Saturday, 23 January 2010

'Do You Believe in Dog?' or 'Scabies, Rabies and Babies'

When I was about three years old, my mother was one day alarmed to see that our dog was foaming at the mouth. A prompt investigation revealed several pertinent facts:
  • It wasn’t rabies
  • I had been cleaning the dog’s teeth, which accounted for the foam
  • The dog did have a toothbrush – it was ‘this one’
  • ‘This one’ was also my Mum’s toothbrush
  • I had been doing this regularly
I’d like to convey the fear and hysteria which surrounded that incident and the scars it left of my half-formed psyche – it would explain a lot of personality defects for which I don’t care to take responsibility.

But I can’t. My mother was a sensible woman who, while not delighted, also knew she wasn’t going to die of Parvo that afternoon. As soon as she was able to stand again, we went shopping for a new toothbrush and she explained to the three year old me that we had other arrangements for the dog. That was the end of it.

Some people seem to have a vague sense of contagion about animals, and about dogs in particular. If you ask them why, they always cite the old ‘snuffling their own gonads in mixed company’ issue, but to be fair to dogs, I know a lot of men who would do the same (albeit in private) if they could reach.

Some also cite canine furniture frottering: this unselfconsciously exuberant affection with upholstery can precipitate the Vapours among even the borderline bourgeois, and an emergency trip to the dry-cleaners among those who have run out of their Xanax. However, it’s hardly an insurmountable difficulty. Just asking the dog to stop usually works unless it’s a very badly trained dog, or a very attractive sofa (in which case, the sofa’s obviously been asking for it).

“He’s just helping Mammy polish the furniture”, as Dave Allen so wisely had it.

This sense of contagion has been formalised in some religious traditions too.

Leviticus 11:27 says:
“And whatsoever goeth upon his paws, among all manner of beasts that go on all four, those are unclean to you”.

So while not named as one of the definitely ‘unclean’ animals of Leviticus (like pigs, weasels and snails), the dog probably falls without the boundaries of approbation.

In general, the New and Old Testaments use dogs as an allegory for low status and low morals:

“Outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.”
Revelation 22:15

There are also plenty of Biblical references to people being eaten by dogs after a moral lapse, which implies justice in an ignominious death and suggests there were sizeable, low-status dog populations. And the Talmud entreats people to “Breed not a savage dog”.

Rules against breeding savage dogs seem reasonable enough though.
And, despite Leviticus, many Jewish families have pet dogs.

Where dogs are mentioned in the Koran, it is not in the capacity of a pet, but as a working animal. There is an example of dogs as hunters:

“All good things are lawful to you, as well as that which you have taught the birds and beasts of prey to catch, training them as Allah has taught you”
Koran 5:4

“If the hound catches the game for you, eat of it, for killing the game by the hound, is like its slaughtering”
Hadith – Bukhari 7:384

And the ‘Sleepers of the Cave’ had a guard dog:
“We turned them about to right and left, while their dog lay at the cave’s entrance with legs outstretched”
Koran 18:16

So Islamic tradition has generally extrapolated that pet dogs are haraam – forbidden, but working dogs are OK. For example:

“Whoever keeps a dog, a qiraat from his good deeds will be deducted every day, except a dog for farming or herding livestock”
Hadith – Bukhari 3:515

In another story, the angel Gabriel was supposed to visit Allah’s messenger, but did not come. He explained his absence by:
“ … we (angels) do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture”
Hadith – Bukhari 3:515

It was reported in the Times in July 2008 that guidelines were being drawn up by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) to avoid offence to Muslims with the use of working dogs, such as sniffer dogs, in their mosques and houses. Where it was vital to deploy the dogs, it was suggested that they should wear bootees, previously only used to protect the dogs where there was broken glass.

But I imagine this is something of an over-reaction. By the criteria above, sniffer dogs would probably be regarded as legitmate ‘working dogs’ by most Muslims. Imam Ibrahim Mogra told the Times that:

“In Islamic law the dog is not regarded as impure, only its saliva is. Most Islamic schools of law agree on that. If security measures require to send a dog into a house, then it has to be done. I think ACPO needs to consult better and more widely.”

