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Atheist Acceptability on the Rise in America

More than half would now vote for a nonbeliever.

Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA)

The good news for nonbelievers is that, for the first time ever, more than half the American population would vote for a qualified, open atheist for president. A recent Gallup poll shows that 54 percent of Americans would not consider a candidate’s atheism to be a disqualification for holding the nation's highest office.

This shows remarkable progress, a nine-point increase from 2007 and 36 points higher than the 18 percent acceptability figure that nonbelievers received when the question was first asked in 1958. Clearly, seculars are making huge strides in gaining acceptance. If the trend continues, we can expect that other open nonbelievers may soon join Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) as elected lawmakers in the nation's capital.

The bad news, however, is that atheists still rank lowest among the groups listed. Muslims (58 percent), gays and lesbians (68 percent) and Mormons (80 percent) all ranked higher. While no fair and rational observer would suggest that membership in any of those groups should disqualify a candidate for office, to secular activists it is nevertheless troubling that nonbelievers still occupy the cellar of American public opinion.

Obviously, atheists and humanists have a long way to go to remove the stigma that the public and media irrationally attach to religious skepticism. But since secularity is quite prevalent among young Americans, where recent numbers show that religious affiliation and belief are very low among those under 30, it is reasonable to believe that the vilification of the atheism will diminish over time.

Having climbed from 18 percent to 54 percent, seculars have tripled their approval ratings in about half a century, and such gains are unmatched by any other group. This progress is especially remarkable when we bear in mind that it took place despite the impressive organization and massive wealth of the Religious Right, which has for over thirty years been flexing its political muscle and trying to dominate the political arena. If secularity can gain acceptance in this hostile environment, one would have difficulty imagining any scenario - aside from perhaps the Second Coming - that would reverse its momentum.

David Niose's new book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, can be ordered here.

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