As I mentioned on the show several times in the last few weeks, the Atheist Community of Austin is a non-profit group and we don’t endorse political candidates as a matter of policy. We do encourage political engagement though, and there is a big difference.
Donald Trump won the election a week ago today, and will take office in two months. Everyone is entitled to their own thoughts about Hillary Clinton, but at this point they are pretty much irrelevant. The question is no longer “Should we vote for Trump?” but “What will a Trump presidency look like?” That is a hard question to answer decisively, because one of the main features of Trump’s campaign was that he was incredibly erratic and unpredictable. When you come right down to it, who the hell knows what he will do?
Atheists have a lot at stake in politics. While the separation of church and state is documented in the US Constitution as a core value, it is a value that is getting constant pushback in the form of mandatory school prayer, public funding of faith based initiatives, the systematic undermining of scientific education, subtle biases against nonbelievers in law and media, and so forth.
What I’m saying is that atheists are a minority group in the United States that experience a comparatively small but real social disadvantage when pitted against privileged religious institutions. Obviously atheists in more theocratic countries have it much worse. I’d venture to say that the situation has improved from what it used to be in the US. Partly due to visible atheist activism, more people than ever feel comfortable identifying as nonbelievers, which has led to some grudging tolerance and respect from people who used to dismiss us completely. American Atheist representatives go to CPAC without being assaulted. I don’t necessarily agree with their reasons for going, but that’s progress I guess.
But there are other features of his campaign that were kind of predictable, and — regardless of your feelings about his challenger — made me and many of my fellow atheists profoundly uncomfortable. Like for instance, his naked contempt for women and minorities. In a discussion I had recently with Tracie, she mentioned that Trump was “dog whistling” sexism and racism, and I replied, “For other candidates I might have called it dog whistling. But in Trump’s case I’d say it was just whistling.” He didn’t make the slightest effort to be subtle about it.
That should be worrying to atheists. The simplest reason, of course, is that I hope that my fellow atheists reject open sexism and racism, although unfortunately I’ve found that that’s not always the case. But another reason is that if the country is in the mood to seek victory in promises to crush and subjugate groups that are not considered part of mainstream, “real” America, then atheists can expect to have a pretty big target painted on their backs. Traditionally “mainstream America” has included “Christian” among all the other adjectives, whether or not Trump mentioned that explicitly or not.
Another feature of Trump’s campaign is that he seemed to have a special disregard for annoying details like “science” and “fact checking.” For people who say they care about those kinds of things, it should be concerning that PolitiFact rated Trump’s checked statements as false 60% of the time, more than just about any other candidate who was in the spotlight this season. Or that Trump promotes himself regularly through conspiracy crackpots like Alex Jones, who believes that tornadoes are caused by secret government weather weapons. Or that he said that global warming is a hoax invented by China, then turned right around and said with a straight face that he never said that.
This kind of nonsense isn’t a partisan issue, or at least it shouldn’t be. But in this election cycle, it was.
There is, however, another talking point that I’m hearing a lot of. Some people are speculating that Trump may be an atheist. Sam Harris, for instance, tweeted:
The irony: 81 percent of Evangelicals just elected our first atheist president.
— Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg) November 9, 2016
And then there’s this email I got (reproduced only partially):
Does anyone agree when I say that Donald Trump could well be the first US President to come out and openly admit to not believing in the biblical God? And what will the highly religious section of his supporters make of that?
By the logic of some Christians, if you don’t accept the biblical God, then somehow you must worship the devil. So would this not cause them some problems?
…I want to see the reactions of some of the God fearing and peddling republican’s reactions, when Trump disagrees on some religious bullshit and says something along the lines of “Fuck that, I’m an atheist anyway!” – BOOM! (And maybe: I’ll make my own religion, and it will be great. Trust me, it will be the greatest religion ever!”)
Look, after such major event that was surprising and a bit disturbing, I totally get the impulse to look for a silver lining and hope there is some important mitigating factor, like “Finally! A president who’s really an atheist!” Some people have also wildly speculated that Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis are atheists, despite the fact that they both openly deny it. (“I think everyone believes in God in their own ways,” said Sanders. Nope. I don’t.)
But I don’t think we should be seeking this out as our silver lining, for two main reasons.
- Donald Trump has not said he’s an atheist and doesn’t seem likely to say it.
- Whether he’s an atheist or not, Trump got huge support from evangelicals by directly pandering to evangelicals and saying things they like to hear. So who cares?
This is a situation where I care about policies and results a lot more than I care about whether a particular label applies to Donald Trump. There are lots of religious people I agree with on lots of issues, and lots of atheists I disagree with about almost everything except that one thing. Hemant Mehta made the point that if Donald Trump is an atheist, it would only be in the same vacuous sense that some people say “babies are atheists.”
Trump isn’t someone who thinks “God doesn’t exist.” He doesn’t think about God, period. You think he spends time pondering deep philosophical questions? Of course not.
Don’t confuse apathy with atheism.
And again, I say that’s only if he’s an atheist. Let’s look at very excellent reasons not to believe that.
- Trump got massive approval from white evangelicals. They apparently supported him more than both Romney and McCain. Which is kind of baffling to me — for people allegedly obsessed with family values, a guy who was married three times and pretty much openly admits to having several more affairs, if not sexual assault… that’s weird?
- Well, I do kind of understand it. He got that evangelical support partly by openly pandering to them. “We’re going to go right through the whole group, and I think we can do something really special. And we’re going to protect Christianity. And I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct. We’re going to protect it.”
- I mean, seriously, James freaking Dobson endorsed him. See?
- Trump is also on record stating he wants to end abortion. And, even though that very same article appears to contradict it, he also said earlier this year that he would like to pick a Supreme Court judge on the basis of their willingness to overturn the recent gay marriage ruling.
- Whether Trump takes Christianity seriously or not, his running mate, Mike Pence, most definitely does.
- To say nothing of Pence’s endorsement of gay conversion therapy, which has been proven not to work.
So… please don’t sugar coat the situation; there is a lot there to be concerned about. Is Trump a “secret” atheist? Well, if it’s a secret, then obviously there’s no way to know. More to the point, if he stays the course on mouthing platitudes that the religious right wants to hear, what difference does it make?