The New York Times Room for Debate Forum has an interesting symposium on the role of religion in presidential elections. In his contribution, polling expert Andrew Kohut cites a 2007 Pew survey showing that atheism is viewed more negatively by voters than virtually any other possible trait of a presidential candidate. A whopping 63% of respondents said they would be “less likely” to vote for a presidential candidate who “doesn’t believe in God” (3% said they would be more likely). This easily exceeds the percentages who say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who never held elected office (56), a Muslim (46), a homosexual (46), a person who had “used drugs in the past” (45), or a Mormon (30). Opposition to female, black and Hispanic candidates is several times lower (ranging from 4 to 14 percent, though some racists and sexists probably hid their true attitudes from the pollster). A more recent 2011 version of the same survey gets very similar results when it comes to atheists (61%), though there is less hostility towards gays (33%).
By contrast, 39% in the 2007 survey said they would be more likely to vote for a Christian candidate, compared to only 4% who said they would be less likely. However, many voters apparently don’t want a candidate who seems too closely associated with religion. The same poll found that 25% would be less likely to vote for a candidate who has been a minister, while only 15% said they would be more likely to support him. The questions about Christians and ministers were not repeated in the 2011 study.
The data cited by Kohut reinforce other evidence showing that atheists are by far the most widely hated religious or ethnic minority in modern America. The evidence suggests that hostility to atheist candidates is primarily the result of bigotry rather than information shortcuts (e.g. – opposing an atheist candidate because one assumes that he’s probably a liberal), though the latter is certainly a factor for some voters. In this 2006 article, I explored some of the reasons for that hostility and also explained why it isn’t justified.