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What DNC WikiLeaks email on Sanders' religion reminds us about atheists in America

A Democratic National Committee (DNC) email shows that Bernie Sanders religion (or lack thereof) was raised by top DNC officials. It wasn't that Sanders is Jewish. The question was whether Sanders was actually a closet atheist.

It was a reminder of the strong dislike of atheists in America.

The May 5, 2016 DNC email was sent by CFO Brad Marshall to CEO Amy Dacey, communications director Luis Miranda, and deputy communications director Mark Paustenbach:

Subject: No shit

It might may no difference, but for KY and WVA can we get someone to ask his belief. Does he believe in a God. He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.

Dacey responded with one word: "AMEN"

Politico reports that Marshall has wrote an apology on his private Facebook page. Marshall said he regretted his "insensitive, emotional emails" (full apology here).

Raising a candidate's religion or questioning his or her faith is beyond the pale. One reason the email is so damning (pun intended) is that atheists are among the least-liked groups in America. There is a wide gap between public opinion toward Jews and feelings for atheists.

How much are they disliked? The average American feels warmer toward Congress than toward atheists. That's as low as you get in public opinion.


In 2012 the American National Election Study asked about atheists. People disliked atheists – no, they REALLY disliked atheists.

To understand how poorly the public feels toward atheists, you need to understand that while feeling thermometers technically range from zero to one hundred, the average rating doesn't go nearly that high or that low.

The highest an average feeling thermometer goes is about 80. That's the score “the military” received in the 2012 ANES.

If the military is the ceiling, Congress is the floor.

In survey after survey, Congress scores low on feeling thermometers. In 2012, Congress received an average score of only 42.

Atheists, however, were a good notch lower, with a score of only 38.

They scored lower than "illegal immigrants" and the "federal government in Washington."

To put it bluntly: feelings toward atheists are the new low in public approval.

The DNC email suggests bringing up Sanders' beliefs. Jews may not be viewed as highly as generic Christians, but they are still rated highly---often higher than specific religious groups like evangelicals or Catholics. If Sanders was pegged as an atheist, then he would have been viewed much more negatively.

Portions of this column were published earlier.

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  1. I don’t see any problem with atheists. Is it really that important?

    What if no one would reveal their religious beliefs or lack of them publicly, what differences could be detectable between them?

    I’m thinking of that church sign that said, “God Prefers Kind Atheists Over Hateful Christians”.

  2. If the link accurately represents Marshall’s apology, he didn’t apologise to Bernie Sanders for misrepresentation, the atheist community for insensitivity, the named Christian denominations for treating them as political pawns, or the American people for an overall shoddy job: he apologised to the DNC for giving them a black eye and attempted to put some distance between his remarks and said organisation.

    I think that the real takeaway here is that this fellow and those like him do not care about YOUR religious views; they only care about the “right” candidate winning.

  3. I’m an atheist.
    Most people don’t care and I won’t bring it up unless asked or preached at.

    Polls such as these amuse me as an atheist is the least likely to knock on your door spreading “the word of Dawkins”, to start a fight or a war over “Picard or Kirk”, or to recite the Scientific Method at you on an early Sunday morning. We don’t bomb, shoot, or maim others in the name of Atheism.

    The worst we do is make people think about why they believe in a god in the first place. That’s where the discomfort often comes from.

    The best we do is enforce the Establishment Clause when a local school or other branch of the government promotes one religion over another. It’s an all or nothing system. If they want bibles handed out on school grounds, the Muslims, Satanists, Buddhists, Shintoists, Daoists, Wiccans, and Atheists need to have the same rights and representation.

  4. This website relies on its readers to demonize and steer clear of atheists. Heaven forbid we should awake anyone from the spell that religion has cast in them.

  5. If an ugly person is standing next to you, there’s no need to point it out. If they hit up on you, you can still avoid telling them the truth regarding your feelings, it’s only when they are relentless and absolutely positive that you’re better off dating them do you need to shout out the truth.

  6. I’d like to say hello to my fellow atheists: which is basically every single person on the planet. You are all nonbelievers in regard to the gods of others, just not the one you’ve been convinced into accepting. We are so much alike, all the gods of this world sound purely concocted to us and believed in by people who should know better.
    The only difference between us is that I include YOUR god in that ash heap.

  7. Actually, it shows just how pervasive bigotry is towards atheists. These are people who choose not to believe in a bronze-age narrative of a God who created the world 6000 years in six days and the first humans from a dust and ashes and a rib – i.e. a narrative you’d have to be moron to believe in today’s world. Only a society built on ignorance and stupidity would treat such people with hatred.

  8. Simply put, politics as usual.

  9. I’m an atheist, too, PlanetoftheAtheists. I place great value on equality, respect, and empathy as the basic building blocks of coexistence. One pastoral policy my Christian parents taught me was deference to other people’s personal, spiritual, existential boundaries. What lies within is private; open-minded queries may be answered at the owner’s discretion, but unsolicited commentary is strictly forbidden. Faith, fundamentally, is subject to personal boundaries. Contradictory claims presume inequality, advocate trespass, and sanction cruelty; they profane other people’s beliefs.

