“The President can’t imagine that someone who is President of the United States could not have faith, because he derives so much from it,” Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, said. “I can see him struggle with other world leaders who don’t appear to be grounded in some faith,” he said. He added, “The President doesn’t care what faith it is, as long as it’s faith.”I find disturbing, and insulting, anyone who can’t relate to a person who isn’t religious because they can’t conceive of a moral code derived from an earthly source. There are plenty of religious people who have respect for atheists, and recognize that they can derive both inspiration and ethics from philosophy and science; the insistence of some religious people, including our president evidently, to “struggle” with that notion is ridiculous.
— from Jeffrey Goldberg's profile of Bush-speechwriter Michael Gerson in The New Yorker
A not insignificant number of religious people who act as though atheists are inherently suspect tend to subscribe to a simplistic view of their religion. Believe in god and do what he says and you’ll get into heaven; don’t believe in god and you’ll go to hell. Many of the “you’re gonna go to hell” crowd don’t do good works; they just follow their god’s rules, and often interpret them to mean making life miserable for anyone who disagrees with them. If they do manage to do something to help someone else, it’s only because they’ve got the promise of heaven as a reward, not because of any particular altruism.
Meanwhile, the atheists (and, often, liberal religious people) they so distrust tend to do help others because they think it’s the right thing to do, full stop. Helping others is the end in itself. No carrot and stick needed.
The reason Bush struggles with people who “don’t appear to be grounded in some faith” is because he can’t conceive of a person who would try to do the right thing for no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do. Only the threat of an eternity in flames keeps him on the straight and narrow—and even that regularly seems to be lacking sufficient motivation.
(Hat tip Ezra.)