Editor’s note: Chris Stedman is the author of "Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious" and the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDStedman.
By Chris Stedman, Special to CNN
(CNN)—This year, Congress welcomed the first Buddhist senator and first Hindu elected to either chamber of Congress, and the Pew Forum noted that this “gradual increase in religious diversity … mirrors trends in the country as a whole.”
But Pew also noted one glaring deficiency: Religious “nones” were largely left outside the halls of Congress, despite one in five Americans now saying they don’t affiliate with a religion.
There is, however, one newly elected “none” — but she seems to think "atheist" is a dirty word.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, was sworn in a few days ago without a Bible, and she is the first member of Congress to openly describe her religious affiliation as “none.” Although 10 other members don’t specify a religious affiliation — up from six members in the previous Congress — Sinema is the only to officially declare “none.”
This has gotten Sinema a fair amount of attention from the media. Many identified her as an atheist during her congressional campaign, and after she won, sources touted her as a nontheist. Even this past weekend, Politico declared in a headline: “Non-believers on rise in Congress.”
Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter
But there’s a slight issue: Sinema doesn’t actually appears to be a nonbeliever. In response to news stories identifying her as an atheist, her campaign released this statement shortly after her victory: “(Rep. Sinema) believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”
As a nontheist, atheist and nonbeliever (take your pick), I find this statement deeply problematic.
It is perfectly fine, of course, if Sinema isn’t a nontheist, and it is understandable that she would want to clarify misinformation about her personal beliefs. But to say that these terms are “not befitting of her life’s work or personal character” is offensive because it implies there is something unbefitting about the lives and characters of atheists or nonbelievers.
Christmas exposes atheist divide on dealing with religion
Try substituting a religious group of your choice in place of atheist if you don’t agree: “[Rep. Sinema] believes the term Muslim is not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.” Does that sound right? It shouldn’t.
Of course, many do view Muslims as unfit for political office. In that respect, political opponents have regularly misidentified President Obama as a Muslim. Many have defended the president from such attacks by noting that Obama is a Christian.
But former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell rightly pointed out the pernicious underlying message such a defense sends:
The correct answer is: He is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’ The answer is ‘No, that’s not America.’ Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?
Just as Muslim is used as a political smear, politicians seem to avoid "atheist."
This is probably because the American electorate views both Muslims and atheists more unfavorably than they do other groups: According to a Gallup poll released in June, only 58% of Americans would vote for a “generally well-qualified” Muslim candidate, and only 54% would vote for an atheist. (This is the first time that number has been above 50% for an atheist candidate.) By contrast, 91% would vote for a Jewish candidate, 94% for a Catholic and 80% for a Mormon.
There seems to be a greater general tolerance for, or blindness to, comments that marginalize or diminish atheists than those aimed at other groups.
CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories
Prominent individuals like Powell rightfully decry anti-Muslim fear-mongering in politics, but few speak out against those who wield accusations of atheism as a political weapon.
Whether people don’t see it or simply aren’t bothered isn’t clear, but it remains a problem.
I respect Sinema’s right to self-identify as she chooses, and I don’t wish to speculate about her religious beliefs. But while I celebrate that she is comfortable enough to openly identify as bisexual, I find her response to being labeled an atheist troubling.
Why not instead say that she’s not an atheist, but so what if she was?
The 113th Congress is rich with diversity. As an interfaith activist, I am glad to see the religious composition of Congress more closely reflect the diversity of America. As a queer person, I’m glad that LGBT Americans are seeing greater representation in Washington.
But as a proud atheist and humanist, I’m disheartened that the only member of Congress who openly identifies as nonreligious has forcefully distanced herself from atheism in a way that puts down those of us who do not believe in God.
We are Americans of good character, too.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chris Stedman.
She sounds like she'd rather not be labeled (pigeonholed). Look up Neil deGrasse Tyson's explanation for not wanting a such a label when people kept asking him to confirm his supposed atheistic stance. He put it so perfectly.
