Is Obama an Atheist?

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 22, 2010 in General Atheism,Politics

Nearly one fifth of Americans think President Obama is a Muslim. But hey, we already knew Americans are stupid.

Others have suggested that despite his professions to be a Christian, Obama is secretly an atheist.

Is there any evidence that he’s an atheist? Here is the kind of evidence usually cited:

  • Obama espouses standard Enlightenment views about religious pluralism and secularism, except that he’s a bit slippery about separation of church and state.
  • Obama’s “guns and religion” comments
  • Obama hasn’t chosen a church after leaving Jeremiah Wright’s church
  • Obama’s father was an atheist by the time by the time he married Obama’s mother
  • Obama’s stepfather was non-religious
  • Obama was mostly raised by his mother, a scientific atheist who thought religion was irrational and destructive, and raised Obama with a secular education in all major religious traditions
  • Obama’s political aspirations in America essentially required that he profess Christianity, whether or not he really believed

For example, here is an Obama tale woven by John T. Reed (who writes very smart stuff about real estate and success, and some dumb stuff about libertarianism):

I suspect [Obama] cynically got a copy of Michael Barrone’s Almanac of American Politics and looked to see which Congressional District in the U.S. was the most black. There, he learned it was the First District of Illinois, better known as the South Side of Chicago.

So he moved there in spite of having absolutely no connection to Chicago. He dumped the white girlfriend for a more politic black one, changed the name he went by from Barry to Barack, heard that if he wanted to go into politics on the South Side of Chicago he needed to join Jeremiah Wright’s church, and did so. In other words, he did not discover Christ as he claims. He discovered that he was a smooth talker, played his father’s race for all it was worth, and hung around with Jeremiah Wright for vote-getting purposes, not because he has any interest in religion.

…When he realized he could do the Senate and the Oval Office, he was way too slow to realize Wright’s church was not as attractive to the wider population of voters as it was to “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and his neighbors. Obama barely threw Wright and that church under his famous bus in time to win the presidency… For Obama, religion is just another lie he tells to get elected.

Okay, so that’s pretty far-fetched, but it’s at least more plausible than the idea that Obama is a secret Muslim.

Also, it’s worth remembering that despite his non-religious early life, Obama claims to have adopted religion in his adult years – specifically, the mid-80s. This was before he made any political moves, and around the time he moved to Chicago and met Michelle. It’s not like he’s the first person to have become religious while adult, and when developing a new relationship with a significant other.

If Obama has been secretly an atheist for three decades, and all his closest friends and family have helped him hide the truth, that’s one hell of a successful conspiracy.

So is Obama an atheist? Probably not. It’s slightly more plausible than the “secret Muslim” theory, but for now I’d have to guess he’s a Christian like he says he is.

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Hermes October 22, 2010 at 4:36 am

I doubt he is playing that game, though any expression would probably be scrutinized for political purposes. I don’t see him as a public evangelist, or a fall on the floor or flop around in the spirit type anyway.

I’d be he’s a conventional Christian, and from day to day it isn’t the single thing on his mind. The Jesus cheer-leading and book club might not get it, but nearly every person off of these forums that I talk to isn’t constantly soaking themselves in the blood of the lamb from a paint bucket they carry around. Like any serious person who has a tough job with high demands on his time, he’s working hard and that means cutting out things that aren’t necessary. He can pray or review his religious beliefs in the moments he chooses just as normal theists do.

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EvanT October 22, 2010 at 4:46 am

[irony mode]
A politician manipulated public opinion in order to get elected? *shock* *gasp*
O tempora o mores.
[/irony mode]

Really though, just because Obama has been idolized, we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that he’s a politician. And being Greek, the general tone here is “a politician is considered corrupt until proven otherwise”. It’s a much safer bet.

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Rick M October 22, 2010 at 5:44 am

Obama may be an atheist in the same sense that many self-described Christians are atheist. They don’t or rarely go to church, pray, proselytize, or ground their everyday moral decisions in the deity. When pressed or for social expediency, they claim a belief in Christ but an examination of their lives reveals that that belief informs very little or nothing of their day to day thoughts or interactions. I know I am stretching the definition of atheist, but at some point shouldn’t a claimed belief in something be manifest in a person’s thoughts and actions?

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Hermes October 22, 2010 at 6:02 am

at some point shouldn’t a claimed belief in something be manifest in a person’s thoughts and actions?

