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How America Is a Little Like Pakistan
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Recently a “hot story” in the barbaric nation that is Pakistan is that a politician did not know how to recite a prayer properly. An important back story here is that Muslims generally pray in Arabic, but most Muslims are not Arabic language speakers (and in any case, colloquial Arabic is very different from “Classical Arabic” which is derived from the language of the Koran). So deviation from appropriate pronunciation is a major problem for Muslims as a practical matter. And, since the words one recites in ritual prayer are derived from the Koran they are the literal Word of God as transmitted to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel. Proper delivery is of the essence (and for your information, I can still bust out sura Fatiha, thank you very much).

But the major point illustrated by the incident is the importance of public piety in Pakistan. The father of the nation of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was so Westernized that he had to have mullahs prep him on how to recite lines of the Koran during speeches. He was himself from a heretical Muslim sect (heretical in the eyes of the Sunni majority at least), the Ismailis, and married a woman of Zoroastrian background. Like much of the Pakistani elite today and upper class men of the British Empire during that period Jinnah had a soft spot for various liquors. Pakistan has come a long way from those days, re-branding itself as an extremist nation par excellence. The “moderates” may be the majority, but they are not moved to place themselves between the extremists and their victims.

And this brings me to the USA. How is it like Pakistan? We’ve also have come a long way since the Founding in terms of the respectable “orthodoxy” which we demand of our politicians. A new Pew survey on religion in Congress puts this into stark relief:

Perhaps the greatest disparity between the religious makeup of Congress and the people it represents, however, is in the percentage of the unaffiliated – those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” According to information gathered by CQ Roll Call and the Pew Forum, no members of Congress say they are unaffiliated. By contrast, about one-sixth of U.S. adults (16%) are not affiliated with any particular faith. Only six members of the 112th Congress (about 1%) do not specify a religious affiliation, which is similar to the percentage of the public that says they don’t know or refuses to specify their faith.

Barack Hussein Obama, a man who believes in evolution more than angels, has to constantly tout his Christian faith. This, during a period of American history witnessing massive increases in secularity. What a change this is! Of the early American presidents the first six were arguably not orthodox Christians, as defined by an acceptance of the Nicene Creed. Andrew Jackson, the first conventional Christian president, refused to set aside a day of prayer, in deference to the strict church-state separation advocated by the Democratic party of the era, and derived from Thomas Jefferson’s position. As for Jefferson himself, he was a man who expressed profound personal skepticism of the religious truth claims of his era, going so far as to bowdlerize the Bible, removing most of the supernatural incidents. He was also associated with the equivalent of New Atheists during the late Enlightenment. Radical anti-clericalists such as Thomas Paine, who he invited to the United States in 1802 during his presidency. Can you imagine an American president admitting friendship with Richard Dawkins today?

But that’s the surface. Like Andrew Sullivan I assume that many non-believers in politics are “in the closet.” But how many? The Pew survey correctly notes that around 16% of Americans are not affiliated with any religion. So if Congress was representative, you’d have 16% unaffiliated. But Congress isn’t representative. I found educational data from the 111th Congress, and calculated like so:

– 64% have graduate degrees

– 30% have undergraduate degrees

– 1% have some college

– 5% are high school graduates

Using the GSS you can see how belief in God and religion affiliation tracks education. Below are the proportions for the total sample and for liberals in the 2000s:

Less Than HS HS Some college College Grad
Atheist 2 2.5 2 3 4
Agnostic 3 4 3 7 9
None 15 15 13 15 18
Less Than HS HS Some college College Grad
Atheist 2 5 4 6 7
Agnostic 7 5 6 17 12
None 16 23 26 32 30

Weighting Congress by education, I get the following values:

Predicated All
Atheist 4
Agnostic 8
None 17
Predicated Liberals
Atheist 7
Agnostic 13
None 30

This is almost certainly an underestimate. Most of the people with graduate educations in Congress have finished a professional degree. They’re lawyers. The “graduate” category in the GSS is a catchall, and is likely not as elite. Additionally, a more fine-grained analysis would take into account the university which individuals graduated from. Elite universities tend to have very secular student bodies. You can also drill-down to a more a fine-grained scale. Over 30% of Jews in the GSS with graduate educations are atheists or agnostics. I am willing to believe that most of the Jews in Congress are not deep believers in HaShem.