Dog saliva is mentioned in the Hadith, and not in an hysterical way, but in a context which we’d likely all agree with today:

“If a dog drinks from your vessel, wash it seven times”
Hadith – Muwatta 2:36

So if you count hot water and Fairy Liquid as a modern equivalent of thorough washing …

And the Hadith also has a story of mercy to a dog. A prostitute was forgiven by Allah because she took off her shoe and drew water from a well to save a dog which was just about to die of thirst. (Hadith - Bukhari 4:538).

In fact, it has been proposed by many anthropologists, historians and others that injunctions against certain animals are, in effect, a pre-germ theory, prototypal attempts at a science of hygiene. Again, the Hadith:

“Five kinds of animals are mischief doers … the rat, the scorpion, the kite, the crow and the rabid dog”
Hadith – Bukhari 4:531

Not dogs in general – just rabid ones.

For example, it has been suggested that pigs were trefah/haraam (forbidden whether you are Jewish/Muslim) due to the likelihood of ingesting a pork tapeworm, taenia solium, or roundworm, trichinella spirialis.

There’s definitely the germ (ha!) of a thought there, but this reason alone would not account for why people in some places developed an aversion, while others raised pigs or kept dogs, with no less a likelihood of contagion.

We share diseases with many animals. It’s to be expected, since bacteria and viruses are competing as vigorously as we to thrive. Any ecological niche opened by the new proximity of one species to another is a fab chance for a pathogen to upgrade to better real estate. The pathogen starts by being able to transmit from animal to human, then mutates to the point where it can transmit from human to human, at which point you potentially have a human epidemic.

We do share diseases with dogs and pigs. But we predictably also share them with other animals with which we live closely. Tuberculosis, brucellosis, smallpox and measles originally came courtesy of cattle. Flu originally came courtesy of birds, anthrax from sheep and goats.

(In fact, our pre-agricultural ancestors were remarkably free of epidemic diseases. These have better opportunities when animals are stationary - living near their own sewage - and when animals of different species start to live together.)

Religious and cultural traditions don’t treat all animals the same in this respect. So there’s something else going on.

The anthropologist Marvin Harris proposed a refined version of a similar idea. For him, so much behaviour was to do with the availability and sources of protein in an environment. He points out that:

“The ancient Israelites arrived in Palestine during the early to middle Iron Age, about 12,000 BC, and took possession of the mountainous terrain which had not been previously cultivated. The woodlands in the Judean and Samaritan hills were rapidly cut down and converted to irrigated terraces. Areas suitable for raising pigs on natural forage were severely restricted.”

So an omnivorous animal such as the pig, in the absence of a forest to forage, could do nothing but compete directly with humans with their food. And needing cover from the sun, they were high maintenance to boot.

The economic environment of the ancient Near East favoured the development of ruminants which could eat things that humans can’t – scrub and grass – and turn them into protein for human consumption. If the land didn’t have much wild game, then supporting hunting animals would represent a poor cost/benefit balance. People in the ancient Near East didn’t need to keep hunting dogs in quite the same way that people in, for example, northern Europe did.

An outlying, old Norse colony in Greenland provides some clues about the status of dogs under different economic conditions. In its heyday, the people of this settlement seemed to regard their dogs with a great deal of affection, even burying them after death. So finding dog bones with butchery marks was a sign to archaeologists of an extreme event or era. In fact, these Norse colonies of Greenland died out within a relatively short period in a mini-ice age of the fourteenth century. They ate their dogs, but only as a last resort before they themselves perished.

Like most predators, dogs aren’t good for meat unless you’re really short of meat-bearing animals. The ancient highland Mexicans ultimately domesticated turkeys, ducks and dogs for meat, but this was in the absence of better ruminants.

I’d recommend any of Harris’ books. They’re elegant and readable, and must have been a source of inspiration for the latest incarnation of this train of thought, Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs & Steel’.

So I think that a quick trawl through history shows that dog distain probably isn’t related to them truly being filthier than other animals.

In some cases, dogs have a very positive affect on human health. In one of the most deadly public health miscalculations ever, the Corporation of the City of London in 1665 ordered a general cull of domestic dogs and cats, with the intention of stopping the plague. There must have been a general sense that they were ‘dirty’.

However, the dogs and cats were the chief controllers of the real plague vector – the rat flea. It’s a caution against any intervention, unless you have a really good grasp of the system you’re dealing with.

In any case, it seems our own species is not as generally hygienic as the propaganda and adverts for antibacterial gels would suggest. We’re not all clamouring for soap. A 2007 survey co-sponsored by the Soap and Detergent Association found that about 25% of people don’t wash their hands after going to the loo, potentially exposing themselves and the people for whom they cook to some pretty serious nasties like E. coli and norovirus.

