christianity in America. Atheist megachurches could have a similar influence in the media and the public at large.

It will be interesting to see how these groups, megachurches or not, fare.

Argument: “the Internet probably hasn’t made people less religious”

Has the Internet led to decreased religiosity? One lab researcher and research assistant doesn’t think so:

Given these data, I think it’s really unlikely that the Internet has played any substantive role in bringing Americans out of religion. Everyone has a self-serving bias, and atheists aren’t immune. Atheist writers seem really optimistic — they say we have the truth on our side, information is widely accessible, and we’re growing in numbers. But it seems like these first two things don’t really matter that much, and our growth seems to be more in organization and political influence, rather than genuine conversion.

To me, this supports a focus on values rather than beliefs, and about this I’m optimistic — if America is becoming more socially liberal but remains God-fearing, then that’s fine with me. So long as we have a cultural momentum geared toward gay rights, secular government, and social justice, the politically liberal religiously unaffiliated can help to push this progress forward. And there the Internet might help, no matter what anyone believes about God.

This sounds like an interesting research question that would be the flip-side of a recent paper I co-authored where we looked at how religiosity affects Facebook use. I don’t know how this new question would turn out but it does get at a question we raise at the end of our paper: is the Internet more of a secular or sacred sphere? Are there more people promoting belief or unbelief, how many websites are devoted to each topic, how many visitors do such websites receive, and do certain groups have more appealing approaches and sites? And it may not even matter what exactly is being promoted on the Internet; perhaps it is a function of time spent online versus doing other things.

19% of Americans now religiously unaffiliated but many are still religious or spiritual

Pew reported yesterday that the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation continues to rise to over 19%. However, there is a complex story taking place with this group: many are still religious or spiritual, this may be more about generational change, and it could be that those who rarely go to church are now more willing to say so.

However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics…

The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the “nones” – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives…

In addition to religious behavior, the way that Americans talk about their connection to religion seems to be changing. Increasingly, Americans describe their religious affiliation in terms that more closely match their level of involvement in churches and other religious organizations. In 2007, 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In 2012, just 50% of those who say they seldom or never attend religious services still retain a religious affiliation – a 10-point drop in five years. These trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys partly because Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether.

So while the number of atheists and agnostics has risen in the last few years, the number of non-affiliated Americans has risen even more as more people are less interested in identifying with religious institutions.

I wonder if there is another explanation at work here: in general, Americans now have less trust in all institutions. Here is where things stood in October 2011:

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed barely 10 percent of the public trusts the government. But it doesn’t stop there: Trust in public institutions like corporations, banks, courts, the media and universities is at an all-time low; the military is one of the few exceptions.

Perhaps this is a package deal. And perhaps this was part of the oddness of the 1950s; the prosperous era suggested Americans could trust institutions (and church attendance and membership went up) but the zeitgeist started going the other way in the 1960s.

Atheists rally but still have a long way to go in the field of public opinion

Atheists may have held the “Reason Rally” last Saturday in Washington D.C. but data suggests they have a long way to go in countering negative public perceptions:

Atheists remain an enigma for many people. In fact, a study released last year found that religious people distrust atheists almost as much as rapists (National Post):

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon conducted a series of studies that found a deep level of distrust toward those who don’t believe in God, deeming them to be among the least trusted people in the world — despite their growing ranks to an estimated half billion globally. “There’s this persistent belief that people behave better if they feel like God is watching them,” said Will Gervais, lead study author and doctoral candidate in the social psychology department at UBC. “So if you’re playing by those rules, you’re going to see other people’s religious beliefs as signals of how trustworthy they might be.” … “It’s pretty shocking that we get the same magnitude of distrust towards atheists simply because they don’t believe [in God],” said the researcher, who is himself an atheist. “With rapists, they’re distrusted because they rape people. Atheists are viewed as sort of a moral wild card.”…

So, one rally didn’t change perceptions too much … that’s not hard to believe. Gregory Paul, an independent researcher in sociology and evolution, and Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology, are puzzled by the dislike of atheists, but they see some positive signs for the nonbelievers’ future:

More than 2,000 years ago, whoever wrote Psalm 14 claimed that atheists were foolish and corrupt, incapable of doing any good. These put-downs have had sticking power. Negative stereotypes of atheists are alive and well. Yet like all stereotypes, they aren’t true — and perhaps they tell us more about those who harbor them than those who are maligned by them. … As with other national minority groups, atheism is enjoying rapid growth. Despite the bigotry, the number of American nontheists has tripled as a proportion of the general population since the 1960s. Younger generations’ tolerance for the endless disputes of religion is waning fast. Surveys designed to overcome the understandable reluctance to admit atheism have found that as many as 60 million Americans — a fifth of the population — are not believers. Our nonreligious compatriots should be accorded the same respect as other minorities.

It looks like there will be plenty of material to study in this area in the coming years.

I’d be interested to hear Paul and Zuckerman’s argument about surveys being titled toward religiosity. Do questions about religion suggest that the socially desirable answer is to be religious or does this pressure come mainly outside the survey? What questions produce higher results?