Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

January 6, 2011

How America is a little like Pakistan

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.

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