The Election: Religion, Simulation and Prediction

The topic of the hour (and year) is the 2008 presidential election. What follows are comments on religion, online election simulation and a few other political (or poll-itical) matters associated with the race.

Religion and Presidential Politics

Candidates naturally do not want to offend large, organized groups of voters, a tendency that at times leads them to pander. This happens particularly often where religious voters are concerned. A recent example is pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren's extensive interview of Sens. Obama and McCain last month, which contained a number of questions that were, in my opinion, inappropriate, as well as a number of answers that were quite understandably pat, evasive or nonsensical.

A decidedly different set of (ir)religious questions appears in a previous Who's Counting column of mine.

Relevant to the issue of presidential politics and religion was Warren's later statement that he'd never vote for an atheist for president, since, he claimed, atheists are arrogant people who think they have no need for any help in their endeavors. I know of no studies showing that atheists and agnostics are more arrogant than believers. In fact, given that they make no unverifiable religious claims, they are decidedly less sure of ultimate matters and their exalted place in the universe, and thus, arguably at least, less arrogant.

I was disappointed too that neither candidate mentioned non-believers during the interview (although Obama has in other venues), even in a pro forma expression of inclusiveness. More significantly, until last month when Obama provided answers to 14 important scientific questions posed by a consortium of science organizations, none of the many candidates who ran for president has responded to repeated invitations to participate.

Certainly Gov. Palin is unlikely to do so. Her chirpy denial of human involvement in global warming and support for the teaching of creationism bespeaks an especially vexing indifference to science not only by her, but by the man who recklessly picked her.

The mildly offensive term "values voters" to describe fundamentalists, evangelicals and the very religious generally should also be noted. The term seems to suggest that the irreligious, the secular and the moderately religious lack a concern for "values" when they are merely possessors of different ones. Nor is the latter class of voters small, just unorganized. A poll by the PEW organization found that one in six of the respondents said they were not affiliated with any particular religious faith, a figure that rises to one in four for those 18 to 29 years old. Unaffiliated does not mean irreligious, of course, but 4 percent of Americans, likely a significant undercount, do explicitly say that they are atheists or agnostics.

Simulations of the Race

Whatever religious voters' influence is, the essential question about the election is, Who is going to win? To help with that question there are a number of online sites that attempt to simulate the presidential election results if the contest were held today. The rough idea is that they run thousands of virtual elections given the polling data available and see who wins in most of them.

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