Political Atheism: The Last Taboo

May 13, 2016

By Herb Silverman

In “The Last Taboo: Why America Needs Atheism,” published in the New Republic in 1996, Wendy Kaminer wrote, “Atheists generate about as much sympathy as pedophiles. But, while pedophilia may at least be characterized as a disease, atheism is a choice, a willful rejection of beliefs to which vast majorities of people cling.” I have one small quibble: Atheism is not a “choice.” For me, the only choice is whether to be open about my atheism or pretend to believe in a deity for which there is not a scintilla of evidence.

The situation has improved significantly since Kaminer’s piece twenty years ago. Much has been written about atheism, including best-selling books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others. A number of popular blogs now promote atheism and secularism. In the Internet age, people hear about many worldviews, not just the one in which they were raised. Every new national survey shows a rapid increase of atheists, agnostics, and those who claim no religious affiliation.

However, atheists continue to be the group people are least likely to vote for. In 1990, I ran an unsuccessful, successful political campaign for governor of South Carolina as the Candidate Without a Prayer. I was unsuccessful in winning the election, of course, but successful in a state Supreme Court victory that overturned the provision in the state Constitution that prohibited atheists from holding public office. A similar provision is in the North Carolina Constitution, and some folks in Asheville tried unsuccessfully in 2009 to remove open atheist Cecil Bothwell from its City Council.

In 2010, Wynne LeGrow was the Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives, running as an open atheist in southern Virginia against Randy Forbes, founder of the Congressional Prayer Caucus. LeGrow received 37.5 percent of the vote, the highest percentage for a Democrat running that year against an incumbent Virginia Republican. He details his experience in his book, Last Leper in the Colony.

The complete history of open atheists in Congress is very short: former Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.). He acknowledged being an atheist after the Secular Coalition for America, of which I’m president, sponsored a contest to find the highest-ranking politician who so identified. Stark left Congress in 2012, reducing the number of open atheists in Congress from one to zero.

This brings me to three politicians I assume are atheists, though it must be noted that they don’t so identify.

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