Beyond Belief: As Americans Warm to Atheism, Will Donors Follow?

A recent Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans would vote for an avowed atheist for president, two points fewer than a Muslim and 15 percent less than an Evangelical Christian. The only label that fares worse than an atheist—at 47 percent and in last place—is a socialist.

For the steadily increasing number of American atheists out there, this is progress. And so it shouldn't come as too much as a surprise to learn that the University of Miami received a $2.2 million donation in late April from Louis J. Appignani, a retired businessman and former president and chairman of the modeling school Barbizon International, to endow what it says is the nation’s first academic chair "for the study of atheism, humanism, and secular ethics."

The university, which has not yet publicly announced the new chair, will appoint a committee of faculty members to conduct a search for a scholar to fill the position.

The recent Gallup findings notwithstanding, Appignani's motive is pretty simple. "I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists," said Mr. Appignani, who is 83 and lives in Florida. "So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate." 

To Appignani's point, while movies like Bill Maher's Religulous and books like Richard Dawkins' best-seller The God Delusion have brought atheism to the masses (pun intended), the halls of academia have lagged. Universities lack the kind of entrenched atheist architecture—endowments, departments, conferences and the like—that religious studies departments have enjoyed for centuries.

What's more, there are several major funders who've put muscle behind religious scholarship on campus, such as the Lilly Endowment and the Templeton Foundation. But we've never seen a gift for related to aethism—either on a campus or elsewhere. Nor have our data gathering friends the Foundation Center, which reports exactly zero grants related to atheism in a database covers tens of foundations. (That said, some grants have gone to groups that put forth a "secular" agenda.)

This is one area where donors are seriously lagging behind shifting public views. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has risen to 23 percent of the population in 2014, up from 16 percent in 2007. What's more, younger people are even less religious, with 35 percent of millennials saying they identify as atheist, agnostic, or with no religion in particular.

It isn't an accident that part of the audience here is atheistically-inclined college kids (and yes, atheistically is a word; we looked it up). It's low-hanging fruit. There's a reason why Appignani isn't funding the creation of a Temple de la Raison in downtown Little Rock. (But boy, wouldn't that be something!)

Our not-so-unthinkable prediction is that Appignani's gift will further embolden other "non-believer" donors to support causes near and dear to their humanistic hearts without fear of public backlash—although, as the Times article notes, the University of Miami proceeded extremely cautiously—or, worse yet, an on-air diatribe from Bill O'Reilly.

As for Appignani, he was raised a Roman Catholic in the Bronx by Italian immigrant parents and eventually turned to atheism at the City College of New York when he discovered the work of Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and Nobel Prize winner. In 2001 he created the Appignani Foundation to "support secular activities that will address significant, viable and long term human goals on our planet." The foundation has given grants to groups like the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America, and the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

And as for the aforementioned Gallup poll regarding Americans' willingness to vote for an atheist as president, we feel the question is somewhat irrelevant. Talk to an (admittedly deceased) Federalist and they'll insist we already elected an atheist president.

Take a nickel out of your pocket and you'll see his profile staring back on you.