As well as the voting intention poll for the Indy, ComRes have also published a poll they have conducted for Theos. As with every other UK poll on the US election, it shows British people would overwhelmingly back Barack Obama rather than John McCain were they to have a vote in the US election. 66% would back Obama, 10% McCain.

More interestingly though ComRes also asked a series of questions asking whether people would be prepared to vote for a leader who was black, muslim, gay or from another minority group. The question drew its inspiration from a similar poll conducted in the USA by Gallup last year, which found amongst other things that 5% of American voters said they wouldn’t vote for a black candidate and a majority (53%) wouldn’t vote for an atheist.

ComRes’s poll in the UK found that 5% of British voters said they would not vote for a black leader. For all the concern that American voters are somehow more racist and more likely not to vote for a black candidate, the proportion of people ready to admit that they wouldn’t vote for a black candidate is the same in this country (though naturally, we cannot tell how many other people share those views but were unwilling to admit them to a phone interviewer).

This shouldn’t be a huge surprise as analysis of electoral data shows a racial effect in how people vote. Roger Mortimore of MORI crunched the figures for the 2001 election and found Labour did 2.5% worse than average in seats where a ethnic minority candidate had replaced a white one, and 6.1% better in seats where a white candidate had replaced one from an ethnic minority.

I can’t track down a proper study, but most people with experience of local government elections will be able to reel off anecdotal examples of where there would appear to have been a racial bias in people voting in multi-member wards (see, for example, the two split wards in Bexley in 2006 – Belvedere and Erith here).

In the UK the factor that drew the most opposition was age. 43% of people said they would not vote for an otherwise acceptable candidate for leader who was 72 years of age, almost the same as in the USA where 42% said they would not vote for a 72 year old President. It is potentially possible, of course, that this is partially a reflection that people are more willing to admit discriminating in terms of age than on sexuality or religion. After that came being either gay or lesbian, or being a Muslim – in both cases 23% of people (presumably not the same ones!) said they would not vote for an otherwise qualified candidate in those circumstances. The Gallup survey did not ask about whether people would vote for a Muslim President, but did ask about a homosexual candidate and found 43% of Americans would refuse to vote for them.

Most other groups met with comparatively little opposition. Only 7% of British voters would not vote for a divorcee. (In the US survey, which clearly had Rudy Guiliani in mind, 30% said they would not vote for a thrice-married Presidential candidate). 7% of voters said they would not vote for a female leader – interestingly this was evenly split between men and women. 7% of people said they would not vote for a Christian leader – a question that would perhaps have been more interesting if ComRes has asked about committed or evangelical Christianity to see if there was any truth in Alistair Campbell’s famous “we don’t do God”.

In the US survey, the most electoral objectionable group was atheists, with 53% of Americans saying they would not vote for an otherwise well-qualified Presidential candidate who was an atheist. One would expect that figure to be much lower in the UK, but actually it is still surprisingly high at 20%. One might not have guessed it, but not believing in God would appear to be almost as much of an electoral handicap for a potential leader in the UK as being Muslim or gay.

39 Responses to “Would you vote for an atheist”

  1. This blog brought back bitter memories. I worked as a scientist in the US for most of my life, and am therefore a natural atheist. The level of violence against atheists in the US is incredible. During 4 years in Texas the Christians twice tried to beat me up (though I was able to run away both times). Our office in Austin was repeatedly fire-bombed and shot up (the police department refused to respond). Our bookstore in Denver CO had to be closed a week after it opened due to gunshot attacks (incidentally, we have to have our own bookshop because no mainstream store dares to carry our material). We were finally closed down by a judge’s demand for a $!m bond in a frivolous libel case. Several Southern states prohibit atheists from running for any public office. These articles in the respective constitutions were voided by the Supreme Court in the 80s but are still in effect (like other banned practices such as school prayer and the teaching of creationism).

    I no longer live in the States, so why bother? The English Christians who accept and tolerate these actions by fellow-Christians nauseate me. If there are any decent Christians out there who reject this persecution, they can prove it by writing to protest to the US Embassy politics website at

  2. A really good article here – what an interesting poll! I’m not associated with any form of religion, but I find it refreshing that 20% would not vote for an atheist. I’ve always felt that having Christian values positively and visually (i.e. the powers at be being Christian) maintained within the country.

