Nominate an atheist

Who needs coffee when you can hear about this on your drive in to work?

Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor of Texas, is a Methodist by tradition who, with his wife Anita, now attends an evangelical megachurch in Austin. He is open about his deep Christian faith.

On Saturday, Perry, who is widely expected to enter the race for the White House, is hosting a religious revival in Houston to pray for what he calls “a nation in crisis.”


Late last year, shortly after he won his third term, Perry, a Republican, began to envision the event that is now called “The Response.”

“With the economy in trouble, communities in crisis, people adrift in a sea of moral relativism, we need God’s help,” he said. “And that’s why I’m calling on Americans to pray and fast like Jesus did.”

No, we don’t.

It’s tempting to trot out my religious bona fides, as though doing so will give me some additional authority to criticize Ricky Perry’s nauseating theocratic tendencies.  But that’s ridiculous.  This event should offend the values of everyone, from observant Christians to the most ardent Dawkins devotee. 

America is not a Christian nation.  America is a secular nation in which the majority religion is Christianity.  The Constitution is not religious scripture, and the founding fathers were not prophets.  Anyone who does not understand this is unfit for high office, as far as I am concerned.  That the governor of any state would claim a religious solution to civic problems is an appalling disgrace, and it gives me vertigo to consider this man’s presidential aspirations.

And that’s before I consider some of the dregs he’s invited to attend.

Other participants include:

—John Hagee, a San Antonio evangelist whose endorsement was rejected by John McCain in 2008 because of Hagee’s anti-Catholic statements.

—Mike Bickle, a founder of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Mo., who’s called Oprah Winfrey a “pastor of the harlot of Babylon.”

—Alice Patterson, founder of Justice at the Gate, in San Antonio, has written that there is “a demonic structure behind the Democratic Party.”

—And then there’s John Benefiel, head of the Oklahoma-based Heartland Apostolic Prayer Network, who once said this about the Statue of Liberty: “You know where we got it from? French Freemasons. Listen, folks, that is an idol, a demonic idol right there in the middle of New York Harbor.”

You organized this event, Gov. Perry.  You own the guest list.  And choosing to fraternize with morons like this is as clear a disqualification for national office as almost anything I can think of.  Any political belief that posits the involvement of demons deserves nothing but our shared contempt, and yet a man who could plausibly run for the presidency is giving these beliefs his tacit endorsement.  We should all be horrified.

And so I’d really like to vote for an atheist sometime soon, thanks.  Not because I believe there’s anything inherently superior about atheism.  For my part, I’m a Christian (albeit one whose beliefs are so amorphous that I would hardly qualify in the eyes of most evangelicals) who attends church more often than not.  All else being equal, a candidate’s personal religious beliefs should be wholly irrelevant when consider her fitness for elected office.

But all else is not equal.  Religious extremists continue to hold disturbing sway over one of our major political parties.  Beliefs that would have been commonplace before the Renaissance are proclaimed proudly by several of its presidential contenders.  In that light, a candidate who ran without apology as an atheist would be contributing a positive good to our civic life.  Given two candidates who were otherwise equally qualified for the presidency, I would prefer the atheist at this point.  Doubtless said candidate would be villified by the same people who kowtow to the likes of Hagee and James Dobson, but we need to rid ourselves of the de facto religious test for higher office, whereby some gesture toward religious belief is necessary in order to be considered fit for office.  Even if said candidate were to lose, I would be grateful to hear a candidate publicly repudiate the idea that we must seek divine intervention in solving our political or economic problems.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Wow. I am surprised someone with POTUS campaign aspirations is “going there” with most of that guest list. Seems like a way to fire the base but make yourself unelectable.

    (and a +1 on the post)

  2. Consider your own discipline. Does prayer heal? Maybe it doesn’t hurt but the objective evidence is pretty clear that it doesn’t much help, either.

    Why should we expect prayer to perform any better in the arena of public policy?

    • “Why should we expect prayer to perform any better in the arena of public policy?”

      I think the answer they might give is that it is our not praying that has led to the various crises we face as a nation. At least that is what I pick up from what I have heard.

      • I have not detected a shortage of prayer in recent years. Have you? Seems to me that we’ve been seeing more prayers, engaged in publicly and ostentatiously, than ever before in our history, including during the various Great Awakenings.

        Matthew 6:5-6.

        • No, Burt, there still aren’t enough prayers. You can tell because we still have problems.

    • Consider your own discipline. Does prayer heal? Maybe it doesn’t hurt but the objective evidence is pretty clear that it doesn’t much help, either.

      I think it’s more accurate (and more honest) to say that there’s no scientific way to prove if prayer heals. Prayer isn’t amenable to controlled experiments: imagine a (sincere, not a political televangelical hack) believer saying, “o.k., I’ll pray for one person and not pray for another and see which one comes out okay.

