Over at The Oregonian, Melissa Binder interviewed University of Washington political science professor (specializing in religion) Tony Gill on an issue that I’m quite interested in, Why Is Congress Overwhelmingly Christian With Only One Religious “None”? Interestingly, Gill doesn’t answer the question. In fact, we mostly get a lot of apologetics from him.
His answer is that since Congress is a small sample size, we wouldn’t expect it to correlate very well with the whole 316 million people in the United States. That’s shockingly ignorant. With a sample size of 535, we should have reasonably large errors — but not an almost total lack of correlation. For example, 1.6% of Americans state explicitly that they are atheist or agnostic. When we include people who just aren’t religious, the number can go up as high as 10%. Yet there is only one member of Congress who claims no religious affiliation. That’s less than 0.2%. That isn’t “small sample size” error; that’s “heavily skewed sample” error.
Similarly, when discussing why Americans are so negative toward atheists, Gill had really no insight other than to claim that people don’t trust the political system so they want to make sure that there is a God their politicians are afraid of, “An atheist doesn’t have those checks and balances on them — a supernatural individual checking them when we can’t see them.” It’s amazing that this guy is a professor at Washington — a university I hold in high esteem. This, after all, is no kind of analysis. If you strip away all nice words, his argument is, “People are bigots, and I agree with them.”
I think there is an obvious answer to the main question — one that ought to be the first thing that a political scientist would mention: incentives. Most people are religious. I’m not. I’m an atheist. As a result, I really don’t care the religion of people I vote for. I just care about their policies. Now, I understand that there are anti-theists who do care, but this is a tiny minority. So if a woman who isn’t really religious decides to go into politics, she will grab onto a religion — for purely political reasons if for nothing else. Gill does eventually touch on this, but only in passing — and while answering an entirely different question.
The problem with the general attitude of religious people toward atheists is that they simply don’t know atheists. So their attitudes toward atheists really are a form of bigotry. It’s the same reason that we didn’t elect an African American president before 2008. People we don’t know scare us. I suspect that The Cosby Show was as important to the election of Barack Obama as his Harvard education. I suspect that atheists need to do what the LGBT community did and be more public about who they are. Maybe in fifty years, atheists will have a 50% approval rating.
There was one part of the interview that was of interest. There is a strong tendency in the atheist community to think that atheism is really taking off. Gill rightly poured cold water on that. As the numbers I quoted above indicate, this just isn’t true. The number of explicit atheists is about the same today as it was when I was born. The trend that I’ve seen in my life is that a lot more people take their religions ridiculously seriously. The one bit of good news for the country is that there is a growing number of people who just don’t care about religion. But Gill tosses this idea aside as just part of the “life cycle” — claiming that people come to church later. But again, he shows his mathematical ignorance: that would always have been true. His “life cycle” argument doesn’t explain the trend.
So I really don’t appreciate Professor Gill’s apologetics. And it is amazing that a political scientist at a major American research university could be so ignorant of mathematics and statistics. I have no idea why The Oregonian chose to run the interview.