    Interesting indeed that the UK has the same tendency towards a black leader – not wholly unexpected, I suppose, but through news coverage you would have expected the US to be worse.

  3. The USA anti-atheist result is hardly surprising when you consider how many don’t believe in evolution in the USA. There is a stereotype of the USA voter as being red-necked, anti-abortion, literal believer in the bible etc.. One has to remember though that the majority of Americans voted against Bush in his first election for President.

    On a personal level I believe religion (or no-religion) is a personal issue and anyone who made any mention of it as a candidate would automatically make me put them as last possible person to vote for. Why? Not least Blair and Bush are both devout in their religion…

  4. I’m surprised by the 20 per cent of people who would not vote for an atheist. It would be interesting to know the crossover levels between the anti-gays and anti-Muslims with the anti-atheists, ie are these basically the same (no doubt Tory) people? The Christian message is a peaceful one and I know most Christains are decent. However the wilful surrendering of rationality/reason could explain why they would be prejudiced against gays or Muslims if they are, in fact, the same people.

  5. It would be a surprise given the adulation towards Obama on the BBC that anyone in England would vote for McCain.

  6. Personally I am quite disinclined to vote for anyone who is overtly religious, even more so if they use it to justify things. People who regularly accept things on blind faith, especially when they have no way of knowing if they are wrong, kind of worry me.

  7. Well who cares what the next man or woman gets up to in bed, what colour their skin is or whether they believe in a God or not – well 20% or so on average do seem to care according to this poll – We live in a world where 1 in 5 are bigots then!!!! No surprise there then!!!

    How lacking in intellect for anyone in this day and age to think that any of the above issues would prevent someone being a good President/PM!!! For those that accept a candidate would probably make the best President/PM but would not vote for them because of one of the above reasons, this is the height of ignorance and bigotry!!!

    I too would be surprised if many people voted for McCain but for the reason that the Republicans capitalist policies over the last few years have, economically, brought the world to it’s knees in my opinion and not for the fact of any TV coverage!!!

  8. Well said Alasdair Cameron!!!!!

  9. Richard, it’s not necessarily irrational to take a candidate’s beliefs into account, when casting one’s vote. I’d have no qualms voting for an atheist who had no animus against religion. But I certainly would have great difficulty voting for an atheist who was anti-religion, and wanted, say, to abolish faith schools. In practice, it’s unlikely to be a problem for me, as the latter is almost certainly going to be a left-winger.

    And, in fairness, if you’re a hard line secularist, it’s perfectly rational to be part of the 7% who’d vote against a Christian candidate.

    Mike Harris, forgive me, but are you really sure you were subject to such persecution on the ground of your lack of religious belief in the US?

  10. Sean, Well the first part of your submission I agree with entirely,I too would have no qualms voting for anyone whatever their beliefs or non beliefs regarding anything that cannot be proven, although I didn’t say anyone was irrational, just bigoted.

    I must say however, I do know quite a few ‘right wingers’ who would not be opposed to abolishing faith schools in the UK (other than their own faith of course) and your assumption that left wingers would be more inclined to be anti religion I don’t think carries merit at all. In my opinion there is no room for anyone to be hard line about something that no one has proof of, we should live and let live and respect each others opinions without adopting a bigoted viewpoint!

    On the subject of Mike H’s contribution, persecution by bigoted minorities in America has always been commonplace so far as I’m aware and his description of his own experience is totally believeable to anyone who has experienced bigotry at work in the USA!!! I suppose the same could be said of most places in the World however if you happen to be in the wrong place!

  11. 20% sounds about right to me–anecdotally, I’m aware that a number of Lib Dem local parties had membership resignations after Clegg confirmed he’s an atheist, apparently even some ‘liberals’ can’t tolerate the idea of a non-believer in high office :-(

  12. Christianity preaches the KING DOMination of God, not democracy. Need I really say anymore?!

  13. I do’t recall the fact that Kinnock was an atheist being a factor.

    If Blair was an atheist he’d still have had a landslide. That could not happen in the USA.