        • I stand corrected, at least partially. I’m still not convinced.

          What doesn’t convince me–and here I’m straying from my original point, inasmuch as a putatively “scientific” test has been undertaken–is that prayer, at least prayer that is intended to heal someone, is petitionary. The person who prays believes he or she is asking for something they believe may or may not be granted. If it is granted in one case and not in another, that doesn’t mean that effectiveness of prayer has been proven or disproven.

          I understand I am arguing not from facts, but from premises that you and many of your fellow commentators do not share. And I probably won’t convince anyone. I just dislike seeing something that, to me at least, is debatable, dismissed in a manner that I consider so out of hand.

          • @Pierre…I don’t dismiss the potential of healing prayer out of hand casually. But, as was pointed out in another post, the practice does not lend itself to objective study.

            Studies into quantum mechanics/physics that allow for particle manipulation through human observation and/or thought are fascinating, but are so nebulous and abstract that their findings read like fantasy as much as science. As these studies mature, the potential to tie them to traditional prayer or meditation exist, but the traditional practice of prayer is little more than a way to occupy your mind in the spaces between doing something constructive.

            In the case of medicine/healing, the believer prays before and after treatments to occupy their mind and give an impression of doing something when they are absolutely powerless. The treatment will either work or it won’t and the addition of prayer will have no quantifiable effect. With a few notable exceptions I doubt that you will find many people willing to be the control group to only pray and leave the medical treatment on the table unused.

            But, then again, I’m one of those who doesn’t believe. Maybe it’s just something that I will never understand.


        • This quote from the press release is both amusing and instructive:

          “One caveat is that with so many individuals receiving prayer from friends and family, as well as personal prayer, it may be impossible to disentangle the effects of study prayer from background prayer,” said co-author Manoj Jain, Baptist Memorial Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee.

          Amusing because it conjures the image of lead shielding to protect the delicate prayer-detecting apparatus from the ever-present background prayers. And instructive because the experiment is trying to measure the power of prayers from strangers, while ignoring the (clearly) more heartfelt prayers from the patients’ loved ones.

          • I was tempted to bring this up, too, and you expressed more clearly my thoughts on that particular aspect of the study.

            I will say, to be the “non-theist’s advocate,” so to speak, that any scientific experiment (I imagine, I’m not a scientist) has certain “unknowns” that it is difficult or even impossible to control for.

          • I don’t myself believe in the power of prayer myself [1], but that experiment proves nothing.

            1. Other than its demonstrated power to affect the mind of the prayer.

        • “Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test”

          • Why not? If you do, He’ll let someone He would otherwise have healed die, just to spite the skeptics?

          • Another construction of Christianity to explain why prayer fails…you tested god, so he smote you or your loved one…but go ahead and continue to believe and support our chosen causes with your presence and money…

  3. If it helps, pretend that they are savages from one of those crappy countries out there and hammer out what they’re doing on an anthropological level.

    Is there really much of anything that they can do about this particular problem? No, not really.

    Might everybody affirming group membership help with stuff? Well, it probably won’t hurt.

    Pretend that you don’t know the language apart from a handful of words. How would you best describe what they’re doing? They’re just starting a fire and dancing around it and telling stories about demons and then exorcising the demons. When the exorcism is done, they’ll feel like they’ve done something.

    Will they have done something? No.

    Which brings me back to the first question.

    Should they have a more inclusive bonfire with more inclusive demon stories? I wonder if that would work when it came to the whole social cohesiveness thing…

    • Were they merely dancing around a fire and telling stories, it wouldn’t bother me too terribly much. Hell, it wouldn’t bother me much that people like me ( The gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaays!!! Booga, booga, booga!!!) are frequently cast as the villains in the stories.

      But they’re using their beliefs as a justification for public policy, and that just won’t do. Do your dances, tell your stories, fine by me. But don’t use your stories as a reason to prevent me from prescribing birth control pills or allowing me to enjoy equal protection under the law.

      • Oh, from reading the thing, I thought that all they were doing were gathering together and praying.

        • Maybe that’s all they’re doing at this particular gathering. (Color me skeptical about that, even.) But their movement is hardly limited to that alone, and the governor of Texas has no business aligning himself with many of these people in any context.

          • I can understand the inclination to say “yuck” but they still have the right to associate even though you think it’s immoral.

          • Help me see where I’ve said their right to associate should be abrogated.

            Of course they have the right to associate. Gov. Perry has the right to invite them. But, by inviting such people as a man who considers the Statue of Liberty a demonic idol created by French Freemasons (!), he has rendered himself unfit for consideration as a presidential candidate, as far as I am concerned.

          • the governor of Texas has no business aligning himself with many of these people in any context.

            Oh, I read that wrong, then.

