As much as possible, the presidential candidates should refrain from talking about their religious beliefs. Perhaps even a self-imposed ban on public avowals of religious would be wise. It's all too easy to cross the fine line between expressing faith and aggressively declaring it, and religious tolerance is, I think, inversely proportional to the latter.
Still, it doesn't appear that this is going to happen. Religious beliefs have been a big issue in presidential politics for a while now, and many of the candidates, particularly Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, have opted for different reasons to talk about theirs.
This is a two-way street, however. If religion and religious ideas are going to be more publicly discussed, candidates and their supporters will have to accustom themselves to the free expression of doctrines contrary to their own, in particular to irreligious perspectives.
Their religiosity will eventually invite questions about their beliefs and their provenance more pointed than the usual vague queries about the role of faith in their lives. Here are a few such questions that might be directed explicitly to Huckabee and Romney — and then generally to some of the other candidates.
Questions for Huckabee and Romney
The setting, let us pretend, is a university auditorium somewhere in the Heartland with a panel of four slightly nervous, irreligious questioners facing the candidates. You can also envisage appropriate graphics and theme music proclaiming, "Free Thinkers Debate 2008."
A moderator would note the importance of the elections on Super Tuesday and, given the evening's topic, might even mention that the name of the day, Tiw's day, is derived from Tiw, the old Norse god of heroic glory, justice and combat.
The house lights dim and the first panelist begins with a few questions for Huckabee. The answers to all the questions the reader will have to imagine.
1. Do you really believe, Mr. Huckabee, that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that humans and dinosaurs cavorted together?
2. Religious people often accuse atheists and agnostics of arrogance. Do you agree? And is it arrogant to say, as you have, that your sudden rise in the polls was an act of God and that you wish to amend the Constitution to better reflect "the word of the living God"?
3. Article 19 of the Arkansas state constitution states, "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court." Although it and similar laws in other states are not enforced, do you support their formal repeal?
The next questioner turns to Romney.
1. Why, Mr. Romney, in your speech ostensibly devoted to religious tolerance, did you not extend this tolerance to the millions of atheists and agnostics in this country, people who, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, are still held in very low regard by many religious people?
2. Do you not see an implicit religious test in your statement that "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom"? Furthermore, are not, respectively, most of Europe and some Islamic countries obvious counterexamples to your statements?
3. Is it right to suggest, as many have, that atheists and agnostics are somehow less moral when the numbers on crime, divorce, alcoholism and other measures of social dysfunction show that non-believers in the United States are extremely under-represented in each category?
Questions for the Other (or Future) Candidates
Let's move on to the other candidates and the third panelist.
1. Do any of you think God speaks to you, only to Gov. Huckabee, or to none of you? And, if I may, does God have a tax policy, a health care policy, a policy on Iraq, Iran, gay marriage, Guantanamo or the Riemann Hypothesis?
2. How would you suggest that we reason with someone who claims that his or her decisions are informed, shaped, even dictated by fundamental religious principles, which nevertheless can't be probed or questioned by those who don't share them?
3. I think we can all agree that a candidate who thought that we ought to outlaw interest on loans or revert to a barter system would not be a good steward for our troubled economy. Would you also agree that someone who believes the Earth is 6,000 years old and that Noah's Ark is an event in zoological history would not be an effective leader on issues such as stem cells, climate change, and renewable resources?
The debate concludes with a few more general queries about religion from the fourth and last questioner.
1. Do you see any danger of a kind of theocracy developing in the United States? And, if I may sneak in an extra question, do you think that American religiosity has (or could) threaten American dominance in science and technology?
2. How literally do you take the Bible or other holy book? Do you subscribe to any argument(s) for God's existence other than the one that God exists simply because He says He does in a much extolled tome that He allegedly inspired?
3. For many, religion has been a source of ideas and narratives that are enlightening, of ideals and values that are inspiring, of rituals and traditions that are satisfying. It has also led to hatred, cruelty, superstition, divisiveness, credulity and fanaticism. What can you do to further the former and minimize the latter effects?
The questioners would then breathe a sigh of relief, thank the university and the candidates for making the discussion possible, and wish them all Godspeed in their continuing campaigns.
John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is the author of the best-sellers "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as well as of the just-released "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.