You’ll never be president. Neither will your spouse, son, daughter, partner, friend, or anyone else you’ve ever known. If it makes you feel any better, the same goes for me.
But there is a difference between you and me. You, you’re an ordinary victim of the odds -- just 42 out of the hundreds of millions of Americans who have lived during the 218-year history of the U.S. presidency have held the country’s highest office. Chances are, whatever quality those 42 privileged white men had that allowed them to beat seemingly insurmountable odds, you don’t. Isn’t reality humbling?
But I have someone else to blame. It’s you, the average God-fearing, American voter, for a superstitious dogmatism more befitting the Bronze Age. That’s right -- I’m an atheist, and it’s the religious oppression and discrimination against my enlightened ilk that’s blocking my co-non-religionists from full participation in American democracy!
In all seriousness, I harbor no aspiration for elected office. If I did, a host of other factors besides my atheism (or “nontheism,” as a few secularist groups prefer) would render the Thornton for Congress campaign a textbook exercise in political folly. Still, the electability argument -- especially in light of Rep. Pete Stark’s public admission of his non-religious leanings -- is fast becoming a rallying cry for a stunningly bold assertion in atheist-chic circles: that those who profess no belief in God face discrimination and oppression similar to other historically marginalized groups.
Indeed, Sam Harris, our country’s village atheist, opened his Dec. 24 L.A. Times Op-Ed, “10 myths -- and 10 truths -- about atheism,” by lamenting: “Being an atheist is now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being black, Muslim or homosexual is not).” In the preface to his recent book The God Delusion, biology professor and celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins writes:
I need to say something to American readers in particular at this point, for the religiosity of today’s America is something truly remarkable... The status of atheists in America today is on par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago. Now, after the Gay Pride movement, it is possible, though still not very easy, for a homosexual to be elected to public office.
Dawkins, Harris and other secularists are correct in pointing out that our chances of getting elected are slim. Recall Howard Dean’s awkward attempt to pass off his relationship with Jesus to Bible Belt Democrats during his 2004 campaign. But they’re wrong to lump atheists with historically marginalized groups -- gays, blacks and others -- as sharing a similar struggle. Having a hard time getting elected to high-level office is one thing; overcoming and still struggling with the shameful American legacy of institutional discrimination is another -- and atheists shouldn’t conflate the two.
Dawkins didn’t need to go back 50 years to point out the sordid state of gay rights in the U.S. Openly gay men and women are forced to keep their mouths shut and control their hormones under the military’s shameful “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy -- and that’s a Clinton-era compromise which replaced the prior practice of rooting out all gays from the armed services. And it wasn’t atheists Christian conservative leaders were scapegoating in 2004 to get out the vote; it was the people who stood to lose from the bans on same-sex marriage passed in all 11 states that put them on their ballots.
This is not to say that claims of oppression are legitimate only if they’re institutional. In the sense that people jump to conclusions about them or treat them differently because of religion, atheists do indeed face some forms of discrimination. Immediately following the quote I cited above, Dawkins points to few disturbing numbers: A 1999 Gallup poll found that just 49% of Americans would be comfortable voting for a well-qualified presidential candidate who happens to hold no belief in God. Atheists were at the bottom of the pile -- women (95%), Jews (92%), blacks (92%) and homosexuals (79%) all polled much better.
But being disliked doesn’t come close to the vitriolic oppression other American minorities and women have endured, and it’s disgraceful when prominent atheists like Harris and Dawkins compare their own plight to to the truly repressed in a single breath. After all, in just a few months, California will officially sanction my heterosexual relationship with my fiancée -- tax benefits and all -- despite my membership in America’s Most Distrusted Minority.
Paul Thornton is a researcher for the Editorial Pages department.