monograph · The Skeptical Razor
Why are there no open atheists in the U.S. Congress? Here’s why
During this year’s American presidential race atheism became an issue, and it wasn’t pretty.
In the Democratic primary battle between former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen.Bernie Sanders, an idea was hatched by a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The DNC is expected to remain neutral on the question of which candidate should win the party’s nomination. But thanks to hacked emails, the public was made privy to a private exchange among its members discussing how to hobble Sanders’ resurgent campaign.
How? Label him an atheist.
That idea was the brainchild of Bradley Marshall, who, at the time, was the DNC’s chief financial officer. “My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist,” Marshall wrote in an email to colleagues.
Sanders had said in the past that he is a secular Jew who isn’t much involved in organized religion. But once this email became public, Sanders firmly declared a belief in God.
Marshall and others in the DNC resigned over this. He issued an apology to the DNC on Facebook. But there is one group Marshall did not apologize to: the group he maligned, atheists. No one within the Democratic Party establishment stood for atheists.
Had this been any other group — for instance, had Marshall sought to tar Sanders as gay rather than an atheist — the Democratic Party would have expressed solidarity with the targets of Marshall’s attack. Atheists received no such consideration.
As an atheist myself, I would have liked to have heard something like this: “The Democratic Party is proud to have the votes of so many of America’s atheists and it condemns the ongoing, unfair anti-atheist bigotry that pervades much of this nation.”
One would think the Democratic Party would be friendlier to its atheist supporters. According to the Pew Research Center, 69 percent of America’s atheists either are or lean Democratic. This strong support is crucial to winning elections, but the favor is not returned.
Anti-atheist prejudice is the last acceptable prejudice in America. Atheists make up 3.1 percent of Americans, according to Pew. Agnostics are another 4 percent. And these are the nonbelievers willing to admit their views to pollsters. Further studies suggest that similar numbers hold atheist or agnostic worldviews, but choose not to check the “atheist” or “agnostic” boxes on surveys. Overall, America is following the example of other western democracies and secularizing — only more slowly. There is a growing population of “nones” who, when asked about a religious affiliation, say they are nothing in particular. This group, which includes atheists and agnostics, now makes up 22 percent of the U.S.
population, and for younger millennials, “nones” represent a whopping 35 percent.
Compare those numbers to Jews at 1.9 percent of the U.S. population, Muslims at .9 percent and Mormons at just 1.6 percent. Atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious should be a political juggernaut — and yet this group has virtually no political power. A country that owes its economic prosperity to its prowess in science and technology, and was founded on a core principle of church-state separation, nonetheless holds in contempt its nonbelieving citizens who embrace science over supernaturalism.The very citizens who use evidence rather than beliefs to evaluate claims about the true nature of reality and who would assiduously avoid injecting religion into government affairs, are considered weirdos and
Polls show that half of Americans do not want a family member to marry an atheist, and about the same number are not inclined to vote for an otherwise qualified presidential candidate who is an atheist. For a politician, an atheist scores worse than being an adulterer or a marijuana smoker.
Maybe that is why zero members of the U.S. Congress — a body composed of 535 men and women, 100 of whom sit in the Senate with the remainder in the House of Representatives — are open atheists. Not one.
Recently, there has been only one openly atheist sitting member; Rep. Pete Stark, a California Democrat admitted to being an atheist in 2007 in response to a questionnaire sent by the Secular Coalition for America.
To get a sense of just how politically risky it is to admit a nonbelief in a supreme being, Rep. Barney Frank “came out” as an atheist fully 26 years after admitting to being gay, and even then, he only openly attested to his atheism after retiring from the House of Representatives. Frank represented a liberal district in Massachusetts and had by any measure a very safe House seat.
It is no wonder Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a recent Republican presidential contender, felt no compunction about spontaneously attacking British actor Daniel Radcliffe for being an atheist. “You know that Daniel Radcliffe has declared himself an atheist?” Kasich said recently while touring a bookstore in New Hampshire and spotting a Harry Potter book. “I’m serious. What a weird thing. Why would a guy who has had all that success just, I mean, what the hell is wrong with him?”
Statistically, it is nearly impossible that there are no atheists in Congress. There are probably dozens of nonbelievers, but they think it is too politically risky to admit it.
Why are atheists in America so openly disdained? Difficult to say, exactly. It could be a holdover from the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Opportunistic American politicians drew sharp lines between what they called godless, communists, and patriotic, God-fearing Americans. Atheists were conflated into a group of
people who represented America’s enemy.