  14. “your assumption that left wingers would be more inclined to be anti religion I don’t think carries merit at all.”

    Actually, any survey that contains both voting intention and questions on religious belief will show that Conservatives are the most likely to believe in God, and Lib Dems the least likely. That’s partly demographic (the middle classes and older people are both more likely than average to be religious believers, and Conservative voters) but also Conservatives are generally more comfortable with religious belief than people on the Left of the spectrum.

    Consider the patrons of the British Humanist Association for example. Their President is Polly Toynbee, and their patrons are overwhelmingly on the Left.

  15. ” although I didn’t say anyone was irrational, just bigoted. ”

    Refusing to employ someone because of their beliefs would usually be bigoted, but in the case of voting for someone, their beliefs are directly relevant to how they’ll act in office, so if you don’t share those beliefs, I don’t think you’re a bigot in voting against them.

  16. I’d happily vote for a gay atheist or Muslim if I thought they were the right person for the Job. I hope Obama wins not because he’s black but because I think he’ll be better than McCain.

    I have no issue with a female president if they are the right person, so although I preferred Obama to Clinton, I’d have been okay with Hillary for president. I wouldn’t want Palin because I think she would be a poor president.

    However as we have a representative democracy people should be free to make there own judgements on the candidates and sadly some people put emphasis on different things.

    I admit that I am openly “brainist” in that I pretty much think that you shouldn’t vote for morons. I’d also even if it wasn’t their fault have doubts about voting for someone who I thought didn’t have the education to understand what their advisors were telling them.

    Common sense only takes you so far and although I would never set a education bar I think it has to be a consideration when you are making your decision. Mind you I’d rather have an honest politician with three ‘O’ levels than a crock with three degrees.

    In short it’s right that we way up and consider candidates careful and that people are free to do so. That other people weigh the issues differently is just part of life.

    As I stated I wouldn’t have an issue voting for a Muslim, but rightly or wrongly I suspect a percentage of women might be uneasy if they had negative views of Islam’s treatment of women. You may not agree with them but they should be free to vote as they wish.


  17. The issue of race is probably the most interesting. Why is it racist for 5% of whites not to vote for a white candidate when an estimated 93% of non-white Americans including many first time voters appear to be willing to vote for Obama mainly because of ethnicity.
    We must move away from the wholly unrealistic view that only white people can be racist, only men are ever sexist and only heterosexuals are capable of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The fact that the young and middle aged are unwilling according to your poll to vote for an able minded and able bodied 72 year old proves my point!

  18. In fairness Philip, 93% of black Americans would vote Democrat whether the candidate was black or white.

  19. Does it matter who candidates are and what their background is? Do we ever actually discover their whole life stories before we choose?

    I’m pretty certain that a better source of information would be the candidates themselves – ask them what pieces of information about themselves they feel most sensitive about and what details are the biggest potential vote losers and I think you’ll get more reliable answers (anonymity would be required).

    The C&N by-election saw a media reaction against Labour’s losing ‘tory toff’ campaign tactic, but while this could be adjudged counterproductive and aggravating to the MOR PC floating voters I’m pretty certain this played well to the core of Labour’s vote (there were a number of party insiders who defended it on exactly those grounds at the time). As a result negative campaigning can been seen as a complementary part of a defensive electoral strategy.

    But is this to the benefit of our political system?

    Is it that some prejudices (class, age etc) are more politically acceptable and others not, is it ok to play dirty if you end up losing, or is it that candidates’ personal prejudices form part of the political conundrum too?

    All-in-all the results of this poll amount to further evidence repeating the standard criticisms of two-party politics and FPTP voting formats – that there is a structural bias and this has consequences over the long-term, namely that campaigning under such systems tends towards encouraging negative voting patterns and cumulatively this has policy implications where the fragile relationship between the state and the individual will become unbalanced.

    When the actual debate over the outcome gets swamped by systematic biases then we should worry that the state is drifting into totalitarianism and our democratic decision-making processes are being subverted by public conformity.