If you really want to expose yourself to an indiscriminate biohazard, a sentient dirty bomb, go visit a toddler. They’ll put their fingers anywhere – then right up your nose.

When you have recovered from the first wave of infestation, they’ll go to playgroup, stick their fingers up other kids’ noses and bring a fresh plague back to you.

Repeat up to eight times yearly for about seven years. Then it gradually tails off ‘til they get to an adult rate of around four colds a year or less.

It’s other humans we have to be careful of. Being members of our own species, they are more likely to harbour bacteria compatible with our bodies - far more compatible with us than those of our dogs. If your dog is wormed regularly and you clean his teeth (not with your mother’s toothbrush, BTW), you should be in no particular danger.

Cultural and religious norms are an intuitive way of understanding the universe, and they’re often far from useless. But there is a danger point when lore passes into law. Unlike other laws, religious ones are rarely amenable to change under the influence of evidence. ‘Unclean’ was a very useful concept two thousand years ago. Now that we have microscopes, we can move on.

With our dogs, of course.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Uganda's Child Sacrifices

On Thursday night, the BBC brought us news of witchcraft and child-sacrifice in Uganda via two media: Radio 4’s ‘Crossing Continents’ and BBC2’s ‘Newsnight’ (19 mins to 33 mins) both carried reports by Tim Whewell.

In northern Uganda in the last year, police reckon there have been around two dozen ritual killings and 120 missing persons. People in the affected area and campaigners believe the numbers may be much higher, reflecting under-reporting to the police. So far, no-one has been prosecuted.

Whewall’s narrative followed the activities of a former child-sacrificing witchdoctor named Polino Angela who has spent the last twenty years attempting to move witchdoctors away from their murderous activities and to Christianity, in which time he claims to have made 2,400 converts.

Angela’s initiation happened in Kenya in what must have been 1968. A thirteen year old boy was slashed open so that he could be doused with his blood: the function of this was to bestow Angela with the commercial advantage of the ability to speak many languages (although English didn’t appear to be one of them).

Under instruction he went home to murder his own son, an action which made him: “… so hardened, I had no mercy for anybody”. During the years of his active career, he reckoned that he had been involved in the ritual demise of around seventy people while under the influence of a demon.

Angela was filmed visiting a witchdoctor named Santerino Okelo, whose shrine was eventually torched with its owner’s consent. Before the conflagration, the crew filmed the contents of the shrine, a tin of blood and a liver (of which provenance, it was impossible to say).

Okelo admitted that his customers captured other people’s children for sacrifice, usually while petitioning the spirits for wealth. The blame for the “ugly things” in which he had been involved was displaced from him, since the transaction was between the spirits and the customers: he was just a medium.

Okelo was bound by fear: fear of the people whose children had been taken, fear of the police if he confessed, but most of all fear of the spirits for abandoning them.

In northern Uganda, Peter Odongo showed us the grave of his three year old son who had been murdered a year ago. A post-mortem revealed that organs including the heart, liver and pancreas were missing from the boy’s corpse. He had also been slashed across the left hand. An eighteen month old girl named Robina had been found a few miles away with a slashed throat, and parents have understandably started taking their children everywhere with them for protection.

Later this year, some alleged witch doctors will be tried using the testimony of surviving victims, such as George Mukisa, whose penis was chopped off. George was found bleeding to death. Prompt action by surgeons saved his life, but his parents understandably despair for his future.

Shafik Kazike was seized in the street but the female witchdoctor to whom he was taken rejected him as an unsuitable sacrifice because he was circumcised. This is consistent with ritual sacrifice in other cultures that I know of: the god must always be given the ‘perfect’, the best. Parents are now circumcising their sons and piercing their daughters’ ears to make them ‘imperfect’.

In response to these deaths, in January 2009, the police set up the ‘Anti-Human Sacrifice and Human Trafficking Taskforce’. Assistant Commissioner Moses Binoga said that 2009’s twenty-six cases with a ritual element, were up from just three in 2007.

But why is there an increase now?