Because the biggest bigots are believers in science fiction! Their religion preach love and peace, but hatred f=to those that do not follow their beliefs. All of them remind me of sheep!!!
Dr. Harris pretty much sums up the issue here.
This column is spot on. Atheists are a large and diverse group, but one that is routinely subjected to scorn and hatred. Please, let's stop that.
I suppose atheists want Sinema to instead say that everything about her and her life work should be reduced to catchwords such as non-religious, atheist or non-believer. Clearly she does not want herself or her lifework to be labeled or framed in terms of religion or irreligiousity, because it is not true to her understanding of her person and work. She is, after all, non-religious.
As an atheist, I really hate being associated with all these "new atheism" types. I don't care what the hell you believe in, and I am secure enough in my own beliefs to not feel the need to insult and degrade others based on their religious beliefs, or even their beliefs themselves.
These kinds of articles push Atheist into a class or organization that most don't want to be pigeon holed into.
But theists inflict their beliefs on others. You cannot just stand by, cross your arms, and let the world turn on its own. Xtians would love to inflict their horrid religion into your life. They don't hesitate to persecute gays, or anyone else they don't agree with. They'd persecute you, as a non-believer, if they had the chance.
@Edweird69 You must live in some weird world where Christians are attacking people on a daily basis forcing people to believe what they do. Good luck in this imaginary world where you are being persecuted.
I'm an atheist too. I don't care if others choose to believe in the super natural. if that makes them happy, great. What I despise is being judges because I choose to look at the logical side of things. Born in a Catholic family, I heard enough priests preach using hand gestures and props early on in life to know that only feeble minded sheep follow this cr-p.
I attend Catholic High School daily. Even with the fact that this means I have to go to religion class everyday, I feel not hatred toward religion. I do not feel the need to call the followers of religion sheep merely because I do not agree with them. I do not assume that my belief is the logical one, because I know very little about the universe to even make that assumption. I just choose to believe what I do, and don't really care whatever anyone else believes.
@Spiffy – Xtians have a huge list of atrocities to even begin to post on here. The mormon church spent tens of millions to ensure gay parents and their children were deprived of their rights. The crusades, witch trials...just a starter. Xtianity is a lion in sheep's clothing. If you think for 1 minute you're gonna convince me that xtianity is a sweet religion, you're way too late pal.
Are you really judging today's Christians based on the actions of those hundreds of years ago? Should we also base all our opinions of you on how your ancestors acted? Concerning the Mormon church, while it is sad that they are denying gays rights (myself included) I do not judge all Christians on their actions. To do so would be very unfair, stupid, and illogical of me. The way you are sensationalizing your life seems strange, and almost like you are just playing the victim.
Athiests can't be disproven with science hows that for starters
Relativity and Quantum Mechanics require a sentient being outside the universe to make the universe real, but thanks for playing.
Well, for starters I don't even know what you're trying to say. Are you promoting atheism or opposing it? I really have no idea. Beyond that, you have very poor punctuation.
John P. Tarver
"Relativity and Quantum Mechanics require a sentient being outside the universe to make the universe real, but thanks for playing."
Even if it were true, that does NOT prove the existence of God or Zeus or a committee of zombies.
Thanks for playing.
If the mind is open to the possibilities of faith, then it must also be open to the possibility that spiritual matters are very scientific! Atheists might just, through the mechanisms of quantum mechanics, be proven quite wrong. Only time will tell. In the meantime, those who opt for the promise of faith and the moral code it provides to make life truly better for everyone, why not let faith have it's place? As one atheist convert to Christianity put it, there is no harm in believing and in fact you have a lot to lose by not having faith. So why are atheists so condemning of those who have faith? Don't go away mad, just go away. . .quietly.
Well John P. Tarver, you just proved you are not a physicist. Stop "playing" and get serious.
Why is it that so many people seem to think that quantum mechanics makes anything possible? I guess it's really the failure of our society to provide a modern science education.
Tarver, you're capitalizing common nouns for some reason. It makes you look stupider than you actually are.
Atheists can be proven with a show of hands.
