Although one in ten (10 percent) of Americans identify themselves as having "no religion," only six percent said they don’t believe in a God at all. Just 3 percent of the public self-identifies as atheist, suggesting that the term may carry some stigma. Still, the poll suggests that the public’s tolerance of this small minority has increased in recent years. Nearly half (47 percent) of the respondents felt the country is more accepting of atheists today that it used to be and slightly more (49 percent) reported personally knowing an atheist. Those numbers are higher among respondents under 30 years old, 62 percent of whom report knowing an atheist (compared to just 43 percent of those 50 and older). Sixty-one percent of the under-30 cohort view society as more accepting of atheists (compared to 40 percent of the Americans 50 and older).
Still, it is unlikely that a political candidate would serve him or herself well by declaring their atheism. Six in ten (62 percent) registered voters say they would not vote for a candidate who is an atheist. Majorities of each major party — 78 percent of Repulicans and 60 percent of Democrats — rule out such an option. Just under half (45 percent) of registered independents would not vote for an atheist. Still more than a third (36 percent) of Americans think the influence of organized religion on American politics has increased in recent years. But the public is still split over whether religion has too much (32 percent) or too little (31 percent) influence on American politics. Democrats tend to fall in the "too much" camp (42 percent of them, as opposed to 29 percent who see too little influence) as Republicans take the opposite view (42 percent too little; 14 percent too much). In the poll, 68 percent of respondents said they believed someone could be moral and an atheist, compared to 26 percent who said it was not possible.
The NEWSWEEK poll also asked respondents about recent developments in national politics. This week the Senate joined the U.S. House of Representatives in passing legislation along party lines that included a "goal" for troop withdrawal by next March. A majority (57 percent) of Americans support the legislation. The president’s approval ratings remain at just 33 percent, up just three points from his all-time low in the NEWSWEEK poll earlier this month. Two-thirds (66 percent) of the respondents were dissatisfied with the direction the country is headed in and Bush’s rating for his handling of the war in Iraq (28 percent) continues to be lower than his handling of terrorism (45 percent) and the economy (41 percent).
Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who recently announced that his wife's cancer has returned, is a popular figure, with 41 percent of Americans saying they have a generally favorable view of him (27 percent have an unfavorable view). And most (56 percent) think the former senator should remain in the race despite his wife's medical situation. Very few (12 percent) suspect that he is using Elizabeth’s illness to his political advantage. Seventy-two percent feel that staying in the race was something the Edwards family genuinely saw as the right thing to do and half (51 percent) think it will put Edwards more in touch with the concerns of average Americans (41 percent don’t). Indeed, just 11 percent of Americans think his wife’s health would be enough of a distraction to keep Edwards from his duties were he to be elected next year (64 percent think her illness would be at least "somewhat" distracting).
The poll also found limited voter demand for former Vice President Al Gore to toss his hat into the ring. Despite a spate of publicity around his involvement in the Academy Award-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," only a third (33 percent) of registered voters want to see him run again while a majority (56 percent) would not. Still, about half (49 percent) say there is at least some chance they would vote for Gore if he were on the ballot next year (a quarter, 24 percent, say there would be a "good chance" he would get their vote). Nearly half of registered Democrats (47 percent) want him to run, 39 percent do not and 14 percent are undecided.
The NEWSWEEK Poll, conducted March 28-March 29, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points for questions based on all registered voters and plus or minus 6 percentage points for results based on registered Republicans and Republican leaners. In conducting the poll, Princeton Survey Research Associates International interviewed 1,004 adults aged 18 and older.