Non-believers and American politics…

It is hard to ignore two psychosocial features of religious observance: First, that with increased material wealth (or, to put it less hedonistically: with increased protection from privation), religiosity reduces (Paul, 2009). This is not just personal wealth, or societal wealth, but an interaction of the two. Secondly, with increased learning (both at the personal level, as well as the societal), comes decreased religiousness. More correctly this seems to be an interaction between intelligence (e.g. Zuckerman, Silberman & Hall, 2013), and education (Martinez, 2014). These facts interact; as such the highly educated and most wealthy are the least likely to be religious (Paul, 2009). This can be seen in the reduced religiousness of wealthy but equitable nations (such as the Scandinavian states, and Japan), and in the hyper-religiosity of the US (as a wealthy but inequitable nation), and the religious zeal of the poor and uneducated nation states of the third world. Such tendencies, at the population level, must have some degree of expression in individuals. As such, a significant number of US politicians (and their primary donors), who are undeniably wealthy and well educated, must also be non-religious, despite the wealth disparity in the US, and despite their claims of religiosity.

“The average age of Members of the House at the beginning of the 112th Congress was 56.7 years; and of Senators, 62.2 years. The overwhelming majority of Members have a college education. The dominant professions of Members are public service/politics, business, and law. Protestants collectively constitute the majority religious affiliation of Members. Roman Catholics account for the largest single religious denomination, and numerous other affiliations are represented.” – Manning, 2011

Given the unavoidable fact that some of these politically motivated individuals MUST be non-religious (despite there being no professing unbelievers in the houses at this time), the question then arises: Are they claiming religion for personal gain, or are they claiming religion for personal gain? Clearly this is a non-question, but under the surface a genuine question lurks: Does this belief inure the individual from the fundamental injustice of their wealth at the expense of their fellow Americans, or do they adopt an outwardly religious pose to assure the masses that they are merely there by the grace of God? I would suggest that this dichotomy is no dichotomy at all – both are hypocritical. Try as I might, I see no third option; at most, I see variants of these two.

It is interesting to note that the two political parties have, in general terms, qualitatively different approaches to the issue of wealth. Liberals don’t really have a coherent narrative regarding wealth, aside from occasional attempts to enact progressive taxation and wealth redistribution. There is also a notable propensity amongst Democratic donors to be known for their humanitarian giving (e.g. Warren Buffett and George Soros). Republicans, on the other hand, have rationalised wealth as indicative of moral worth (Lakoff, 2002), conflating merit with money. Of course, it’s hard to maintain this position of moral authority when the majority of members of Congress (of both parties) are from very well paid professions that seem to attract those high in psychopathic tendencies (CEO and Lawyer are listed at first and second, respectively, and Civil Servant is listed at tenth).

“Psychopathy is a personality disorder that has been variously described as characterized by shallow emotions (in particular reduced fear), stress tolerance, lacking empathy, coldheartedness, lacking guilt, egocentricity, superficial character, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, impulsivity and antisocial behaviors such as parasitic lifestyle and criminality.”

On the matter of religiosity, the parties also have different approaches. The Republicans claim religiousness at every turn, appealing directly to the religious right (obviously), and lying about their statistically likely lack of religiousness. Liberals, by comparison, avoid mentioning religion wherever possible, except where politically expedient. This a difference of degree, not type, and the reason is simple. The populace generally treat sins of commission more harshly than sins of omission (Harris, 2010), but where that sin of commission is a claim of religiosity, it is more readily overlooked, particularly by the religious right:

“On September 20, 2006 an independent Congressional-watch organization called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released its second annual “Most Corrupt Members of Congress Report.” Three senators and seventeen members of the House were named, most of them hold-overs from the first annual report (although the news release noted with some glee that two of the previous winners were already on their way to jail).

In other words, corruption, and overtly irreligious (one might say sinful) behaviour are not sufficient to impact on a politician’s chances, but proof of atheism will. The highly religious will put up with an incredible amount of widely reported “unChristian” behaviour (although that term seems to have lost all meaning in US politics), but they will not countenance an atheist in office (Gervais, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011). So, let’s find (and out) atheist Republicans, as this will have one of two effects – it will either improve the stock of atheists with the highly religious (and atheists are less trusted than rapists (ibid.)), or it will remove the atheists of low integrity from the political landscape… I see both as positive outcomes.

Late addition: here are the religiosity stats for the current Congress.

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About COEXISTential

I'm a psychology graduate, about to undertake a Masters. I did my first degree at 36 for various reasons, and am contunuing in my education for better reasons. The focus of my research is the psychology of morality, and thus also religion and politics. The focus of this blog is to apply my learnings from this research to the tricky problem of fixing the world. I am a progressive liberal, humanist, and agnostic-atheist, but the individuality of my principles is more important than the labels under which they broadly fall. So let's talk about life, the universe, and everything, and how best for us humans to exist within it.
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