Be very skeptical of claims that Donald Trump is an atheist

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, holds up his bible who was giving to him by his mother as he speaks during the Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council Action, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in Washington ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

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:

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.

  1. Donald Trump has not said he’s an atheist and doesn’t seem likely to say it.
  2. 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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.”
  3. I mean, seriously, James freaking Dobson endorsed him. See?
  4. 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.
  5. Whether Trump takes Christianity seriously or not, his running mate, Mike Pence, most definitely does.
  6. 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?


  1. Monocle Smile says

    Glad you brought up Pence. Trump’s choices of people with whom he is choosing to share power kind of puts to rest the whole “Trump’s not as bad as the liberal media portrays” social media garbage.

  2. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Trump is a wildcard, and I do fear that greatly. Still, I more fear the practical Teaparty majorities in both houses of the federal congress, which, assuming they get rid of filibuster and I see no reason why they won’t, and assuming Trump is a yes-man for signing legislation from congress, then the Teapartiers will pass whatever they want, with absolutely no possibility for obstruction, except for what little pushback SCOTUS will give, which is limited to a few very specific issues.

  3. John Iacoletti says

    At best you can say that he didn’t spend much time during the campaign talking about things that are priorities for evangelicals. Pence could be an influence there, but we’ve also seen that Trump does what Trump wants to do, and he is not very beholden to the Republican party for getting him there.

  4. Justin says

    To me, there seems to be two possible outcomes for the way Trump will govern. He’ll either be:

    1. The boss, which he’s shown he likes to be and likes to get his way, and will bulldoze anyone, including Pence, who he doesn’t agree with. I think this is the Trump that best benefits us, because at least this Trump has the potential to disagree with and shut down any religious nutjobs trying to push stuff he doesn’t want.

    2. The lazy one, which is also very likely. Let’s be honest here, Trump hasn’t done a lot of actual WORK for years, maybe never. So there’s a good chance that he’ll let Pence run a lot of shit and just do what he does best, standing around being a celebrity and posing for photographs like the reality TV star he has been. It’ll be another Bush/Cheney type situation. This is obviously the worse of the two situations because Pence and other religious cabinet members will start pushing for stuff and he’d be more likely to let it slide.

  5. Tom Horwat says

    One of the scariest aspects for me concerning Donald Trump is that he’s gone on record as saying he is pro waterboarding ( ie pro torture), if somebody tortured me I would tell them anything they wanted to hear just to stop them inflicting intense pain on me.

  6. Wiggle Puppy says

    On evangelical support for Trump, could I recommend Valerie Tarico’s excellent piece? TL;DR: Donald Trump and Yahweh are both vindictive, amoral, authoritarian pricks who demand adoration and respect whether or not they’ve done anything to earn it, and who expect blind obedience devoid of critical evaluation or self-reflection. It’s no wonder the Southern Baptists love Donald.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    At best you can accuratly say he is the least religiously observant candidate in living memory. Most candidates at least make the effort to appear religious by turning up to a place of worship. Not the Donald. And still the Evangelicals support him. As you say – baffling and weird.

  8. L.Long says

    So many were shocked by the ‘grab pussy’ thing and could not understand the fundies support for a pussy grabber who was multi-divorsed, and lusts after his daughter. Read the buyBull and compared to gawd’s chosen trump is a saint!!! As long as he supports anti-immigration, anti-abortion, anti-gays/LGBT the fundy bigots will LOVE him!!!!

  9. Monocle Smile says

    @L Long
    Somewhere in our history, rural Christianity merged with the isolationism, libertarianism, and xenophobia typically found in remote, low population communities. Thus, the “God n Guns” crowd was born, and I think we underestimated their numbers.

    It’s a bit sad, really. I’ve read a number of articles that try to convey the struggles of rural Americans because their way of life is dying and they blame the people in charge. Of course, their way of life isn’t dying because of the President or Congress…it’s dying because the world is changing and they are trying to remain static forever. The only way to solve this is with education. How to do this without trampling all over the culture that so many Americans hold dear (because people don’t respond well to this, not because I think their culture is overall good) is beyond me.

  10. gshelley says

    Is he an atheist? Possibly. I don’t see any reason to think so. He likely does not give the matter any thought, and given his scientific illiteracy, it seems reasonable that he is of the general opinion that the universe must have had some sort of creator.
    He probably also thinks that this creator doesn’t do much, other than sit around all day thinking about how great Donald Trump is.
    What we can say, is that Evangelicals just elected the first non Christian president in a long time

  11. says

    christians were under no illusions when they dove in head-first for trump. their allegiance is purely tribal. they rationalized their blatant hypocrisy by insisting that “GOD CAN USE THIS MAN!!!” — a man who, had he run as a democrat, they would have loudly, unanimously and justly condemned on the basis of character alone.

  12. Mobius says

    I hope that I am wrong but I don’t hold much hope for the next 4 years. Either we will have 4 years of Trump and his bizarre behavior or we will see Pence become president and we know where he will go.

    As for Trump being an atheist? No way. I don’t think he gives much of anything deep thoughts, and certainly not religion. He may be a non-believer as far as Yahweh goes but I doubt he has given any-god-vs-no-god much thought at all. He strikes me as being a very shallow man. He has played the evangelicals and I think he will continue to pander to them because that is the way for Trump to stay on top. If he actually is an atheist he isn’t going to be doing us any favors.

  13. Oy says

    If you listen to Trump in his speeches, he says “we’re going to protect Christianity”. He also refers to “favorite Bible verses.”

    As a non believer I also have a favorite Bible verse and believe religious freedom should be protected. I heard nothing in his speeches leading me to conclude he actually believes Christian mythology.

    Further, if you look at his childhood religious experience his parents were ardent followers of minister Norman Peale. Peale peddled a batter of psychology (albeit, bad psychology in my view) with a dash of Jesus for marketability.

    Finally, when is the last time you heard a Christian man speak the way he did on that bus?

  14. Oy says

    Trumps parents were ardent followers of minister Norman Vincent Peale.

    In my view, Peale’s teachings and books were a batter consisting of Jesus flavored pop psychology pallatable to a culture steeped in Christian mythology. There was no actual science with Peale. I believe Peale did influence Trump in some respects, specifically in the area of hypnosis techniques.

    I think Trump does not actually believe Christian mythology. That said, Trump certainly recognized the necessity to pander to Christians as a voting block and I see no reason he will not continue to do so as President.

  15. says

    Trump will tarnish the White House, be he atheist OR theist. I tend to agree with Grumpy Santa — that he believes HE’s god! Can’t WAIT until his 4 years are up. I don’t think anyone’s gonna want him for a second term!


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