As with all facile rationale spewed by salesmen for corrupt, plagiarized, tax-dodging, misogynistic, divisive organized religions (in which intensity of belief displays an inverse relationship to IQ), W R O N G !! Augustine of Hippo notwithstanding, you made that prescient, sentient sheet up to fit your fanciful cosmology and sustain your cashflow , Reverend. Once the illicit purpose behind and fictional pillars of a theory are exposed, it must be discarded. Back to science now. Higgs Bosun, anyone?
As an atheist, I take a "null stance" to the notion of a god. I say, if you make the statement "there's a god", I'm totally open to you proving it, showing some evidence. If you tell me there's a magic genie bottle on the moon, I'm open to you proving it, show me the evidence. Why is there such a word as atheist anyways? Is there a word for a non-coin-collector, a non-stamp-collector? I'm just a non-believer... show me the evidence!
Can you prove there is not a god? It is like proving there is love or prove their is life on another planet, just because it can not be proven today does not mean it is non-existent. This whole argument about atheism or non-atheism is a lot to do about nothing. This country is about religious (or non-religious) freedom. Those who attack religious or non-religious people are trying to remove someone's right/Freedom and is just ignorant.
@Aztekman – I cannot prove there is not a god. I cannot prove there are not invisible unicorns either. The person making the extraordinary claim of a god, has the burden to prove this extraordinary claim. If they cannot, it is to be regarded as illogical, and dismissed. If you do not dismiss something that is completely illogical, then you are delusioned.
Nothing wrong with the word. If you that this entire universe came from nothing so be it. If you believe that right and wrong are based on genetic code that originated from a random process then any morals are correct so be it. If you believe that nothing happens after death and you are wrong-so be it. Come to think of it why do you have any right to speak at all if someone wants to silence you because their genetic code is opposed to atheism- so be it. Just live by your codon so to speak and quite criticizing. So be it.
WRONG! Only by ridicule can you squelch the insanity of people inflicting their religion, their ideals, of how everyone else should live their lives. Making laws, discriminating against anyone who opposes them. Nice try...fail.
@Bob – Sam is the best – I still miss Hitch though every day. Great vid...
Actually morality is based on thoughtful exploration of choices people make. People without religion actually seems to be every bit as moral in their day to day life as any religious person. They are no more likely to cheat on their spouses, embezzle money, beat their children, lie, steal or even gossip than the religious. Morality certainly isn't any more evident in devout countries like the US than in countries where the majority of people do not believe. In fact the vey religious US has a higher crime rate, a higher murder rate, a higher rate of domestic violence, theft, and divorce than the countries where faith is less common. In actual facts believing isn't resulting in moire morality, you might even argue it is resulting in less moral behavior.
Ricks, your logic chip blew a transistor.
Someone's "genetic code" cannot be opposed to atheism. Religion is created and learned by people. They are not born with it. If you isolated someone in a room from birth, they would not have a religion until they created it themselves to explain the world around them. Religion was originally created to explain the world around us, but as we learn more about the world, the purpose of religion begins to dwindle. Now its used to comfort people who need something to believe in to give some purpose to their life, politics, and to kill people.
But if she isn't an atheist then why not state that fact? I'm agnostic. I chose to believe in a higher power, though that power is more cosmic than man, yet I do not identify as an athiest. I don't believe in religion or the comic book version of god, yet I also cannot say with certainty that there is no god. Is there anything wrong with being an athiest? No, but I wouldn't allow the media to tout me as athiest, Christian, or anything else. I am what I am, and I chose not to be labelled as anything else.
I'm a reasonable person. I am an atheist. I sleep very well each night!
Perhaps she needs a course in etymology....
a – without
theos – god
Nothing negative about that. In fact, it describes her perfectly!
Unless she's on the fence (as I am.) Then she may be agnostic.
a – without
gnosis – knowledge (in this case – knowledge of god's existence)
Either way, she either needs and etymology course or a dictionary.... because she must be one of the above, it's not evil; it's the DEFINITION.