          • More than anything, I think it’s something to tuck away in your brain and revisit if he wins the nomination and goes on to the General, where he will surely run as a Centrist.

          • The guy I vote for will likely come in 14th or 15th.

            Hoping for 10th, though. We’re due!

          • “will likely come in 14th”

            On the plus side, it allows for some awesomely huge foam fingers to waive at the rally.

          • Does he have the right to hang out with these people? Sure. It is, after all, a free country.

            However, by exercising his right to associate with these people, he indicates that he is far too comfortable with beliefs I consider dangerous to the nation’s health.

            I have the right to attend a NAMBLA meeting. Understandably, if I were to do so no parent would ever trust me to take care of their kids, and rightfully so. Just because I have leave to do something doesn’t mean I should.

            [Because Lord knows what will happen if I don’t make this abundantly clear, I would rather gargle battery acid than attend a NAMBLA meeting.]

      • “The gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaays!!! Booga, booga, booga!!!”

        This would be an awesome band name.

  4. And this is exactly what most atheists are about – keeping religion out of politics. It’s a simple, but often over-looked concept. Bravo!

    • Not exactly. Atheists are about affirming atheism, or affirming that there is no god. It’s not necessarily a discredited or discreditable affirmation, but by itself it’s distinct from politics (in other words, some people might conceivably want to make atheism the issue in politics….would that make them no longer atheists?).

      Atheists are humans with their own bigotries and own desire to impose their will on others, just like every other human to some extent. They’re no worse, but they’re no better–except if they’re right, and then, well, they’re right, but a person who is right on a factual claim is not ipse facto better in other respects.

      • “They’re no worse, but they’re no better–except if they’re right, and then, well, they’re right, but a person who is right on a factual claim is not ipse facto better in other respects.”

        Actually, that they’re right strongly suggests that they are better in other respects. And believing in fairy tales means that someone is lesser than.

        • So if you’re an atheist who believes that atheists are apt to be better than non-atheists, then I guess you don’t have any problem with people of faith making similar judgments from the other direction.

        • Actually, that they’re right strongly suggests that they are better in other respects. And believing in fairy tales means that someone is lesser than.

          It does, but even people who believe in fairy tales are often right about other things, and then not necessarily by accident.

          If it so happens that the fairy-tale-believing person has something right by dint of reason that an atheist happens to have wrong, by dint of a fault in his or her reasoning (but on a subject that has nothing to do with atheism or fairy tales), then the waters are muddied again.

          However, if you’re willing to say that the atheist, if he or she is right, is therefore marked as being better than a fair-tale believer, I’m not going to stop you.

          • The person who picks stocks based on signs of the Zodiac may make more money than the one who analyzes balance sheets. But it’s not the way to bet.

          • Aw, I was hoping y’d think about it. Perhaps someone else will. It’s the distillation of a rather rich argument.

          • Mr. Van Dyke:

            I’m not opposed to the idea that the fairy tale believer might be right; that’s why I’m an agnostic and not an atheist. In fact, I’m an agnostic who leans toward theism. I do say, however, that the theist is not necessarily a better person (that is, simply by virtue of being a theist) than the atheist just because (and if) he or she is right. Agnostics are no better either (again, simply by virtue of being an agnostic).

          • Mr. Corneille, if there is a God who created the universe, then the fundie who believes it’s only 6000 years old is actually closer to the truth than someone who believes the universe just winked into existence all by itself.

            That was my thought, anyway.

            As to whether the theist is “better” than the atheist, certainly someone who murders for God is not better than someone who doesn’t. But this starts to go far afield. As GWash said,

            Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

            acknowledging that educated “minds of a particular structure” can indeed behave peachily, for the mass number of men, this is probably not true.

          • Mr. Corneille, if there is a God who created the universe, then the fundie who believes it’s only 6000 years old is actually closer to the truth than someone who believes the universe just winked into existence all by itself.

            There’s a fact- and logic-free assertion.

          • Sir, you are clearly incapable of entertaining a thought without accepting it. Hence your participation here simply clogs the pipes.

          • If the God who created the universe:

            1. Lets it run according to the laws with which it was created, rather than constantly breaking them (i.e. creating “miracles”) to rig the outcome

            2. Created those laws with the intent that humans would be able to determine and make use of them

            3. Does not value one set of approximations of Him over another, at least to the point of rewarding the holders of one and wishing to see the holders of another punished

            then the atheist is living far more in harmony with the divine plan than the fundie is.

          • Does not value one set of approximations of Him over another

            Once again, you accidentally almost understood me, Mr. Schilling.

  5. And BHO associated with a guy who bombed the Pentagon, who made war on his own country and is quite unrepentant about it.

    We assume the President does not endorse this position. Guilt-by-association is in the eye of the beholder.

    • When Obama conceives, plans, and hosts a “Patriotic Americans” event and invites Ayers to attend, you’ll have a point.

