Which moral position is worse, cheating on one's spouse or rejecting religious dogma? Are you less trustworthy if you use an illegal drug or reject supernatural explanations for life?
These questions were recently put to Americans by the Pew Research Center in a poll asking what traits would make someone less likely to vote for a candidate for president of the United States.
The trait people identified as the least desirable in a president: "Atheist." 53 percent of Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is an atheist. It beat out pot-smoker and adulterer. People found atheism a bigger barrier to high office than someone who is gay or lesbian, or even someone who lacked any political experience.
Wow. The Christian Right complains there is a war on them, but here's proof that it's just the opposite. A politician's strong religious beliefs do not harm his or her chances for public office. But Americans willingly share their bias against non-believers with pollsters, as if it is self-evident atheists are not to be trusted.
Meanwhile, the media goes along.
For instance, Denver radio host Dan Caplis recently tossed this out when discussing Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist comments: "All racists are, at the end of the day, atheists." What? On what basis is he making this claim? And where was the corresponding outcry by the press for such a baseless and callous assertion?
Then there's Fox News's Megyn Kelly, who recently threw around the term "atheist" as a way to discredit an organization that fights for church-state separation in the military. Kelly labeled Mikey Weinstein, the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an atheist — though he's not — as a pejorative, signaling to viewers that this man should not be trusted because his complaints come with an anti-God agenda.
Okay, that's Fox News, but even the New York Times is guilty of knee-jerk bias. Columnist Nicholas Kristof, in a recent column on Americans' shocking lack of basic knowledge on religion, singled out non-believers as particularly clueless, saying, "secular Americans are largely ignorant about religion."
In fact, polls show that secular Americans are more knowledgeable about religion than those who profess to follow one.
A 2010 Pew survey asked Americans more than 30 questions about various aspects of religion, including the Bible, Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, world religions, religion in public life and atheism and agnosticism.
The group that performed the best was the atheists and agnostics. They were able to answer nearly 21 out of 32 questions correctly, compared with an average respondent's score of 16 correct answers. No group — including Christians or Jews — scored as high as atheists and agnostics on religious knowledge.
People who reject the religion they were born into often give it a great deal of thought and study before walking away. Atheists know they are risking the loss of family relationships, friendships and community for being true to their own reasoning. Being open about one's non-belief carries the possibility of job discrimination, the loss of business, and social alienation.
Why is it that in the 21st century, when America's economic might depends upon science, technology and innovation, people who subscribe to a science- and evidence-based view of the natural world are social pariahs?
This prejudice is particularly evident in the political realm, where being open about non-belief is an insuperable barrier to election. Moreover, seven states still ban atheists from holding office — prohibitions that violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on religious tests for public office, but remain on the books because no lawmaker wants to be seen supporting their repeal.
To counter this, a new coalition called Openly Secular has formed. Made up of more than two dozen national organizations across the secular movement, Openly Secular's goal is to increase acceptance and eliminate discrimination of atheists, agnostics and other seculars.
By being open about our beliefs and values, we at Openly Secular want to show that — like all people — we are worthy of acceptance, common decency, respect and equality, no matter our religious views or lack of them. We ask voters, journalists, and everyone, to keep this in mind before marginalizing us again.
Robyn Blumner is the Executive Director for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and the project director for Openly Secular.