    So, I think it is perfectly fair to say that you won’t vote for someone because you haven’t been convinced they can adequately represent your concerns, but it is potentially damaging for polling companies to encourage unreasoned responses in the way ComRes have done so here.

  20. Sean,
    that is either a stunningly partisan comment or you are employing some form of twisted sarcasm.

  21. I was an MP for 18 years and an atheist. No constituent ever asked me what my religion was. I went to Civic Services and Church/Chapel Funerals as part of what I saw as being my civic (or personal) duty. On the other hand I attended meetings of the Humanist Society in Parliament. I neither hid nor pushed my atheism. I was fully involved in the politics of Northern Ireland, but no-one even raised religion with me – not even to ask if I was a Catholic Atheist or a Protestant Atheist. It is possible to oppose faith schools without taking an anti-religious line. Politicians (and others) who beat the religious or anti-religious drum worry me. They should neither do God nor Anti-God. There are plenty of other things to get on with.

  22. “Sean,
    that is either a stunningly partisan comment or you are employing some form of twisted sarcasm.”

    It’s a comment on the voting preferences of black Americans. They’ve voted 90%+ Democrat for decades.

  23. As I have said in previous postings on here about the US election – no matter how far ahead Obama is in the POLLS – the true feelings of Americans will appear in one week when Obama loses state after state that he thinks he’s going to win – even though the alternative is a rheumatoid pensioner – the difference is the pensioner is white.

    No matter what the result of the same POLL in the UK – the British too would be reluctant to vote for a non white candidate.

    If there was’nt the anti human rights / freedom of speech legislation brought in by Labour many years ago to stop people giving their real views on subjects like race – you would get a much truer picture of grass roots feelings in the UK.

    As for Atheists or gays doing worse in the UK – not relevant here so much as the British are liberal minded – as long the candidate is white. The USA is a different kettle of fish because they are dominated by Christian fundamentalists who have a lot of political sway.

  24. A candidate’s religious beliefs should be her or his own business.

    Where problems arise is where religion is used by foreign leaders or organizations to interfere, or attempt to interfere, in the internal politics of the United Kingdom (or any other country). There is a very long history of this – for instance it is what Guy Fawkes night is really about, which is not anti-Catholicism per se. Such undemocratic influence is unacceptable in a democracy whatever religion the interference comes from, Christianity, Islam or whatever.

    An atheist is less likely to have undesirable/unacceptable overseas affiliations these days than a religious politician – although of course this was very different in the days of Communism and the Cold War. Therefore I suspect that many liberal (in the theological sense) Christians, and so far as I know Muslims, would actually rather vote for an atheist than a fundamentalist.

    The situation Harry Barnes describes in his most interesting contribution is how things should be. But I have a nasty feeling that there are more politicians and voters about these days who would worry Harry than in the past or than there ought to be.

    Religious totalitarians are prepared to play a very long game, as I appreciate given that some of my ancestors were persecuted as Huguenots. Believers in tolerance and democracy, whether they are atheists or believers in the existence of God, must be equally vigilant to ensure that they never let human rights slip.

  25. I don’t think it’s bigoted to consider someone’s religious beliefs in just the same way that we’d consider their non-religious beliefs. I would not knowingly vote for anyone who held strong religious beliefs because those beliefs would surely colour their politics in ways that make me uncomfortable. My nextdoor neighbour on the other hand might find those same beliefs a plus. Either way, we should know about them and we have every right to take them into consideration when we decide who to vote for.

  26. “No matter what the result of the same POLL in the UK – the British too would be reluctant to vote for a non white candidate”

    Plainly they do vote for non-white candidates, though. Think how many votes James Cleverley got in Bexley and Bromley, for example, in the London Assembly.

    An even more striking example of voting across racial lines was in Bethnal Green in 2005. White polling districts were going overwhelmingly for Oona King; Bangladeshi polling districts for George Galloway.

  27. chrisW, “It would be interesting to know the crossover levels between the anti-gays and anti-Muslims with the anti-atheists, ie are these basically the same (no doubt Tory) people?”

