A friend and I were emailing the other day concerning the political situation here in North Carolina, specifically in regard to how we can replace our Senator Burr in the upcoming election, when my friend jokingly suggested that I run for the position. My first thought was, well, there was no problem with qualifying ‘cause Burr’s last job prior to the Senate was selling cars. I was forgetting (for the moment) that I have no political connections to speak of, no money, no backers and no highly placed friends. Other than that, though there was only one other minor problem: I happen to live in one of the eight states that absolutely forbids people in the largest minority in the country, to which I belong, from running for any state political office!
Nope, I’m not a felon; in fact I’ve never been arrested or accused of anything. I have never been diagnosed with any mental disorder, I’m a natural-born citizen of the United States, have lived in North Carolina for almost twenty years, am a Vietnam combat veteran, pay my taxes, vote and drive a pickup truck. What have I done, you might ask, that is so terrible that the North Carolina Constitution forbids me from running for political office?
Well, it seems that I have run afoul of Article VI, Section 8, which states:
“Sec. 8. Disqualifications of office. The following persons shall be disqualified for office:
First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.
Second, with respect to any office that is filled by election by the people,
any person who is not qualified to vote in an election for that office.
Third, any person who has been adjudged guilty of treason or any other
felony against this State or the United States, or any person who had been
adjudged guilty of a felony in another state that also would be a felony if it
had been committed in this State, or any person who has been adjudged
guilty of corruption or malpractice in any office, or any person who has been
removed by impeachment from any office, and who has not been restored to
the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.” (Emphasis mine)
That’s it! I deny the being of almighty god, and that lumps me in with the rest of the folks who are forbidden to run for office. Is the first part of Section 8 unconstitutional? Of course it is! Would it fall under a challenge? Of course it would, but that’s not the point. The point is, it’s there, and it indicates the distain with which atheists are regarded by the religious in our society. You can believe in talking snakes, walking on water, global floods, a six thousand year old earth, and a hundred other specific folk myths and fairy tales, and run for Senator (and yes, Senator Burr believes all those things); but if you refuse to believe things without evidence, you are essentially deprived of a major civil right, and society is OK with that!
As I mentioned, North Carolina is only one of eight states that discriminate in a similar manner. The others are: Arkansas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Maryland, which has the most onerous provision of all:
“…nor shall any person, otherwise competent, be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefore either in this world or in the world to come.” (Emphasis mine)
“That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God;” (Emphasis mine)
If I lived in Maryland, I could not legally be a witness in a trial, but on the bright side, I could get out of jury duty!
Of course, these “laws” only exist on paper, and are there because no one has yet bothered to repeal or amend them. All of them being unconstitutional, they serve only to give notice to the high esteem in which non-believers are held in this country at the present time. Things are beginning to change, though, and I’m cautiously optimistic looking ahead.
There have been lots of surveys and studies done, some, like the Pew survey that was released last year showing 4% nonbelievers are on the ridiculous side, but a few months ago, the 2008 American Religious Identification Study (ARIS) was released, and it contained some pretty reliable numbers and some good trending information (if you happen to be non-religious). Here is a copy of the study if you would like to look at it.
The ARIS surveys involved over 220,00 interviews, over the three surveys beginning in 1990, and provide an excellent historical perspective on changing religious trends. The survey was released in March of this year, and below is a paragraph discussing some interesting results:
“The 2008 findings confirm the conclusions we came to in our earlier studies that Americans are slowly becoming less Christian and that in recent decades the challenge to Christianity in American society does not come from other world religions or new religious movements (NRMs) but rather from a rejection of all organized religions. To illustrate the point, Table 1 shows that the non-theist and No Religion groups collectively known as “Nones” have gained almost 20 million adults since 1990 and risen from 8.2 to 15.0 percent of the total population. If we include those Americans who either don’t know their religious identification (0.9 percent) or refuse to answer our key question (4.1 percent), and who tend to somewhat resemble “Nones” in their social profile and beliefs, we can observe that in 2008 one in five adults does not identify with a religion of any kind compared with one in ten in 1990. (Emphasis mine)
I suggest that anyone interested in living in America as a non-believer might consider familiarizing themselves with the rest of the survey, which goes on to indicate that over the past twenty years, Christians, as a percentage of the US population, have declined by ten percent, while the religious non-Christian percentage has remained the same. The non-religious percentage of the population has grown faster then any religion or any ethnic group over the last ten years!
“One in five adults does not identify with a religion of any kind!” Possibly all of these are not atheists or agnostics, but surely most of them would fall into those categories if they felt comfortable identifying themselves as such. There are currently three hundred million Americans, give or take, so twenty percent of that means there are possibly as many as sixty million non-believers. According to ARIS, Catholics are, by far, the largest Christian sect, with twenty-five percent of the population so self-identifying.
What that means, is that IF non-belief were a religion, which it certainly is not, it would be the second largest religion in America! Looking at other demographics, there are more non-believers then there are Hispanics, Blacks, or any other minority. Non-believers are, by far, the largest minority group in the country, AND the fastest growing.
Why, then, do we allow our fellow Americans to treat us in the manner in which they do? One of the reasons is that although we are the largest minority, we are also the most incoherent. By that I mean that we can hardly agree on anything, we don’t do anything as a block, and probably 90% of us are totally invisible as we are afraid to “come out,” so to speak.
The reason that most will not come out is the attitude, among the religious, that “all morals and ethics flow from god, and non-believers, therefore, have no moral fiber.” This ridiculous notion, that has been shamelessly preached from pulpits for centuries, has been the foundation and justification for all of the legal and cultural discrimination against Atheists. They can’t burn us any more (although some would like to), so they show their fear by regarding us as pariahs. That’s right, fear! Religious leaders are well aware of surveys like ARIS, and their internal numbers tell them they are all hemorrhaging young people, who are leaving the churches in droves. Let’s find ways to help them leave!
Some of us do identify ourselves, and push back against the prejudice and disdain out there, and the more of us who do that, the more likely it is that it will encourage others to join us “out of the closet.” Some would suggest that we should not dispute religious belief directly, but should use “other means” to get our points across. I partially agree with that, but we have a situation in this country where religious dogma is influencing public policy on a daily basis, in spite of our new administration.
I would like to see non-believers of all stripes come together on some of the issues that effect us all, if indeed there are any we can agree upon. I think there are, but if you add up the membership in the dozens of Atheist organizations, you find only a very small fraction of us represented.
We have a lobbyist in Congress, did you know that? The Secular Coalition for America funds a full-time lobbying effort in Washington to address our concerns. They are funded by several other Atheist organizations, but are always in need of donor support. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a billboard program, active in several states, to increase our visibility among those in the population who think as we do, a wonderful monthly newsletter, and many other programs as well.
There are many other fine organizations that support our views, but in the end, it is up to each of us to reach out to those in our circle of friends, family and co-workers who might be questioning, but didn’t think they knew anyone to ask. It takes a little getting used to in the beginning, but you will be surprised by how many fellow Atheists you might discover.