What one could really do is create some sort of regression model with demographic inputs which would predict the odds of someone being an atheist or irreligious. The data from Congress is there to input after we’ve see how the independent variables predict the outcome in the general population.

Of course, I agree that it is insane for a politician to come out as an atheist. There is simply no win in this; many people would be turned off, at the gain of few voters. Around half of Americans admit to simply not being willing to vote for an atheist as president.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Estes Park, Colorado not so long ago, held a successful citizen’s recall effort to remove a town councilman who would not recite the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

  2. Seems like it is now easier to be Gay in the Military than it is to be an Atheist in Congress. There seems to be a kind of DADT system in politics.

  3. This reminds me of the Richard Dawkins’ TED speech and his observations about the “grotesque mismatch” between the American intelligencia and the American electorate which ended with a typical Dawkins-ian quip “.. the high office in the greatest country in the world is barred to the very people best qualified to hold it: the intelligencia, unless they are prepared to lie about their beliefs”

  4. Do you know that الصِّرَاطَ – al-sirat – is borrowed from Latin?

    From the comments of :

    (I’ve seen more authoritative sources but can’t find them on line in a quick search)

    “SiraaT suggests the Arabic root morpheme SrT, with two so-called emphatic consonants (S and T) and the vowel pattern i-aa. However, Arabic native roots never contain more than one emphatic consonant. That rules out that this is even an original Semitic word (cf. Greenberg, Patterning of Semitic root morphemes).

    The obvious link is with Latin, where a similar word [via] STRATA with a similar meaning exists.

    In support of this etymology one can bring to bear the fact that Arabic borrowed all the other words for the key concepts of empire from the Romans:

    [via] STRATA > SiraaT (= street in English) “military road”
    EXERCITUS > caskar (c=`ayn) “expeditionary army”
    CASTRUM > qaSr (= chester, caster, castle) “fortified camp”

    All these borrowings show a preference for heavy consonants (qaaf, Saad, cayn).”

  5. We may actually get a republican candidate for president who openly admits to not believing in evolution. It would be interesting to see how much they change their tune after the primary. We had the classic attack ad of Dukakis riding in a tank. Maybe we will see Huckabee riding a dinosaur in a cowboy outfit while the narrator asks “What other nonsense does Huckabee believe in?”

  6. I think that there is an assortitive aspect to this issue for which your proposed regression model wouldn’t be able to account. Let’s assume for discussion that we have a group of people who are contemplating political office, all of whom have post-graduate degrees. I accept that the percentage of those who are atheist or “nones” would be similar to the numbers you cite in the post. But I propose that religious post graduates would be more likely to actually pursue public office than the nones, because the latter group knows that the electorate would not elect someone who is not religious.

    I accept your larger point that some of the people in congress who espouse religious affiliation are closet nones. But if the religious post-grads are more likely to pursue office than the nonreligous post grads, your numbers may not be underestimates as you suggest.

  7. Peter Scholl-Latour
    who warned of the islamic extremism long before 9/11,
    even often wrote about the similarities to US and Israel.

  8. “Babylon 5: A Geometry of Shadows”

    Elric: “I see a great hand reaching out of the stars. The hand is your hand. And I hear sounds – the sounds of billions of people calling your name.”
    Londo (eagerly): “My followers?”
    Elric: “Your victims.”

    Theocracy always ends in a test of faith. Uncle Al prefers statistical process control MTBF, then build to code or better. Alas, that requires a broad and deep national intelligence that Yahweh and Congress abohor. Everything we have of value we owe to the Serpent and his pomegranate (apples, Malus sieversii, being native to Kazakhstan cold mountains not Mesopotamian warm lowlands).