    I live in Essex, a half or more of my aquaintances are generally Tory voters including myself. They include an afro-carribean christian, two gay men, one lesbian, an elderly muslim man, a few white christians, and plenty of assorted athiests.

    I believe in the free market and small government but, I absolutely assure you, could not give a toss what creed or colour you are to share time with you given you have a personality compatible with mine.

    It is a measurable fact that the vast majority of BNP voters at elections are ‘dissafected’ Labour voters NOT Tories.

    It is perhaps YOU who portrays the signs of the small minded bigot not the random ‘Tories’ you seek to smear.

  28. Hi ‘Ivan the Terrible’. I obviously hit a nerve there! I’ve no doubt the vast majority of Christians and Conservative Party voters are thoroughly decent people, and I’m sure you are too. I think someone else here points out that it is a fact that Conservatives are the most likely to believe in God.
    My main interest was in finding out whether the people who wouldn’t vote for a Gay or a Muslim were largely the same people who wouldn’t vote for an atheist. Maybe the fact that belief in God involves a move from rationality to faith would be an exlanation for that preference? ie it is irrational not to vote for a qualified Muslim…but a committed believer already believes in something irrational. I’d still bet that this voting constituency, if it exists, would most likely be Tories.

  29. I know the Bexleyheath/Erith area very well but I fail to understand how the local election voting figures indicate any racial bias. It is not easy to tell from names only but there did not seem to be any large number of candidates from the black and Asian communities who were rejected. Nor do any of those areas seem to have any very large black voter component.
    It is true that some of the Bexleyheath wards tend to be more working class whilst others are quite affluent but that is repeated in any areas of the country even those which are mainly homogenously white.
    I do not seek to deny racial, gender or religious bias in voting please understand – I would be surprised if it did not exist and in almost every country in the world.

  30. Victor – look within the party slates. In Belvedere the Conservative put up three candidates, two with British sounding names and one with an Asian sounding name. The first two recieved 200 or so more votes and were elected, the latter wasn’t.

    In Erith Labour put up two candidates with British sounding names, and one with an Asian sounding name. The first two were elected, the latter got 100 less votes and wasn’t. Of the Conservative slate in the same seat, the Asian candidate received 200 votes less than her running rates.

    I can think of two examples in my own borough council at the last election, and similar examples are very, very common. Unfortunately I’ve not aware of a comprehensive study of it, so it’s only anecdotal evidence. I’d be surprised if someone hadn’t collated all the figures to study it properly, but I couldn’t track one down.

  31. It is a sad fact that prejudiced people tend to pick some particular feature to focus on. So if they focus on one aspect of the person they are discriminating against they ignore others. So religious discrimination against Muslims may lessen racial discrimination against “blacks”, for instance.

    Prejudiced people often go through bizarre mental contortions to deny that the category of people they are discriminating against includes friends and relatives. In an extreme case, a number of leading German Nazis had Jewish connections (they could get exemptions until shortly before the Second World War).

    I make these points because I think they are relevant to the observations posted by Ivan the terrible and ChrisW about contemporary British politics.

    Some months ago, I got into a tangle commenting on this site for Scottish Highlands seats. Local psephologists were very offended at the possibility that historical family allegiances could affect voting habits (not least because they are rightly concerned to ensure that Catholic/Protestant conflict in the Highlands is confined to past history). But if you deny the advantage of a Scottish family background in the Highlands you have to explain otherwise the huge personal vote in Caithness and Sutherland.

    As the question of local family names in the Highlands goes back many years, and many candidates there have had names with local connections and implications, it might be easier for a psephologist to study name prejudice in relation to Highlands results than prejudice relating to (apparently) immigrant names. But the researcher might not be thanked for the results. Indeed, for this reason I would actually be surprised if any researcher has collated the figures Anthony suggests. The major parties, in particular, would be very embarrassed if they had actual evidence, as opposed to supressed suspicions, that if they get a consitutency to select a minority community MP they are harming prospects in that seat.

    It’s like psychologists, many of whom do everything they can to avoid investigating racial or gentic differences in data obtained using psychometric tests.

    The best way to combat prejudice is to ensure that candidates are well-known throughout their constituencies or wards, so that people think of them as individuals.

