My name is Marcus; I am seventeen years old, and I attend one of the most prestigious secondary schools in the United States. Growing up with every mark of privilege has instilled in me the mind-set that I can achieve anything if I work hard enough. But as I have grown more aware of public opinion in the United States outside the picturesque New England towns I’m accustomed to, I have come to the realization that my aspirations might be limited—not by my race or gender, but because I do not believe in a god. I am an atheist.
Like many children raised in New England, I grew up in a secular household. God and religion were introduced to me after I learned basic scientific concepts. Christianity struck me as just another myth that had a purpose before scientific discovery but lost its relevance over time. It was not until my freshman year in boarding school that I was confronted with deeply religious classmates, most of whom came from different parts of the country that were much more religious than the area where I grew up.
According to a survey of students from my school, around 35 percent of the student body identifies as either atheist or agnostic, and while there are organizations for Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, there is no club for atheist and agnostic students. Last year, a few classmates and I applied to start an official Atheist/Agnostic Society. Although there was no shortage of faculty appearing to be atheist, not one of the handful we talked to was willing to serve as faculty advisor for the club as we envisioned it. When we finally found an advisor, we were urged to change the name of our club to the Atheism and Religion Society so as not to discourage religious students from attending meetings. In the end, the strategy backfired; the club was rejected by the administration on the grounds that the school already had an organization to discuss religion and that atheist students should join that club to voice their opinions. When we looked into that club, we discovered that it was not a forum for atheists and agnostics.
Are these difficulties symptomatic of a larger problem with public opinion toward atheists? A Gallup poll conducted in 2012 revealed the extent of public prejudice towards atheists running for elected office. When voters were asked whether they would support a well-qualified atheist candidate from their party for president, 54 percent of respondents said they would, and 43 percent said they would not. Based on the survey, these results put atheists last behind Muslims and lesbian, gay, and bisexual candidates. These data point to prejudice against atheists that afflicts the political process.
A history of growing tolerance in American culture would imply that just like any other group, the irreligious will be accepted in time. Polling seems to indicate this exact trend. In a 1957 Gallup poll, only 18 percent of voters said they would vote for an atheist candidate for president, 36 percentage points lower than in 2012. Among millennials, 70 percent in the 2012 poll say that they would vote for an atheist.
Does this number point to growing tolerance? In a Gallup poll conducted in 2007, voters were asked what quality is most important in a candidate for president. An overwhelming 33 percent answered “honesty/straightforward.” When confronted with public pressure over race and religion in the modern political era, successful presidential candidates have been open about addressing the public’s prejudice. President John F. Kennedy addressed his Catholicism, and President Barack Obama addressed his race. Even Governor Mitt Romney overcame voter reluctance regarding his Mormon background to win the 2012 Republican primary.
Secular members of Congress have tempered their public beliefs in order not to hurt their election chances. Rep. Pete Stark (D–CA) served for twenty terms, two of them as an open atheist, before being defeated by a thirty-one-year-old primary challenger who attacked him for his lack of religion. Rep. Stark had stated that he was a “Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being,” perhaps the most benign way of stating one’s atheism.
Secularism is growing, with one in five Americans now claiming to be irreligious. It won’t be long until an openly atheist candidate runs for high office, and his or her lack of religion will be questioned. Presidential candidates overcoming prejudice have had the courage to meet obstacles head-on. If voters respect honesty and straightforwardness, then secular candidates should not be afraid to address their beliefs directly.
This is the approach my classmates and I are taking as we continue to pursue our club. Although we were denied official status, we have continued to meet informally, discussing everything from secularism in America to philosophical arguments regarding the existence of a deity. We have found a younger member of the faculty who fully supports the club, and we have reapplied for official status this past spring, this time without compromising our name or mission.
While being an open atheist in today’s political climate may eliminate the possibility of a career in elected office, things will change when millennials enterthe political arena. The next generation of Americans is less religious than its parents’ generation and more open to discourse. Atheism seems to be the last “acceptable” prejudice in America. I hope we will overcome it by the time someone in my generation runs for president.
From the editors: As this article was being prepared for publication, the fall school term had begun, and Thompson’s club for nonreligious students finally won the administration’s permission to operate. Thompson reports that the club has been met with enthusiasm by students and that a “sizable” group meets for discussion each week Topics have included Darwin’s explanation for the evolution of morality and Bill Maher’s comments on Islam on his program Real Time.
Marcus J. Thompson is a student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Class of 2015.