Assistant Commissioner Binoga echoed witchdoctor Santerino Okelo. It is: “ … caused by a desire for people to get wealth“

And Eunice Apio, the Director of FAPAD (Facilitation for Peace & Development) showed Nigerian Horror films to Whewell. It was not clear if the one they were watching were from Helen Ukpabio’s ‘Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries’ execrable back-catalogue, but Apio confirmed:

“These movies …. are actually very popular, and not for the entertainment factor alone. The unemployed who are the majority of the youth … it comes with a message: you let blood … you get an easy route to wealth … people become desperate and they believe anything that is dangled before them”

It has been alleged that there are bodies under many of Kampala’s new buildings. This is a well-known magical practice called ‘foundation sacrifice’, whose intention is either to appease the local spirits into blessing your enterprise, or to bind the spirit of the person who you have killed to do the same job.

The fact is, as Whewell pointed out in his documentaries, Uganda is going through a period of severe social and economic dislocation, with a great deal of wealth to be had … by some. Just like Nigeria, it has an incredibly fractious political past and a hot modern economy which has, so far, not served all equally.

In addition, like Nigeria, it is a varied country by many criteria. There are two languages (Bantu in the south and Nilotic speakers in the north), two religions (Christians of different denominations make up about 84%, Muslims about 12 %).

In the north, the centre of the present concerns about human-sacrifice, the Lord’s Resistance Army has been involved in a long-running civil war with the Ugandan government. Their appalling human rights violations include the forcible recruitment of child soldiers.

Regular visitors will remember that I wrote and post on witch-hunting in Nigeria here.

Although that was witch-hunting (where there was probably no witchcraft) and this is witchcraft, I think that a lot of the observations still stand.

I’d like to restate my position from there, that belief in the supernatural is a necessary but not sufficient factor in large-scale witch-hunts and malign witchcraft. The key factors in social movements like these are religious, social and economic dislocation. It must be hard to see others thrive around you, to be shut out of the party and to be essentially impotent.

Witchcraft is a way of using force to claim your bit. With a worldview where religion, sorcery and science are essentially different parts of the same spectrum, it’s not so unusual.

It’s just that the stakes, potential rewards and therefore motivation have changed.

Even august governmental ministers such as James Buturo, Minister of Ethics & Integrity, declares a belief in spirits that doesn’t sit well on rationalist, secular ears:

“they do (exist) … we accept they do in every society mind you, but we don’t have to listen to them”

When the interviewer asked if it would be more helpful to deny the existence of the spirits, he replied:

“If we were to do that, that would be false because they are there anyway and people are not foolish … it’s as well we speak the truth about these matters … there is no merit that you can attach to these evil spirits, but they are there”

Disavowing the power of the supernatural and its power to the populace of Uganda would probably be a counter-productive intervention, I believe; the supernatural is a self-evident part of many people’s lives. In the short term, working within people’s belief systems will probably be more productive.

So although I found it a delicious irony was that an anti-human sacrifice ceremony was led by man solemnly carrying the logo of the largest human sacrifice cult the world has ever known, a cross, I can’t fault the tactics. Polino Angela seems a sincere Christian, and I think he stands ten times the chance of grafting people from one form of supernatural affiliation to another than trying to convert them immediately to atheism.

Personally, I wouldn’t worry about Minister Buturo’s beliefs. Many western leaders believe things every bit as peculiar out of context. It doesn’t necessarily mean that his campaign against magic will be insincere or ineffective.

One approach to the problem explored by Whewell is to regulate traditional healers so that ‘imposters’ can be filtered out. At an outdoor academy for traditional healing, where students wear T-shirts with slogans like ‘traditional healers: we care’ and ‘stand up for children, reject child sacrifice’, tutor Dr. Yahya Ssekagya, said:

“One can pretend to be a healer and cheat the client … we have had spirits for many millenniums but there hasn’t been child sacrifice … we need to be recognised as a legal entity, then we will filter ourselves out”.

Dr Ssekagya’s qualifications are real – he’s a dentist – but I find his conviction that regulation will take care of the problem quaint at best and potentially dangerous at worst. Those who visit me regularly will know what I think of regulation in cases where the profession is anything other than potentially deadly (proven medicine and auto mechanics being two examples). It usually, IMHO, is a way of promoting the status of a trade, restricting practices, protecting a practising elite and driving fees up. Customer protection comes a few places down the list.

