Why Obama is likely to be privately irreligious
The heritability of religiosity is modest in the American environment. In some environments, such as Saudi Arabia, a normal range in variation in religiosity obviously can not express itself. But under more relaxed conditions it seems that around half of the variation in religiosity in the population can be traced to variation in genes; in other words, the trait value runs in families. Obama’s father was born a Muslim, but was an avowed atheist. I couldn’t find survey data from Kenya, but I did find some from Tanzania. According to the World Values Survey 8 out of 1171 respondents did not believe in God in Tanzania. The equivalent figure for the United States was 51 out of 1200. And his mother, from what we can tell, was also an atheist. The United States and Kenya are not, and were not, Saudi Arabia, but neither were they Sweden or Japan. Though one had license to be an atheist, it was certainly culturally atypical, and all the pressures would have gone in the other direction. From this I conclude that Barack H. Obama lacked a natural disposition toward supernatural belief.
Which is where environment steps in. From what I know of his biography (far less than most I assume) he did not receive any push toward religion until he began to consider his future in black urban politics. For historic reasons that African American church is the core institution within that ethnic community, maintaining a line of continuity even to the antebellum period. The relationship of black Americans to their churches is perhaps analogous to Greeks to Greek Orthodoxy. A Greek may not be very religious, but to be Greek is to be Greek Orthodox. Contrast this with a Korean ethnic identity, which can entail a host of religious or irreligious orientations. The analogy between blacks and Greeks breaks down insofar as black religion is sectarian and highly fractured, resembling the competitive marketplace common among white evangelicals. This even includes black Islam, which despite a recent move toward orthodoxy, originally resembled black Christianity far more than conventional Islam. One can perceive the black attraction to a particular style of religion in the fact that they are underrepresented in American Buddhism, except in Soka Gakkai, an “evangelical” Japanese Buddhist sect (a black Congressman from Georgia, Hank Johnson is a member).
Barack H. Obama started out with the biological “raw material” of being black in America. But from what we can tell he had to learn and socialize to be a black American during adulthood. An almost necessary constituent of being black in America is a relationship with a prophetic, evangelical and revivalist religious culture. Even if one is irreligious personally, this is the religious culture which one grows up in, and is familiar with. Obama, being raised in a white secular household did not experience this firsthand, so he could not afford to remain detached from religion as an adult. I can not speak to the sincerity or opportunism of Obama in accepting conversion into the Christian community, but one can not deny that the event lay at the nexus of disparate personal tensions, between his familial heritage and upbringing, which was extremely secular compared to the norm, and what was necessary to become a part of black America, a identity which is imbued with a religious tinge.
Finally, one must address the reality that most secular people do not view all higher superstitions as standing on equal ground. I had a Dutch friend who was an atheist who once explained to me how much more superstitious Roman Catholicism was than Calvinism. He was naturally from a Calvinist cultural background. Similarly, atheists from a Roman Catholic background on occasion will give the church its philosophical due in relation to the rank emotionality and blind faith which they perceive to be the bread & butter of evangelical Protestantism. The Protestants may respond that at least they read the Bible which Catholics also claim to believe in! At even a further remove, Edward Said was from an Arab Protestant background, but was an avowed atheist as an adult. Despite that he would assert that Islam was his civilization! This is I think analogous to atheist Jews who retain a strong identification with the religious culture of Judaism. So I suppose we can wonder where Obama’s heart is. I suspect that despite his lack of belief in the truth claims of black Christianity, he identifies with it on a moderate level as an expression of black nationalism with which he is not without sympathy toward, but balanced against this is a cosmopolitan respect for religion as a generality, from his sister’s philosophical Buddhism to Islam.