        • Nor is yours. Ayers, by the time Obama was old enough to understand anything, was a professor of education who no longer participated in violent behavior (we won’t get into what Ayers himself actually did before Obama was old enough). Perry’s folks, on the other hand, still believe the things mentioned in this post.

          • Also, it’s my impression that Obama tried to distance himself from Ayers in his presidential campaign whereas Perry seems to be actively courting the folks in question.

  6. Mike Bickle

    “And then I heard a Voice! A Voice in the wilderness! And I asked ‘You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?'”

  7. I think differences are being elided between this:

    Religious extremists continue to hold disturbing sway over one of our major political parties.

    and this:

    we need to rid ourselves of the de facto religious test for higher office

    Just under 80% of the country self-identifies as Christian, so it’s not surprising that there would be an informal requirement to be nominally Christian. But I don’t think it’s any more likely that a religious “extremist” would be elected than that an atheist would be, unless your definition of “extremist” is pretty broad. Apart from abortion and gay marriage, objection to which is hardly limited to extremists, what Christian Right policies have been pushed for by any president? For all that (R) candidates have to gesture in the direction of fundagelical Christians, that segment generally feels ill-used by the party that is supposed to be in thrall to it.

    • And yet we do elect Jews and even the occasional Buddhist or Muslim to Congress. The “informal requirement” is not to be Christian, but to believe at all.

      The closest we’ve come in two generations to electing any atheist to any office of political significance is Pete Stark — who switches between calling himself a “Unitarian” and an atheist depending on his political instincts and sometimes-uncontrolled appetite for irascibility. The last atheist governor of a state was California’s Culbert Olson, who was defeated in his bid for re-election by Earl Warren in 1942.

      • Well, I was thinking particularly of presidential elections, since that’s the road that the original post started down. I’m sure there are a few districts where an avowed atheist could win election to the House.

        But anyway, I don’t disagree that there’s a preference for faith over no-faith. My main objection was to the link that was drawn between that general preference among the great mass of voters and the attention paid by Republican candidates to the more extreme Christian Right.

    • A couple of quick replies. First, I will concede that my thesis did get a little bit muddy toward the end of this piece. On re-reading it, I should have fleshed things out a bit more between the points you mention. It’s a fair criticism.

      Off the top of my head, I will say that it’s not just abortion that has been impacted by influence from the religious Right. Access to certain forms of contraception, funding for women’s reproductive health (not just abortion), stem cell research — these all took a hit during the Bush years.

      • Hmm, I forgot about the federal funding stuff. That does poke a hole in my “not much tangible influence” thesis.

      • When it comes to abortion and stem cell research (at least embryonic stem cell research), it is probably indisputable that the religious right has had an influence. But I hesitate to note this influence, on those specific subjects, as beyond-the-pale pernicious in the same way that Perry’s appeal to “prayer fixes the economy.”

        In the case of abortion and embryonic stem cell research, if one is of a certain view about when life begins and of a certain view on the role of the state in supporting that life (or preventing people from interfering with it) then that seems to me an appropriate approach to public policy.

        I say this even as one who by policy is pro-choice (although I oppose embryonic stem cell research (but not other forms of stem cell research)). I also recognize that most members of the pro-life constituency probably don’t separate the other things Mr. Saunders mentions–such as denying access to non-abortive birth control and other funding for reproductive health and denying funding to all forms of stem cell research–that are more questionable.

        I don’t wish to troll this thread into an argument about abortion or stem cell research. I don’t expect to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with me, so I won’t argue about my stance on these issues or try to argue others on theirs.

        What I am saying (I think) that is relevant to this post, is that one doesn’t have to be religious or posit the existence of a god to be uncomfortable with abortion or embryonic stem cell research and to think that the state has a role in discouraging either of them.

    • To be honest, I think this is going to change in the next generation or so as more and more of the electorate in more urban districts become more and more friendly to agnostic/atheist/etc. Nancy Pelosi’s successor for instance, is probably either going to be Christian-In-Name-Only or an out-and-out agnostic/atheist. Same thing with a lot of liberal districts on the coasts. Maybe not so much in ethnic/immigrant districts, but places like San Francisco/Seattle/some parts of Los Angeles/etc., I can easily see electing non-believers to public office.

  8. The number one reason that this is not likely to happen:

    To become a Mason, you have to affirm theism.

  9. I know some of my comments above might suggest otherwise, but I would welcome a decoupling of religious faith from politics. Few things are so dangerous as believing or claiming that one has God on one’s side. I believe this to be true even when it comes to causes that in retrospect are uncontroversially good, or that at any rate I believe to be good.

    Is the claim to having “The Truth,” as a Dawkinshitchensite atheist might declare just as dangerous or comparably dangerous. I would say yes, at least potentially. But I should judge not, lest I be judged.

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