In addition, I think that the profession was/is probably regulated already. Admission and training were likely traditionally restricted by social connections and perhaps ability to pay for tuition. Very few societies had any professions worth a light which weren’t ‘managed’ in some way, or they would have become worthless. Dr Ssekagya’s proposed regulation is probably a more modern, ‘cerficated’ form of restriction with legal backing. Given that he appears to run an academy, I can see his incentive to campaign for his product to be restricted.

His comments suggest that he feels that the power of traditional medicine is real but ethically misdirected by rogue practitioners. When asked the difference between TM practitioners and witchdoctors, he says:

“Witchcraft was a western packaging of African science. A doctor can kill because he knows the medicine that kills but he can also secure life”

In other words, the intention is different but the power is the same.

Whether African traditional medicine provides results above placebo level, I don’t know (it would be hard to believe that generations of practitioners hadn’t left a legacy of surgical and herbal knowledge of some quality). But where there is a clear and strong financial incentive to use your ‘power’ for evil, a club with certificates is hardly likely to provide a compelling counter-force. This is especially true where the deployment of the law is so profoundly subject to irregularities and corruption. As one victim’s mother said in a heart-wrenching combination of plaintive and philosophical:
“I have nothing to do – that is our country”

Besides, there was evidence that witchcraft is already regulated by forces far stronger than a governmental statutory body.

The witchdoctor Santorino Okelo claimed to have seen clients, on average, three times per week and was paid 500,000 Ugandan shillings (£160/$265) each time. This is massive wealth in a country where most of the population live below the poverty line of $2 per day.

However, little of Santorino’s earnings were apparent in his surroundings: the explanation was that he had surrendered most of them to his ‘boss’. “I’m supposed to remain like a servant” he explained.

He was just part of a nationwide network which, it seems, is taxed at highly prejudicial levels by senior management. Asst. Commissioner Moses Binoga thinks that there are five or six witchdoctor protection rackets in the country. And where there are large sums of money and murderous activities, we can reasonably expect the management to be less than benign.

This is probably the single best place to target efforts in the short term – the higher, organised levels of the witch-doctor racket. But it would take a great deal of effort and involve tackling any corruption.

Dr. Ssekagya’s claim that child sacrifice is new should also be subject to some scrutiny.

I can agree that with social changes and the increased aspiration to wealth, the desire for strong magic and human sacrifice may have increased. However, Polino Angela gave up his ‘gruesome work’ twenty years ago and during his active twenty-two year career prior to that he claimed to have killed seventy or so people.

This means that human sacrifice was common enough in the seventies and eighties for one man to have a self-confessed river of blood on his hands, even if his claims are exaggerated. And the practice can hardly have been suddenly invented in 1968, when Angela was initiated.

While we’re on Angela’s figures, they do seem to me to be hyperbolous.

Angela claimed to have assisted in the demise of seventy human victims over twenty years: this is a reasonably modest 3.5 per year for a profession which has three clients a week (to judge by Santerino Okelo’s numbers). He also claims to have converted 2,400 witchdoctors in the last twenty years. That’s an average of 3.5 deaths per witchdoctor per year, and 120 converted witchdoctors per year since 1990.

That’s 8,400 lives saved per annum per practitioner after twenty years, or over the course of the twenty years, well over eighty thousand. Even if Angela’s converts were not as prolific as he, and worked at half the rate, it’s still over forty thousand. In a country of around thirty-two million, those are significant numbers. I’d be interested to see whether Uganda’s missing persons figures are commensurate.

I’m not denying that some Ugandan parents are going through hell right now, but I do think that the whole area could do with some sober statistics. I wonder, in fact, if Angela’s ‘2,400’ are converts to Christianity rather than active child-sacrificing witchdoctors.

Ultimately, it is to be hoped that a meritocracy will grow in Uganda, and that people will feel they can thrive by education and endeavour rather than witchcraft.

In the meantime, although I don’t think direct assault on supernatural world models will help, a sound scientific education, ideally in a secular institution, could be good over the long-term. The 70s and 80s were a bad time for education in Uganda, and the adult literacy rate was measured at 50% in 1990. This means that a huge swathe of the now-middle-aged population may lack the intellectual tools to dismantle a supernaturally-based worldview.

If you got a few quid going spare, I’d direct you to a page on the New Humanist website. The Mustard Seed School is a secular school based on humanist ideas of free inquiry, scepticism and rationalism. One of its mission statements is to:

“... demystify dogmatic and irrational ideologies based on religious fiction, fallacies, witchcraft, superstition”

It’s a start, and a good one.

