Mohan's recent post on looming theocracy in America made me think more about why Americans would not want an atheist as president, or indeed in any other important political position. Research by Azim Shariff, for instance Gervais, Shariff and Norenzayan (2011) indicates that prejudice against atheists is widespread, and primarily fueled by a distrust in atheists. Remarkably, this research was carried out in Canada, with undergraduates from the University of British Columbia, not a particularly religiously zealous population. Nevertheless, the research indicates a pervasive distrust of atheists. Just to give a flavor of this, one experiment let people read a story about a 31-year-old man, Richard, who does some morally questionable stuff. "Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away. Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can." Students were then asked whether they thought it was more probable that Richard was a teacher or that Richard was a teacher AND xxx. Where xxx was - between subjects - "Christian", "Muslim", "Rapist", or "Atheist". Remarkably (stunningly!) students thought it more likely that Richard was a teacher AND atheist or a rapist than they thought he was a teacher AND a Muslim or Christian. They committed the conjunction fallacy least with Christians, a bit more with Muslims, and most with rapists and atheists. The difference between atheist and rapist was not statistically significant….
A plausible hypothesis is the cultural role of religion as social glue, as a form of internal policing that keeps people in tow. Without an organized police force, the belief that acting badly could result in this- or other-worldly punishment may have been a good incentive. This traditional role of religion might linger on today, explaining prejudice against atheists. There is also a wide scriptural basis for equating unbelievers with bad people (and as far as I know, Americans are avid bible readers). Psalm 14:1 "The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.", Rom 1:21-22 "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools". Note that "fool" meant also "morally deficient". To make matters worse, many American churches are exclusivist - salvation only through Christ. That, of course, doesn't explain why even atheists are subject to anti-atheist prejudice, or why Muslims are perceived as more trustworthy than atheists.