Rick, I hope not. The ones that manifest religious thoughts too regularly are neurotic. I would expect that most people who describe themselves as Christians don’t drag it into each and every moment of their day. They’d be dysfunctional if they did. Most people who are also Christians get that; they are people who can cope with reality, and don’t need to have a Jesus base like a young child needs an adult around.

I’d expect that on occasion they’d give some of the better cultural ideals that Christians tout a few thoughts, along with a prayer or two. That would be about that. As you know, they ignore the things that they don’t think Jesus/God really meant or was for ‘some other time’.

Then again, maybe the people who are Christians I know personally are sane and I just think they are also examples of average Christians.

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Transplanted Lawyer October 22, 2010 at 6:24 am

As a general matter, it’s unwise to do anything other than take someone at their word when they describe their own religiosity.

As a general matter, it’s wise to view statements from a politician through the lens of a conscious desire to be politically appealing to large numbers of people. You can call it “lying” if you want, but “shading the truth” is probably a better phrase.

Put those two together, and you get a politician’s self-expression about religiosity winding up to be more likely to be untrue with respect to the intensity of religious belief actually felt rather than the nature of that belief. A politician claiming to have a strong Christian faith probably actually has a shallow Christian faith, but it wouldn’t be right to say he’s an atheist because he does not self-identify as one and would resist a suggestion that he is an atheist.

…Which is more or less what @Rick M said, above.

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Rob October 22, 2010 at 6:30 am

He’s probably an atheist. I think Bill Clinton is probably an atheist too. Given the high correlation between high intelligence and high education with atheism, our government is very likely lousy with atheists. Not that all or most government folks are smart, but a bunch of them are. Which simply means a bunch of them are likely atheists.

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Rob October 22, 2010 at 6:38 am

(That John T. Reed guy is selling a book for $30 called “How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book”. Will the sequel be “How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book about How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book”?)

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mojo.rhythm October 22, 2010 at 6:47 am

Barack Obama seems to be to be a freethinking theist whom believes in belief. I actually would not be surprised if he came out of the closet as some sort of Deist.

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Ralph October 22, 2010 at 6:48 am

I don’t care if he is. He is not much of a credit to atheism even if he was. I see him as a weak and ineffective leader. A great campaigner, yes but a leader? Criticisms about him in the primaries were spot on – he’s an empty suit.

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lukeprog October 22, 2010 at 6:53 am

mojo.rhythm,

That’s possible.

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Reginald Selkirk October 22, 2010 at 6:58 am

Is Obama a secret worshipper of Aqua Buddha? Inquiring minds want to know.

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Mark October 22, 2010 at 7:16 am

We can only hope that within my lifetime we will have an atheist president. We don’t need anyone in the White House who thinks the book of revelations is a policy manual.

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Noophy October 22, 2010 at 7:34 am

I’m, you guys ever seen Talking to Americans, it was a segmant on a show up in Canada a few years back. I think the Aussies might have ripped it off. Anyhoo, the end of this clip has Mike Huckabee. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OEqR71y_BQ

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Hermes October 22, 2010 at 9:04 am

Noophy: So Canada wants to be part of North America? I say no! Next thing you know, Mexico will want to join in and it’s NAFTA all over again! I say if they want their own continent, they should buy it like everyone else! Damn reds!

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lukeprog October 22, 2010 at 9:11 am

Hermes, you crack me up.

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RA October 22, 2010 at 9:30 am

From what I understand, Obama was a “skeptic” which typically means agnostic/atheist. I’ve always suspected that he was more agnostic than Christian but probably went to church for the social benefits or to satisfy his wife. I think the idea that he has a belief in belief is probably spot on. As a man with political aspirations, he knew he was going to need to be Christian and be involved in the black church.

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Chris October 22, 2010 at 9:40 am

I’d say Obama is a typical liberal Christian: a thoughtful, skeptical, science-friendly guy who embraces doubt, leans toward universalism, but ultimately believes in Jesus (as supreme ethical teacher and maybe even Son of God) and the God of the philosophers (not YHWH) for existential meaning and mystery. I can imagine some of the things he says about God and Jesus coming out of the mouths of some of the liberal Christians Luke has interviewed. Wes Morriston, for example.

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Chris October 22, 2010 at 9:45 am

Actually, this would be a interesting topic for a CPBD interview with a liberal Christian with views like Obama’s.

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe October 22, 2010 at 10:12 am

Funny that video, where they asked some guy to point out Iran on the map, and he choose Australia, which has Iran written on it. Fuckin’ ridiculous!

But I suspect that they selected the dumbest respondents. A disclaimer would not have hurt.