  32. Is YouGov about to publish some voting intention figures for the Daily Telegraph?

  33. Frederic Stansfield,

    “It’s like psychologists, many of whom do everything they can to avoid investigating racial or gentic differences in data obtained using psychometric tests.”

    As someone married to a psychologist I feel I need to respond to that one.

    Most psychometeric tests go throuh a large scale validation test often involving thousands of people so that they are balanced to the general population, much like a YouGov poll sample is so that it can reflect the wider group.

    However ethnic groups with there own distinct culture often have a diferent profile to that wider group and so can score poorly when they participate in tests not standardised to people of their own background.

    Psychologists don’t avoid investigating because they think they won’t like the results, they don’t investigate because they doubt the results will be valid.

    It’s much the same as why Anthony cautions about using data from surveys where there is one type of weighting such as age to make assumptions about something else like regional differences.


  34. What’s disturbing about these responses is that I personally think people should judge each candidate (in a particular situation) on their policies and personal merits. To say in advance that you won’t vote for someone because they of some attribute they have or believe in is rather depressing.

  35. Peter Cairns. I have two degrees in psychology myself.

    I know that psychometric tests are extensively validated. I also know there are issues in validating psychometric tests for different ethnic groups, for instance because the language tests are written in may contain cultural assumptions.

    However, I stand by what I wrote. Consider the grief that has been caused to psychologists such as Richard Lynn and Chris Brand (neither of whose positions I agree with) who have published work on race and intelligence. Let me assure you that there are plenty of psychologists and psychology graduates who do not want to get caught up in similar controversy. Me included.

    In addition, whilst I agree that the firms that develop psychometric tests validate them extensively, test producers often seem to avoid giving prominence to the results. Rather than race, consider sex differences, where the difference between the two sub-groups tested is very clear and there are therefore fewer validation problems. Now, men and women on average achieve similar scores overall on tests of ability (if you like, they get similar IQs). But this is because the psychometric instruments are carefully constructed to achieve this outcome by weighting different sub-scales. It is well-known that males score higher on certain types of ability (for the sake of argument, motor skills) and females on others (say verbal ability). That the differences can be large is shown by certain professions, such as professional footballer or nursery nurse, where there is a glaringly obvious imbalance between the abilities of the two sexes to do the job, although of course the occasional individual can always be an exception to the general results found statistically. But there are obvious problems in applying such statistical results for instance when using psychometric tests to select for jobs where there are political pressures to appoint equally. This is perhaps true not least for MPs, although let me hasten to add that it is probably the case than men and women tend to perform the role of MP differently, rather than that the “better” MPs usually come from one sex.

    Interpreting results incompletely to avoid reaching uncomfortable answers is not the same as confusing different variables when interpreting results.

    A short way of putting my reply to Peter is that psychometric tests are highly political in the widest sense, and that psychologists’ use of such instruments adjusts to political imperatives, even if not as many psychologists now highlight the politics of psychology as was the case in the late 1960s.

    Andy JS, most of us agree with you. The problem is that many voters seem to make political choices using disturbing criteria which are irrelevant to the fitness of candidates to perform the elected role. The question is how we can use psephological knowledge towards encouraging people to make their voting decisions on grounds that trest candidates fairly and with respect.

  36. “The problem is that many voters seem to make political choices using disturbing criteria which are irrelevant to the fitness of candidates to perform the elected role.”

    Do they?

    How do you know how many?

    What “disturbing” criteria, and why “irrelevant”?

  37. One example of a disturbing, because irrelevant, criterion which people use is to vote for people whose surnames begin with an earlier letter in the alphabet. I have pointed out this several times on this site. The effect can be seen in many election results. A notorious one was when Robert Atkins beat Ronald Atkins by 29 votes in Preston North in 1979.

    The local election results described by Anthony Wells in an earlier post on this thread are another disturbing example.

  38. There is definite evidence of the alphabet effect – see this paper by Rallings and Thrasher

  39. Yes that seems to be one possible example.

    I’m not convinced that it justifies your assertion that “many voters seem to make political choices using disturbing criteria”