In the modern era, atheists, agnostics and other religiously unaffiliated persons have made great strides in gaining acceptance in society. One recent milestone was when President Obama signed an amendment to the International Religious Freedom Act to include protections for nonbelievers. A panel created by the law has criticized those countries that continue to persecute atheists, some of which even consider atheism an act of terrorism. Despite this, atheists at home still face large pockets of resistance in society and are one of the most underrepresented groups in the country in terms of political power.
According to polls taken by the Pew Research Center, more than one in five Americans are religiously unaffiliated. It should seem safe to assume that this ratio holds in government. Out of a Congress with 535 members, we should expect to see around 100 that are religiously unaffiliated. The number is close to 100 in a way, because it’s what we get if we take out the two zeroes. Only Democratic Representative Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona is unaffiliated.
There are many reasons why atheists face such severe underrepresentation. Historically, of course, atheists were not trusted and were treated as heretics. Religious people who formed the majority of the nation in its earlier days clearly did not like atheists, as eight states still have unenforceable provisions banning atheists from public office. Of course, that’s just history. Nowadays, people are more accepting of views that differ from their own. That’s why a whopping 58 percent of people say they would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who was atheist.
This is disappointing, to say the least. If a person is qualified for office, you should at least be willing to vote for them no matter their religion or lack thereof. This holds especially true in a country where we are supposed to have a separation of church and state. In fact, you could argue that atheists would be the best for satisfying this vision, and would indeed be the best group for maintaining proper freedom of religion.
Why would an atheist, someone who doesn’t believe in God, be the best for preserving freedom of religion? Because freedom of religion also includes equality and consistency in the law among different religions. In other words, no one law can be made that derives from the beliefs of just one religion. So banning something like shellfish or pork would be putting the interests of one religion above others and would be unconstitutional. While there are many religions in this country, the religiously unaffiliated are, well, unaffiliated. That makes them the ideal group to make laws that will ensure equality between different belief systems, sort of like a third party arbiter.
This ties into one of the major problems regarding new “religious freedom” laws. Because the overwhelming majority of politicians are Christian, these laws are often skewed. For example, laws have been passed that allow businesses to refuse service to homosexuals. These are unconstitutional acts, because religious belief does not give you the right to discriminate and because such acts deny equality among religions. Homosexual marriage may be considered a sin by some Christians, but if other religions don’t consider it so then a law against it does not meet constitutional requirements.
Our country was born out of a desire to have fair representation in our government. The underrepresentation of the religiously unaffiliated is one of the most blatant cases of the continuing failure to realize this ideal. One way to remedy this would be for more religiously unaffiliated people to put themselves out there and run for office. But a lot of the responsibility lies on our society to stop being so hostile towards them. 49 percent of Americans would be unhappy if a family member married an atheist. And when 42 percent of the population is unwilling to vote for even a qualified atheist, very few will be willing to run. Those that do will likely feel coerced to hide or downplay their beliefs out of fear of opposition, in comparison to Christian politicians who are allowed and even encouraged to flaunt their beliefs for the public. No citizen should be effectively prevented from a political career because of their beliefs.
Jacob Kowalski is a weekly columnist to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.