A recent Gallup poll found that only 54 percent of Americans would vote for a well-qualified atheist of their own party for president. This is behind Mormons (80 percent), gays and lesbians (68 percent) and Muslims (58 percent). By this measure, atheists retain their place as the most maligned and misunderstood demographic group in America.
There are a couple of things about atheists that contribute to the mistrust and enmity directed at them by religious people. Among these are the insistence among atheists that the truth can only be found through good, scientific evidence and the belief that people can live good moral lives without being guided by religious faith.
Even more so than Missourians, atheists are the "show me" people. The only way to know the truth of anything is through the evidence. Discerning viable evidence from nonsense is much more difficult than most people think. It is not easy and it is not intuitive.
Common sense is useless outside of everyday experience. Recognizing good evidence requires discipline and may require specific training. That is where science comes in. Science provides the process by which we make observations, collect evidence, form hypotheses, design experiments, publish for peer review, scrutinize the results and go round and round again until we reach a consensus conclusion supported by all of the real, viable evidence we can find. When new evidence surfaces, the whole process begins again.
No amount of prayer, soul searching or "feeling in your heart" will tell you that the Earth is round, what the sun is made of, how a bee makes honey, why there are earthquakes or how life evolved on our planet. Wouldn't it be desirable for a president to rely on actual evidence when making a decision?
Many religious people believe that "no religion" equates to "no morality," but that is simply not true. Morality is not rocket science. If you are considering a course of action, ask yourself a few simple questions, such as:
Am I causing someone harm?
Am I deliberately deceiving someone?
Am I subjecting someone to risk without their knowledge or consent?
Am I betraying someone's trust?
Am I violating a solemn promise?
Am I denying someone the human rights I expect for myself?
Am I using my power, wealth, knowledge or experience to take advantage of or impose my will on those who are weak, poor, naÃ¯ve or young?
Am I a government official, employer, teacher, etc., who misuses my power in this way?
Do I support laws designed to force my belief system upon others in violation of the principle that the purpose of the law is to maximize freedom by balancing each individual's rights against the rights of all others?
Wouldn't it be useful for a presidential candidate to publish his or her own list of answers to moral questions rather than hide behind the vague generality that religion equals morality? Wouldn't you vote for a public official who pledged to live by these guidelines in the performance of his or her duties even if their religious beliefs differed from your own?
I can only hope that more Americans will come to realize that there are many thoughtful, moral non-believers among us who would make good neighbors, friends, and even presidents.
Steve Huthman holds a degree in physics and works as a software consultant at Hill Air Force Base. He lives in Brigham City.