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lukeprog October 22, 2010 at 10:26 am

I remember a study asking what people around the world thought of Americans, and they mostly said “fat” and “stupid”. Which has some statistical support, last time I checked.

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Chris Hallquist October 22, 2010 at 11:30 am

Everyone else has basically beaten me to this point, but here’s our old friend David Hume: “The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.”

Honestly, I think it’s pretty common for people to halfway believe whatever is convenient for them to believe, so the fact that Obama’s embrace of Christianity is convenient isn’t reason to doubt that he (halfway) believes it.

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Mo October 22, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Does John T. Reed have factual information to support this narrative?

My two cents: I have no opinion on Obama’s faith. Although, if he is actually an atheist, I think lying to the public about it shows a lack of integrity. But personal matters like that, which I think would mostly include religious views and sexual orientation, shouldn’t be a matter of importance to begin with, so as long as the lies a presidential candidate, whoever it is, might commit, I don’t see it as a problem or that it might compromise his presidential competence…. although I might think he’s less trustworthy, but what politician isn’t?

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Steven October 22, 2010 at 5:01 pm

As a rule of thumb, most people really do believe in God, and when they say it, they mean it. I find it hard to believe that Obama could be an Atheist yet seem to be somewhat eager to perpetuate at least some style of a “Christian family”. It could be politics as usual, but this would also mean having his wife get in the game. It just seems improbable. Like most people, I think Obama realizes (to some extent or another) that being a “real” Christian is near-impossible and irrational, but chooses to think that there is some inherent value in believing in God.

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mojo.rhythm October 22, 2010 at 9:15 pm

On the topic of politicians and religion, let’s all help this guy get into Congress..

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Hermes October 22, 2010 at 9:52 pm
Michael October 22, 2010 at 10:35 pm

I think Obama is a Liberation Theology Christian. That’s the Jeremiah Wright scam and it would be rather attractive to a young community organizer, a blend of a convenient religion and his ideology.

His wife Michelle is a decent indicator of Barry’s religious views… She recently said on the Tom Joyner Show ” “It means all the world to us to know that there are prayer circles out there and people who are keeping the spirits clean around us.”

Nice to know that the occupants of the White House are just average Americans!

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Mike October 23, 2010 at 9:21 pm

I don’t care what he is. I think he’s a terrible president. And no, I’m not a republican and no, I’m not a Christian.

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Hermes October 23, 2010 at 10:26 pm

Mike, in a long line of terrible presidents he is by comparison a gift.

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Michael October 24, 2010 at 8:05 am

Yeah, a gift that keeps on giving.

Maybe he will turn it around in the 2 years he has remaining. We’ll see. Both Clinton and Reagan started off rough and turned out exceptional.

Reagan clamped down on stagflation with an expansionary fiscal policy matched by a contractionary monetary policy, which deepened a recession, but broke inflation and ushered-in the longest peacetime expansion in American economic history, creating 3 million jobs a year over the last 5 years of his presidency. Oh yeah and flipped Carter’s anomie and gloom with “Morning in America”, ended the Cold War by breaking the other global superpower, the Soviet Union, and ushering in American Global Hegemony. I am no fan of the State, but…. damn that’s a Wittgenstein/Quine/Russell of Presidents.

Clinton rebranded Democrats as moderates and centrists after decades of screaming left craziness but his first 2 years were sideways-drifting messes dominated by scandals and missteps. After huge midterm losses in 1994 and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” crowd of Republicans came to Washington, the Federal Government grind to a halt. The “Shutdown Showdown” got Clinton famously camping-out in the oval office while budget was being thrashed-out. We know in hindsight he was doing Monica Lewinsky instead of negotiating, but gotta let Bubba Be Bubba. The federal government recovered but remained the functional equivalent of a giant paperweight. The last 4 years of the Clinton Presidency saw the ascendancy of Silicon Valley, the youth of the Internetz, and the flourishing of American Capitalism around the globe. There were actual entire years where the federal deficit was an actual surplus. I think of Bill Clinton as everything a Democratic President could become if they got really lucky.

Barack Obama as a “gift” among terrible Presidents? Were you on the Nobel Peace-Prize Committee or something? I am not saying he can’t turn out competitive with Clinton or even Reagan, but right now, he is in the company of Carter and Ford. So far, Obama is looking like a 1-term wonder.

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Hermes October 24, 2010 at 10:54 am

So, we’re in agreement on Bush II and possibly Bush I?

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Michael October 24, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Yes, I think we are.

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