    Personally, I believe it is wholly wrongful and holistically harmful for any spiritual/ existential belief system or believer to disrespect another’s sacred boundaries. I believe it is blasphemous for any shepherd or sheep to claim rights to another’s blessed pasture. And I believe such ungodly trespass leads to inhuman cruelty.

    And I emphatically believe this applies to nontheists’ treatment of theists as well as theists’s treatment of nontheists. It seems to me that, before any person trespasses onto other people’s private property to condemn other people’s equally rightful beliefs and values, the very least that person should do is ask something akin to, “Would you like me to tell you why you should renounce your most deeply held beliefs and switch to the ones I’ve chosen for myself?”

    I’m gratefully comforted that my parents’ devout beliefs carried them both through a terrible final year. Mom and Dad respected my beliefs, and they prayed for me. I will always remember that as a beautifully wise and powerfully compassionate expression of their parental and spiritual love.

  10. I am an atheist. I’m not afraid to say here that I am one too and that I don’t believe in what is now demonstrably false, outdated and dangerous religious nonsense.

    If anything, this poll will reverse within a generation or two. Now that we have the internet, religious belief is dying in the US, much like a vampire in stories dies when caught in the ever increasing rays of sunlight bursting in on a room cloaked in darkness. There’s a lot of ugliness before the end, but inevitably it comes, after which there is only peace.

  11. Atheists tend to be more honest than their faith over reality counterparts. They rely upon their own rational minds to answer unpleasant and emotionally difficult questions about the obviously temporary nature of human existence. There is something about honesty that denotes moral integrity that no person of faith can truly claim. Anyone who willfully gives over their rational minds so they can believe in fairy tales that originated in people’s minds thousands of years ago cannot claim to be honest. This is far more that just a point of view. The historical evidence showing all religions originated within very human imaginations is overwhelming and undisputable. Those choosing to pray to imaginary friends who live in the sky are generally harmless except when such delusions advance one or two steps further into ideas they are special and have been specially chosen by a magical being to punish sinners. We now call such people terrorists though the roots of all terrorism is firmly planted in religious beliefs. The single test of the rationality of anyone’s religious beliefs can be seen in the un answerability of one simple question that no person of faith can honestly answer… “What makes the god you learned to pray to any more real than all the other gods you never learned to pray to?”

  12. Three questions:

    In your belief system, are we allowed to speak up when we think that there is a moral and/or legal injustice being done?

    Do we need to ask permission prior to mentioning said injustice?

    If your religious beliefs are displayed where anyone with reasonable access can see, isn’t that putting them into a public sphere, where criticism is now warranted, as it seems you are saying?

    My understanding of your belief is that permission must be given prior to initiating discussion. I feel that an extension of that should be that if you are not giving permission, you shouldn’t be intruding into shared space with your ideas and expect them to be treated in a sacred manner.

    After all, if any sacred idea is untouchable, then any idea, no matter how harmful, is untouchable, provided it is labeled sacred.

    Corrections/criticism welcomed (vacuously true from my perspective, but possibly necessary 🙂 )

  13. I am currently reading a book (one of several I’ve read) about the Spanish Civil War and I find some chilling parallels between the Spain of 1936 and the polarizing direction our country seems to be taking. It may never come to what Spain went through at least I pray it doesn’t.

  14. Re “isn’t that putting them into a public sphere, where criticism is now warranted, as it seems you are saying?”


    All I’m saying is this: Respect others’ personal, spiritual, existential boundaries. Share respect. Enjoy the blessings of celebrating your beliefs and holding yourself to your own faith’s demands; and let others do likewise. Recognize that no person deserves more say-so over others’ equal rights and lives than they do over that person’s.

    I question the morality of treating some people worse than others (e.g., by disparaging their stated or putative personal beliefs, speaking out against their supposed private lives, or denying them rightful public services), based entirely upon one’s own human, imperfect, incomplete knowledge of — and unverifiable conclusions about — those people, their circumstances, their beliefs and values, their unknown and unknowable private lives, even what one’s God may or may not be doing with them — or with oneself, for that matter (e.g., testing one’s humility, compassion, mercy, recognition of one’s own inability to competently judge strangers, and realization of the folly and harm in treating others according to what one simply presumes to “know” about them).

    These are critical concerns, how we treat strangers; and, as I recall from my good Christian upbringing, Christians will ultimately have to justify how they treated “the least of these” to their God.

    Given the importance of these issues, it seems far more desirable and defensible to err on the side of humility, compassion, mercy, and self-restraint than to risk erring on the side of hubris, contempt, malice, and self-righteousness.

    That’s all I’m saying.

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