October 12, 2003


How Prayers Poll, Debunking myths about the religious right (Steven Waldman, Slate, 10/10/03)

Many people, especially secular liberals, misunderstand the nature of religion in politics—which is, to be fair, ever shifting. To them, if it's not about Jerry Falwell or Joe Lieberman, it's kind of a blur. So, just in time for another religion-packed election, here is a guide to sorting through some common myths about God and American politics: . . .

Myth 4: In this era, no candidate would lose votes just based on his or her religion. The same Pew study tried to assess which religions carried the most electoral baggage. When they asked people if they would be less likely to vote for someone because of religion, the big losers were not Jews or Catholics. Rather, the groups with the most political baggage were atheists, evangelicals, and Muslims. (Interestingly, many even atheists didn't like the idea of voting for an atheist.) We have become a much more tolerant country, but that doesn't mean we don't hold religious biases.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Focus Groups, Why don't consumers tell the truth about what they want? (Daniel Gross, Slate, 10/10/03)
Here's a paradox: Fifty million Americans have registered for the national Do Not Call list, suggesting they don't want to be bothered by telemarketers and won't buy if they are. Yet telemarketers want to keep calling them. Why? Because the marketers realize that what consumers say they want and what they actually do are not the same: Those who don't want to be called actually buy from telemarketers when they are called. This evidence of consumer untrustworthiness got Moneybox thinking about focus groups. If consumers lie, what good are focus groups?

Evidence suggests focus group participants often lie. "The correlation between stated intent and actual behavior is usually low and negative," writes Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman in his influential book How Customers Think. After all, he notes, 80 percent of new products or services fail within six months when they've been vetted through focus groups. Hollywood films and TV pilots—virtually all of which are screened by focus groups—routinely fail in the marketplace.

That people lie to pollsters as well as in focus groups, and will lie in particular about new products, will be obvious to anyone who has ever seen a poll suggesting that people will pay more for a product that serves some larger societal end. People don't pay more for "green" energy or to patronize local mom and pop's. People will even lie about New Coke. And people will certainly lie about whether Joe Lieberman's religion would be a factor in deciding whether to vote for him for President.

But why would atheists rather not, all other things equal, vote for an atheist?

Posted by David Cohen at October 12, 2003 10:29 PM

Since uyou've teed it up, I'll swing: The atheist believes that his own opinions are superior to everyone elses and that his actions need not be justified to anyone but himself. Who would cede power over himself to such a person?

Posted by: oj at October 12, 2003 11:42 PM

Might another explanation (one not quite so condemning of atheists) not be that many decent "soft" atheists personally believe in and practice civility, morality, social restraint etc. and want these values reflected in their politicians, but they are dimly aware that the source of these virtues is not atheism?

Posted by: Peter B at October 13, 2003 5:32 AM

Sure, there are compelling reasons why
Catholics should vote for Catholics, Lutherans for Lutherans, Baptists for Baptists, Methodists for Methodists, Jews for Jews, Episcopalians for Episcoplians, Buddhists for Buddhists, Hindus for Hindus, Moslems for Moslems, and Atheists for Atheists, etc.

But there are more compelling reasons not to do so necessarily. Unless the US becomes a country where one's religious beliefs (or lack, thereof) are no longer one's own business and become the main criteria for choosing candidates.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 13, 2003 5:42 AM

I would vote for a religious Bush over a hypothetically atheist Dean. Or a hypothetically atheist Bush over a religious Dean.

Candidate's religion? WHOGAD (Who gives a darn).

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 13, 2003 7:44 AM

I'm fairly skeptical of polls showing that only atheists, evangelists and Muslims would lose votes because of their religions. This strikes me as a good example of telling the pollsters what they want to hear -- or, at least, not telling them something that would make them think less of the polled.

On the other hand, for someone who has identified himself as an atheist to suggest that he wouldn't vote for an atheist, all other things equal, strikes me as reliable. This could just be the power of the archetype. Presidents have been religious, so we imagine presidents should be religious. But it might also say something about religion as a signifier.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 13, 2003 7:55 AM

There's a fallacy in the telemarketer article. Asking to be placed on a do-not-call registry even though you buy when telemarketers contact you does not mean that you lied. Asking to be placed on the DNC list does not mean you do not buy when called . It simply means you do not want to be called. Rational people might understand that the purchases they make when called by telemarketers are poor decisions, even though they lack the will to avoid the same mistakes in the future. So they want the government to protect themselves from their own lack of self-control. That isn't necessarily an ideal consumer or citizen, but it also isn't a consumer who lies.

I'm sure some people lie in focus groups and polls, but the DNC registry "paradox" is not evidence of this.

Posted by: MG2 at October 13, 2003 8:27 AM

I'm with Jeff - I wouldn't vote for just anyone (Carter, for example) on the basis of ostensible faith. Grit is a more important virtue - would you rather be governed by Rooster Cogburn or John Paul II?

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 13, 2003 9:22 AM

If those are my two choices, John Paul II.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 13, 2003 9:59 AM

MG2 - Quite right - An alcoholic may well ask not to be offered alcohol. The desire to be relieved of temptation and the will to resist temptation are not necessarily correlated - they may be anti-correlated.

Posted by: pj at October 13, 2003 2:07 PM

What Barry said.

I'm pretty sure no known atheist has ever run for office anywhere I've been registered to vote.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 13, 2003 5:39 PM

I've never known one too, either.

My guess is that areligionists are too iconoclastic to succeed at politics.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 13, 2003 9:07 PM

Polls and focus groups often provide artificial limits of choice. Consider jim hamlen's question: Would you prefer to be ruled by Rooster Cogburn, or Pope John Paul II ? One may have a preference, within that paradigm, but still chose neither, in the real world.

Thus, one may indicate that some parts of a new movie are better than others, without ever indicating that you'd never watch it, even if they fixed it up a bit.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 14, 2003 4:35 AM

I take it back. I did know an atheist who ran for public office.

His name was John Wells, and his bumper sticker read "A vote for John Wells is a vote for the devil." His platform was that he was the only sane candidate in the race, and he had two discharges from Air Force mental hospitals to prove it.

He slit his wrists more than 30 years ago. I'd forgotten him.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 14, 2003 8:07 PM

The article doesn't say what percentage of atheists wouldn't vote for athiests, I'm sure it is a minority. One explanation is that many atheists are closeted, and an atheist politician would be lighning rod for negative attention that could make life miserable for all atheists.

I wouldn't vote for an atheist because he was an atheist, I would vote for him only if he were the best candidate.

So much for the last acceptable prejudice being anti-christianity.

Posted by: Robert D at October 14, 2003 11:11 PM

I heard something today about a Zogby poll on international religious attitudes. I sort of expected Orrin to have a link and comment.

Sorry, I don't even know what I was listening to when I heard it. I was fooling with the dog, who is 14 years old, deaf and blind, and only half heard the report.

My ears did prick up at a comment that, except for Israel and India, respondents attributed violence to political, not religious, motives.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 16, 2003 7:43 PM