  9. But I propose that religious post graduates would be more likely to actually pursue public office than the nones, because the latter group knows that the electorate would not elect someone who is not religious.

    interesting point. the only thing is that politicians have a knack for being sexual hypocrites. you could make the same argument for politicians having more sexual restraint because of the expectations of the public, but that doesn’t seem to pan out.

  10. I’d say that by evidence we have no actual Christian beleivers in the US Congress since the Christian thing, per Jesus, is to give up everything and follow him. I suppose we do have some good Paulianists there, but each is sure that only their sect is the “right” one. Unfortunately, here in the US, religion is equated with “goodness” and that certainly isn’t true at all. It is the self-proclaimed religious that want to ignore their fellow humans, to make loads of money, incite hatred and try to eliminate freedoms, all based on what they want to claim their god supports. These are only people who want to force their personal desires and hatreds on everyone.

  11. Hi Razib,

    I think you are confounding public behavior and private belief to make your point. Washington, Jefferson, and Adams all seem to have attended church services regularly whatever their private beliefs. (my sources being wikipedia and some biographies I have read).

    Also it seems there is an open atheist in congress currently – Pete Stark.

    From wikipedia:

    “[I am a] Unitarian who does not believe in a Supreme Being. I look forward to working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and the provision of social service.”

  12. I think you are confounding public behavior and private belief to make your point. Washington, Jefferson, and Adams all seem to have attended church services regularly whatever their private beliefs. (my sources being wikipedia and some biographies I have read).

    you’re way too simplistic. first, both adams were unitarians. they weren’t nicene creed christians. second, washington did things like avoid communion according to many sources. also, their beliefs changed over their life. the early jefferson was much more religiously heterodox than jefferson before his death.

    and i know about peter stark. i actually read everything i link to, and have blogged about him before.

  13. vel’s comment is dumb. don’t post stuff like that again.

  14. I am aware Adams was a Unitarian, and of the differences between Unitarianism and “conventional” Christianity. I call what Unitarians do on Sunday morning “going to church” as that is what Unitarians I know call it. I suppose there are other terms.

    I took your point as being that modern day US politicians have to pretend some religious affiliation regardless of their actual belief, while in the time of the Founding Fathers this wasn’t the case. I was disputing that, I think US politicians have always dissembled about their lack of religious belief and I provided some examples.

    I’m not really interested in the religious lives of politicians, I just get annoyed by claims that the US is heading down the path to theocracy when that’s clearly not the case. I don’t think you believe that either so I’ll just drop this.

  15. Becoming a successful politician involves a different career path than the population at large. It seems to me that the politician begins his career by leveraging group membership to gain name recognition and coalesce more and more group support to higher and higher offices. Religious group membership seems like a good place to start, particularly with the decline of the old fraternal/business organizations. I always assumed Obama’s church attendance was not entirely without political implications, though I’m reluctant to conclude it was entirely pretextual, just reinforced an affiliation that may have otherwise been far more subdued.

  16. Thanks, David Boxenhorn. Now I understand the German word “Strasse”. Words sure go through a grinder on the way from Latin to Arabic, huh?

  17. I halfway wonder if people wanting more “litmus tests” of being a believer is precisely due to the rise in secularism. That is those who are believers feel like their culture is slipping away and put the cultural markers as a prime symbolism that someone is like them. I think it safe to say that people don’t vote based upon how good a job someone would do but rather how well someone represents them. It’s an important distinction.

    I’d also add that as sympathetic as I am to your meritocracy inclinations the problem always is that the elite, however intelligent they may be, doesn’t really get the other classes and thus can’t really watch out for what’s important for them.

  18. I thing clark (17) makes a good point. There is evidence that a function of religion is separation of ‘in group’ from ‘out group’ and that ritual, the more arcane and inconvenient the better, serves to distinguish the true in group person from the interloper.

    Even if a person is of a different religion, active professed belief in a god is interpreted as evidence that the person has a (actually superstitious) fear of ‘doing wrong’ and can be more readily trusted.

  19. America is a little bit more like Pakistan:
    Public officials get gunned down in public.

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