Your god and your belief in it is based on geography and the part of the world you were born it and indoctrinated by your parents. Had you been born elsewhere and learned about a different god you would believe in it the same way you believe in whatever you believe in right now.
mbane – I have to disagree. My parents are religious. Not extremists, but my father does teach the doctrine course for people who are joining their faith.
I made up my own mind, and my parents support me even if they don't agree. I probably have the world's coolest parents! :)
But my point was that the definition applied to her. It's a word, with a definition, that fits her beliefs. It means "without god" and if she put none, then she is "without god." LOGIC.
If people have a negative connotation of the word atheist, that's on them. The denotation of the word fits her response.
The ear thingies look stupid.
Yup, the ear-thingies *are* dumb; furthermore Kyrsten Sinema is the also the first openly b ise xual member of congress.
Self-mutilation (the exagerated ear-holes), unbridled se xual lust and a general lack of spiritual sense; proving the theory that the USA is "new Rome".
Yeah, to me they look silly too; but when I was a girl only the "cheap" girls had pierced ears - now even I have them!
You should meet some of the Masai women I encountered on my last trp to east Africa. Beautiful people, the Masai. Brutally honest and extremely likable.
I wonder... do you mutilate some or all of your facial hair every day by shaving?
Atheism: one of the few things still widely considered ok to openly voice discrimination against. I mean, how long before America has an atheist President? Probably about the same time the national debt is paid off. Oh, by then we'll also be building colonies in other solar systems.
Much of that discrimination is a push back against the discrimination from some atheist and the other way around. Doesn't make it right, but that is the mentality of those that either want to be left alone or justify their belief in a belief or a non-belief.
Atheism sounds like any other ism. It's a bit ironic people take things so serious. Believing there is a god or God is like believing there is a Santa who climbs down the chimney. It should or could be taken as allegory.
Faith, please give evidence of discrimination by atheists. Remember, disagreeing with you is not discriminating.
Atheists need chaplains. That's funny.
Only because you don't understand what chaplins do.
We all have ways to rationalize things.
i.e. Once something is created it doesn't need the creator to pull its strings to function. I drive my car quite well without the manufacturer following it around. That doesn't mean that there wasn't something that created it. Similarly, if someone finds it and tries to dissect it to find the creator; they'll create methods to measure it and explain it, but that's about it.
being a non atheist..means you are a believer in something...you just cant identify it!...yet. an atheist does not believe in any god or religion that has existed, exists or will ever exist.....what that tells me is that she is a work in progress....
that is agnostic.
and the work in progress is called science.
No, an agnostic is one who believes that you just cannot know. There are religious agnostics, and there are atheist agnostics.
I am an apatheist. I don't know and I don't give a fuck.
wrong. An atheists is someone who doesn't believe in super natural beings. Doesn't believe that earth is only 4,000 years old. (Hey did God create dinosaurs first millions of years ago before man, so why would he/she do so) Atheists laugh at things like "the Virgin Mary" or a fat thing like a Buddha somehow has super natural powers, and so on and so on.
A work in progress? That's funny. What she does have and you don't is a brain and the ability to make rational decisions rather than follow a book that was written 50 years after supposed events by different people who contradicted each other and selectively put together some 300 years after to spread specific indoctrinations as a means to control a crumbling Roman empire.
How can a Christian ever love an atheist when they cant even love other theists? (Muslim, hindu. buddhist, mormon, etc.) its always funny how the "persecuted" persecute others.
Did Jesus ever not love anyone? Was he selective? Read your book first, understand it and than speak.
Virtually everyone alive is an atheist...everyone except pantheists disbelieve in lots of gods.
who is saying that its a dirty word but those imaginative atheists ,those creative anti-creationists.
it may not be dirty but it's still an indefensible position. if people who believe in something that don't exists are stupid, what do you call people who are so angry and so eager to get rid of something that they don't even believe exists?
You know very well that they are not interested in getting rid of something that they believe does not exist – or that they do not believe exists. They may, however, wish the belief in the believer did not exist because of the effect it has on them personally or on society, in general. Or they simply may not like believers.