There are still many Americans who think you can’t be moral without religion. Of course, anyone who has bothered to read the Bible would know that no truly moral person draws his or her view of right and wrong from an ancient book that defends slavery, capital punishment, and genocide. Atheists like to suggest that too many people accept the Bible the way people accept a new software agreement. They don’t read it, simply scroll to the end, and check “I agree”. Nonetheless, the pernicious, untrue sentiment remains that
being religious equates to being moral, and being nonreligious equates to being amoral.
This is not only bad for atheists, it’s bad for America.
By excluding atheists from public office, the American electorate pushes public policy in the direction of privileging religion and religious tenets. Tens of millions of American atheists — often among the most scientifically minded of citizens — are precluded from political power and the public policy table. This exclusion directly impacts a host of issues, including the way public policy skews on abortion rights, same-sex marriage, funding for embryonic stem cell research, whether tax money should go toward
religious schools, whether sex education is taught in schools, how climate change policy will be shaped, and even — incredibly — whether evolution is taught in public school science classrooms.
Because atheists and agnostics are not among the country’s lawmakers, we do not have a vote when laws and rules that benefit religion are considered. For instance, in the United States, religiously affiliated groups receive millions of tax dollars annually for social work and educational activities, yet they are allowed to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion. A homeless shelter can choose to hire only the Christian faithful, yet be funded in part with taxes from nonbelievers, Jews, Muslims, etc.
The great American experiment in self-government included a very deliberate decision to bar religion from the public purse. Religious ideas were to flourish or fail based on their credence and the public support they could muster independent of the taxman.
In the late eighteenth century, when the nation was being founded, Europe’s religious wars and strife were a reasonably fresh memory. America’s founders set upon a task of keeping their new nation free of it, both for the sake of a peaceable civil society and freedom of conscience. James Madison, a primary author of the U.S. Constitution, wrote an impassioned plea to keep the state of Virginia from assessing taxes to pay preachers.
But America has lost its way since President John Adams signed, and the U.S. Senate unanimously ratified, the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797, which declared, “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”
Today, America’s two major political parties bend over backward to seem pro-religion. The recently adopted platform of the Republican Party tells lawmakers to ensure that man-made law is consistent with God’s law when writing legislation. Another provision suggests that teaching the Bible in public schools is
essential for “an educated citizenry.”
Republicans have made a devil’s bargain with America’s religious fundamentalists. In exchange for their electoral support, the party is in the grip of those who would impose religious practices and tenets through the power of law. The party’s opposition to church-state separation has caused a startling erosion of this individual liberty, and further marginalized American atheists.
But even the Democrats embrace religious privilege as a hedge against being labeled anti-religion. President Barack Obama has kept open and funded a part of the federal government established by his predecessor, the overtly religious George W. Bush, that encourages faith-based nonprofits to apply for federal funds. Obama hosts clergy for prayer sessions in the White House, and it’s a rare major public address when “God Bless the United States of America” isn’t his finale.
Despite this, in record numbers and at a remarkable rate, Americans are sloughing off the faith they were born into and rejecting organized religion entirely. The scandals involving pedophile Catholic priests and the right-wing politicization of evangelicals are part of the reason. But the most important reason has to be that science is undeniably better than revelation at helping us understand reality. Science has demonstrated it can uncover what is true about the natural world, and then rain down wonderful medical
and technological advances that make our lives healthier and better. With each new scientific breakthrough religion is confined to a smaller and smaller sphere.
What we need now is for American politicians to catch up with the electorate. Those who are closeted atheists need to come forward and declare their nonbelief. The small lie they offer by pretending to be among the faithful is much more consequential than they realize. It not only hurts the country by making public policy more hidebound and conservative, it models behavior for nonbelievers in the general population who then feel they too must hide in plain sight. Religious politicians need to help by standing up for atheists, the way they would for any minority, when they are insulted, discounted or denounced.
Nongovernmental organizations such as the Center for Inquiry and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science are working to wipe away the stigma through a nationwide Openly Secular campaign to encourage nonbelievers, including celebrities and politicians, to come forward. (In the United States the word “secular” is often used as a catchall for nonbelievers and the nonreligious.) Just as this approach dismantled baseless prejudice against gays and lesbians, so can the act of atheists coming forward to
friends, neighbors, coworkers and loved ones, change attitudes.
Once a tipping point is reached it may not take long for members of Congress to reflect the rising atheism in the United States. The trend is moving in our direction, but it’s not there yet. Raising public awareness is the key to vanquishing for good the damaging lie that there are few atheists in America, and the few
that are here are unpatriotic and immoral.
The truth is just the opposite.
CEO of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Inquiry, and CEO & President of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. Both groups have as their mission the promotion of reason, science, and secular values.
She is based in Washington, DC.