PolSci Prof Has No Insights into Religion in Politics

Tony GillOver 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.

5 thoughts on “PolSci Prof Has No Insights into Religion in Politics

  1. As for elected officials, I think we know why they don’t come out of the atheist “closet.” (Honestly, I would guess that the number of secret atheists in politics in larger than the number in society.) As far as the numbers not going up for the body politic as a whole, I suspect that’s because there’s little in the way of an atheist community, so there isn’t much benefit to defining yourself as one.

    Compare that to another group Americans all loathe with righteous hate, Muslims. Muslims take it on the chin from Americans but also get to be members of their churches, an important social connection as many are immigrants and the community is a essential means of support.

    I have little interest in the interview but I imagine “The Oregonian” ran it because Oregon is one of the few areas with a comparatively large self-identified atheist population.

    The comparison with the gay community is interesting. “Coming out” was, as you know, a bitterly divisive issue. It involved people risking their jobs, children, even lives to make things better for others; ultimately I think the people who did come out were courageous and useful yet I can’t blame anyone who didn’t.

    Atheists are rarely losing their jobs, never losing their children or getting beaten to death. Because of this, our friends and family tend to already know where we stand. Largely the only people we could “come out” to are the religious co-workers and associates we know, and since part of the whole atheist ethos (at least for me) involves not shoving your beliefs in anyone’s face, it would almost seem counter-productive to announce to religious people that we think they are misguided. (Of course, if religious people are saying harmful things about atheists or other religions in our presence, we should speak up!)

    My choice is to try and engage with thoughtful religious people I know about important issues that we can both discuss on a moral basis (say, the morality of environmental stewardship or keeping the vulnerable from being exploited.) Then, if they ask, I tell them I have no established faith. If they don’t ask, I don’t bring it up — if they don’t ask, clearly they don’t assume anyone outside their faith needs to be dismissed out of hand.

    • I tend to not tell people about my religious thinking (which includes atheism) because it’s too complicated. But I’m also concerned about a lot of people. They seem so fragile, I don’t especially want to trample on their delusions. And in some ways, their delusions are just primitive versions of some of my own thinking. This actually gets to one of my big conflicts with the anti-theists. They seem to think that abandoning religion provides us with some great gift. They claim — quite explicitly at times — that it allows people to be rational in all parts of their lives, which is just nonsense.

      I’m with you: if I’m talking to a person who thinks seriously about religion, I will discuss the issue. And I don’t hide my atheism. But for most people, religion is like a sign post they are hanging onto in a hurricane. And I don’t want to weaken that already weak bit of safety in this cruel world.

  2. Actually, you completely missed the math of the political game theory in the voting system we have. We do not have proportional representation, because we do *not* proportional voting. We have majority voting winner-takes-all. So the results are highly distorted – always – no matter who wins.

    Proportional Representation

    • I understand that our system tends to shut out minority constituencies. However, religious affiliation really isn’t a direct indication of policy preference. Thus, being disinclined to vote for a “none” is a form of prejudice. It is just like the under-representation of African Americans in the Senate. We would expect them to be roughly proportionally represented if we didn’t live in a racist nation. Being a “none” is not equivalent to being in favor of food stamps. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

  3. More troubling than this professor’s lack of statistical skill is his lack of political-scientific skill. He notes that religion is important in the USA, politically. Duh. He does not make the bleedingly obvious inference that religion is important greatly disproportionately to the numbers of religionists. He – PhD in hand, probably tenured or tenure-track – does not understand that America has de facto religious tests for public office and even in some cases, for private offices.

    This guy, in short, lacks basic understanding of the field in which he supposedly is an expert. The right-wingers have this stereotype of the impractical academic, head stuck up bum; this guy is a data point in their favour.

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