Athiests are gullible stupid people who believe evolution is the means to species.
You are so right! It's obvious that Super Inviso-Buddy made everything then hid the evidence to fool us!!!!!! It makes so much more sense than science . . .
YEAH!! Clearly these atheist fools have never heard of the FLying Spaghetti Monster. Dummies.
Only 1% of species exist from the last mass extinction and to envision evolution as the means to species is completely illogical. Science is that a mass extinction leads to species, the opposite of evolution.
Yeah, reproducible, observable events are so 1960s.
Bring me the invisible Flying Spaghetti Monster! All hail his noodly appendages!!
And he can't even spell atheist. Somehow I'm not surprised.
John P. Tarver is gullible and stupid and clearly knows nothing about evolution.
Weird, because Catholics, the Vatican and the Pope all believe in evolution and it is thought in all Catholic schools around the world. You can't get more Christian than the Pope.
Do have a photo or ANY form of proof of God? Or DNA from Jesus? Conservative Christians deal in facts until their fairy-tale gets challenged.
God blessed the white race to control and exploit the Earth in anyway they see fit......Amen.... Yea...... right.......
The FACT that they spread their cancerous philosophy to American government is indisputable.
And yet evolution goes on every day, in every species. It just takes longer to create a seperate species. Since this has only dawned on us for less than 200 years we really don't have a long view of the matter.
Evolution is not created by science, it is just described by science. Extinctions have not been caused by science either. They have just been described by science.
John P., I believe the word you were groping for is "scientists."
The atheist has only the current popular opinion for a moral plumb line and no spiritual compass at all. He will logically arrive at the dead end of self involved nihilism. He necessarily becomes his own god, and I can assure him that he will only worship his obsessive futile imagination. Like ignorant youth and bad behavior, the atheists gets away with his god denial for a while, but the consequences always catch up.
and the theist will always change God into what they think he should be.
Hey look! It's me under yet another name!
I love using all these different names so that people think there are many of us. Jesus likes it when I lie thit way.
Sorry, I don't have to be threatened to know the difference between right and wrong. I treat other people well because I want to be treated well...
Wow. You're insanely stupid from any angle. Go find your time machine. You're not ready for the present.
pretty judgmental. is that Christ-like?
Actually science-based thoughtful reasoning is a terrific moral plumb line. That is how we atheists have concluded that the bible, quran and torah are dead wrong on so many things. Women should have equal rights as men. Human slavery is wrong. Stoning adulterers is cruel and unusual punishment unfitting to the crime. Shellfish aren't so evil. Eating meat on Friday is not an issue. And on and on and on.
I would hold up my moral plumbline up next to yours anytime – mine has science-based thoughtful reasoning behind it. Yours has mythology. Mine is much, much better.
@popseal, No doubt your basing this on clear reasoning and not some uninformed, emotion-driven regurgitated talking point.
The irony of that statement is that while there is no proof of god, it is precisely in the imagination of man that god exists, so this worshiping of an imagination is what all religious people do by definition. Wonder if that was and intentional slip up on your part or something Freudian in nature?
"thit"??? You can't even lie without screwing it up.
Oh dear, what nonsense. Did truth be told and the lionlylamb have a child? (Of course I know even born brain-dead, they wouldn't abort the stupid thing.)
Major problem with your theory. Athiests are almost never Nihilists, they do not become their own God. But nice try.
Man created gods, not vice versa.
As soon as I was old enough to reason, the concept of any deity made no sense to me at all. At the same time, I could tell right from wrong, and the test for me has always been "don't treat people in a way that you yourself wouldn't like". I think that learning about others' religious beliefs is fascinating, particularly in view of the similarities that occur. For instance, virginity is invariably a big issue, but only of women, never of men. People make up these religions as they go along, and each tribe is somehow convinced that their deity represents the only true god. A visitor to our planet would find this to be very curious behavior. I know many atheists, and they are no more or less moral than church-going members of the community.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.