Guest Blog: A Place at the Podium

Guest blog

Guest blog by Connie Barlow (my beloved wife and mission partner)

Just days before the U.S. national elections on November 4, one Republican incumbent (Senator Elizabeth Dole) endorsed a video ad that implied her Democratic rival (Kay Hagan) was an atheist - "godless," to be precise. The Associated Press reported:

"When Dole aired an ad questioning Hagan's credentials as a Christian, Hagan's response was quick and aggressive. She sued Dole, accusing her of libel and defamation, and went to the airwaves to defend her faith, telling voters she teaches Sunday school and serves as a church elder."

As an "out" atheist (I prefer the terms "evolutionary humanist" or "religious naturalist," both of which describe what I am, rather than what I am not), I longed for someone of stature in America to remind our nation that there is nothing intrinsically wrong or morally reprehensible about holding an atheist perspective. If a political candidate is, in fact, an atheist, so what?

Only weeks earlier, Colin Powell had made basically the same point in response to rumors that Barak Obama was Muslim. A transcript of Powell's remarks include:

"Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is: What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He's a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists.' This is not the way we should be doing it in America."

Washington Post online columnist Sally Quinn made precisely my point in her 3 November 2008 "On Faith" blog. Quinn wrote:

"Isn't it pathetic that in this day and age, in this country founded on the idea of religious liberty, whose settlers came here to avoid religious persecution, that one could be criticized for one's religious beliefs or lack of beliefs? For Kay Hagan to have to defend herself by claiming that she does in fact believe in God is against everything this country stands for. It is un-American. The really awful truth is that Kay Hagan had no choice. She had to proclaim her faith in God. Nobody in this country can get elected for high office today by acknowledging the fact that they are an atheist, an agnostic or even a secular humanist. You would have a better chance getting of elected if you were gay."

Quinn continued: "Imagine if Powell or another high-profile public figure used similar words to scold Dole and defend Hagan. What would it sound like if - using Powell's words - we replaced Muslim with atheist."

"Well, the correct answer is that she is not an atheist, she's a Christian. She's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if she is? Is there something wrong with being an atheist in this country? The answer's no. That's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old atheist-American kid believing that he or she could be President? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, 'She's an atheist and might be associated with other pagans, for instance.' This is not the way we should be doing it in America."

Quinn concludes, "That conversation may seem a long way off, but then so did the idea of an African-American president."

Well said!  Nonetheless, Michael and I both understand why the public understanding of nontheistic perspectives is so deeply skewed by prejudice.  Consider this statistic:

"A 2006 national survey by researchers in the University of Minnesota's department of sociology found atheists to be the least accepted social group in the United States. The survey found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, homosexuals and other minority groups in ‘sharing their vision of American society.'"

People fear that, absent belief in God, an individual will have no basis for sound moral judgment. So long as such fear prevails, nontheists who aspire to public office in America will continue to see the wisdom of professing otherwise.

Thus, until conventionally religious people in our culture come to accept that an atheist has no less claim to deep moral grounding than do traditional believers, there will be little chance for "out atheists" and other freethinkers and skeptics to take their place at the podium of public policy in America.

Said another way, until convincing evidence is offered that evolution itself has provisioned our species with an innate sense of morality, and that cultures throughout the world have been shaped by evolutionary forces to reinforce and ramify innate moral urgings (at least toward one's own tribe or society), individuals who judge atheists as unsuitable for elected public office will, in fact, be thinking quite rationally.

Thankfully, we nontheists no longer need make our case strictly by pointing to our own moral stature and other anecdotal examples.  Mainstream science now offers compelling evidence: Human moral precepts are grounded in our deep evolutionary ancestry as mammals, our more recent evolutionary ancestry as social primates, and the culturally emergent conditions that have grown and extended our genetic and social inheritance - and that continue to prod us toward more encompassing vistas of moral evolution, ever expanding our notion of who is kin, who is comrade, and thus who merits our concern and compassion.

The evolutionary perspective would have us grasp that we are naturally and deeply moral, though far from perfect, beings.  Morality is so fully Universe-given / God-given (choose your preferred metaphor) that we can safely cast aside the notion that humans blessed with mental health and nurturing cultural contexts must also "believe" in order to be entrusted with a place at the podium.

The challenge is having the evidence be heard and taken in by those whose prejudices are deeply rooted.  This is yet one more reason why the discoveries of evolutionary anthropology and evolutionary brain science hold such promise for the new century - and why they are core features of my own (and my husband's) public presentations.  This is why, too, that we have both dedicated our lives toward furthering religious appreciation of the evolutionary perspective.  For until the majority of churches in America preach evolution from the pulpit and teach evolution in inspiring ways to their children and youth, we will never see an end to the science versus religion war in America and the evolution controversy in public schools.

FURTHER READING: See chapters 8 through 11, and chapers 14 through 18 of my husband Michael Dowd's book, Thank God for Evolution.  Other excellent resources include:

NOTE: Connie Barlow, a science writer, is the author of four books that bridge evolutionary science with meaning. Her online publications can be accessed at

FYI...Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham's online Newsweek/Washington Post blog "On Faith" also reported favorably on Connie's and my Evolutionary Evangelistic ministry back in June 2008.