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Poll Shows Climate of Intolerance Toward Atheism

Socially Acceptable to Discriminate?

The U.S. Constitution prohibits any religious test for public office, but a significant minority would impose one on a vice presidential candidate, according to a timely poll by Reuters/Zogby.

It would be socially acceptable to choose a Jew, a black, or a woman, a little less acceptable to choose an Arab American, somewhat less acceptable to nominate a gay person--"but do not on any account choose an atheist," as Reuters Political Correspondent Alan Elsner put it. The poll was released on Aug. 14.

Atheism earned the strongest negative vote, with 38% polled saying they would automatically rule out an atheist vice presidential candidate. That contrasted markedly with the 23% who would rule out a homosexual, 11% who would rule out an Arab American, 4% who would rule out a woman, 3% who would rule out a Jew, and 2% who would rule out an African American.

While 56% said the atheism of a vice presidential candidate would make no difference in their views, the pollsters concluded "religious belief seems to be more important than sexual orientation and much more important than religious affiliation, gender or race." In other words, a political candidate is expected to profess a belief in a deity.

"The pervasive, unquestioned cultural bias that religious belief is 'good' and lack of belief is 'bad,' has created a climate of intolerance toward nonconformists. We repeatedly hear the ignorant assertion that our country has freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion--when in fact there can be no religious liberty without the freedom to dissent," points out Anne Nicol Gaylor, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The First Amendment protects the rights of atheists from the tyranny of the majority, Gaylor added.

"Of course, people should be judged by actions, not merely by their beliefs.

"And consider that history shows that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion! Freethinkers and 'heretics' were the first to speak out for the humane treatment of the mentally ill, for the abolition of slavery and capital punishment, for women's right to vote and control their own bodies, for death with dignity for the terminally ill. Our society should be rewarding freethought, not stigmatizing it!" said Gaylor.

"It is insulting to witness a contest between the major parties to see which one can end more campaign speeches with 'God Bless You' or make more references to the 'importance of faith and family.' Politicians would do well to remember that many American families are without religious faith, and we have 'family values,' too."

The nonreligious make up one out of nine U.S. citizens, according to a major Scripps-Howard survey.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, founded nationally in 1978, is an association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) working to keep church and state separate.

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