As Charles pointed out this morning, religiosity continues to decline in America, with about a fifth of respondents to a recent Pew Poll claiming to be atheist, agnostic, or "nothing in particular." That's bad news demographically for Republicans, since we "religiously unaffiliated" voters tend to lean substantially Democratic (75-23 in the 2008 presidential election), and are rising in numbers due to "generational replacement" as older church-goers die off.
But what really strikes me about this poll is not the gradual rise in godlessness, but rather, how few Americans are still willing to admit it. Only 2.4 percent of respondents would confess to being "atheists," and of these, 14 percent claim they believe in God or a universal spirit.
That's not atheism. That's just plain stupid.
Altogether, 7 percent of respondents, regardless of affiliation, said they do not believe in a "God or a universal spirit," (including 2 percent of self-described "Christians"), a self-reported number that still strikes me as awfully low. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 30 percent of Americans interpret the Bible literally. Are there really four times as many Americans who believe that Noah packed millions of animals onto a boat than deny the existence of the supernatural? Hard to believe.
I don't pretend that a majority of Americans are non-believers, but certainly more than 7 percent are. They're just afraid to admit it. Perhaps even to themselves. But not as afraid as our Congress, where only one admits to being an atheist. Not one percent. One member: Congressman Pete Stark (D-CA). Either politicians refuse to acknowledge their atheism, or voters refuse to elect them.
Either way, one thing is clear: The only religious group for which we still tolerate intolerance is the group that professes no religion at all. It would be inappropriate, say, to make fun of Mitt Romney for believing that God lives near a planet named Kolob and that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri. But deny the existence of God, and you're electorally unfit! Indeed, there are still seven states with constitutional provisions that bar atheists from office, yet no groundswell to repeal this language for the sake of honoring the non-beliefs of others.
"Without God, there can be no morality," the multitude will cry. And as my alma mater's motto says: Leges sine moribus vanae.
The civil rights movement has made great strides over the past half century for people of color, for women, for the disabled, for the LGBT community, and hell, even for minority religious groups. But if atheists want to enjoy the same rights and respect as others—if they want to be able to run for public office without being forced to pledge allegiance under a god they don't believe in—then they need to start coming out of the closet. Not combatively or radically (though by all means, go full-Dawkins if that's what floats your boat), but openly and honestly, without fear of reproach or reprisal.
It can be tempting to privately scoff at the Christian majority for its non-rational belief in magical sky people. But at least they have the balls to openly profess their beliefs while so many atheists continue to hide in the closet.