On Lay Science, where most of my blog posts also appear, Akheloios drew comparisons with the Satanic child abuse scare in the US & UK. He wrote:

"I'd have thought it would be very difficult to hide the evidence of large scale human sacrifice. But I'm certainly not saying that it doesn't happen or even that it hasn't happened to such a scale here. I just feel wary at taking evangelical christian converts claims that their direct opposition is performing large scale human sacrifice at face value without forensic evidence of such a large scale operation."

I replied that:

"I think your point is very well made, and not high enough in the mix of my post now that I reread it. I felt the subject originally seemed worth a post because of the incongruity of the figures which I go through at the end."

Thanks for the comment Akheloios. I hope this addendum addresses the 'high enough in the mix' issue.

Does anybody want a quick round up of why sacrifice even makes sense? Let me know using the email link to your right, and I’ll either write it or get knotted, accordingly.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Bloomberg and the Bible

On January 1st 2010, Michael Bloomberg was sworn in as New York Mayor. This past Democrat and Republican is now incumbent as an Independent after campaigning to change the city’s term-limits law to allow his third term.

In the chilly New York air outside City Hall, the re-elected Mayor raised his right hand to Judge Jonathan Lippman and repeated the oath while his left hand dropped to his side.

The Bloomberg family Bible also dipped out of the proceedings, held by his two daughters ‘til he appeared to remember his omission and briefly touched it. Oops.

It must have been an oversight rather than a subversive gesture. The Bible was surely not intended to be inconspicuous, having had a press release of its very own stating its provenance (it had belonged to his mother and was printed in 1909 by the Canal Street Hebrew Publishing Company).

Mayor Bloomberg is pro-business and the free market. As a very wealthy, self-made man, he has a lot to thank capitalism for. He is also socially liberal, supporting embryonic stem-cell research, gay marriage rights and vigorously defending abortion rights.

He is a Reformed (progressive) Jew, but seems to keep his religion out of his politics. Even if he were an undercover atheist (and his silence on religious issues suggests it may be possible), as an experienced politician he’d know well-enough to keep his mouth shut in America. (Having said that, if you were to go godless there are worse places to start than NYC.)

Religion has a prominent, and some would say, disturbing place in American politics. A great many issues split cleanly down religious fault lines and religious groups are good at mobilising voters. It is very difficult to contemplate an American politician without a religious affiliation of one kind or another.

The only one I'm aware of at the top is Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) who grew up in a Presbyterian family but states his current faith as ‘unspecified’.

Far from being a pallid cop-out, the Senator's declaration is likely as far as you can realistically go at the moment. No Senator is self-declared atheist or agnostic.

However, according to the 2001 census, fifteen percent of the American public are. And the non-believers’ ranks may be swelling. According to the American Religious Identification Survey of 2009, the no-religionists had nearly doubled since 1990.

The Pew Forum’s analysis of religion in the elections campaign of 2008 found that most Americans still stated that it was important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. However both Democratic and Republican frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani among them, were seen as being the least religious politicians. So something of a discontinuity between reality and perception there.

Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts, was regarded by the voters as the most conspicuously religious of all, even more than George W. Bush. But this advantage was mitigated by the fact that the voters were nervous of his Mormon faith.

However, being a Mormon was still less of a liability than being an atheist, for whom a whopping sixty-one percent would have had difficulty voting (as opposed to 45% for a Muslim or 7% for a Catholic).

Americans still seem to be resolute and relatively unchanged on the traditional red/blue issues. A slim majority (52%) support abortion rights in most or all cases while 43 percent oppose it; 36% favour gay-marriage rights and 55% oppose it.

So where did the religion go in the 2008 election and has it gone forever?

I don’t think so. 2008 was fought on principally domestic issues (the economy, healthcare, the environment and the Iraq War). White, evangelical Protestants were the only major group in which a majority said that social issues like abortion and gay marriage would be very important in their presidential voting decisions.

But a rise in American atheism may be reflected in politics eventually. Organisations like the Secular Coalition for America (tagline: ‘Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, Americans’) have joined the traditional meleĆ© and will hopefully be able to reassure the religious that atheists are not without morals – a distressingly common misapprehension.

As Jacques Berlinerblau, (associate professor at Georgetown University and atheist) writes:
“American voters … sometimes have difficulty permitting the private sphere to remain the private sphere. This deprives them, again and again, of credible political candidates”