In Aaron Sorkin’s classic HBO series The West Wing, Presidential hopeful and Republican Senator Arnie Vinick hides a dark secret: his loss of faith. He knows the US electorate would rather vote for a Muslim than an atheist, so he keeps shtum. Poor Vinick loses anyway — the makers of the popular TV drama probably felt he should be punished for his un-Christian thoughts.
It’s tough being an atheist in God-fearing America. The late Christopher Hitchens knew this and tried to urge fellow unbelievers, in an open letter last year, to fight against the “lethal delusion” of religion. But Hitchens, despite seeing his book “God is Not Great” climb the best-sellers’ list, lived among the tiny intellectual elite that may pride itself in being America’s think tank, but is in fact as divorced from “ordinary” Americans as members of the Hampstead intelligentsia are from ordinary Britons.
Politicians know – on both sides of the Atlantic – that there are not many votes in appealing to this group. This explains why to date, only one “out” atheist serves in Congress, Rep. Pete Stark, a California Democrat. As Robert P Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, is quoted saying in the Washington Post’s “On Faith” website: “Relative to other religious minority groups, atheists tend to anchor the low end of the favorability scale.” In the public’s imagination, atheism is linked to the Cold War image of “godless communism.”