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January 8th, 2013
07:00 AM ET

My take: 'Atheist' isn’t a dirty word, congresswoman

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.”

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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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Politics

soundoff (3,637 Responses)
  1. culturalhonesty

    Most "Atheists" are just retarded zombies that have been conned into this Neo Religious version of Communism.

    The average "Atheist" is a STAUNCH follower of the religion of Political Correctness.

    They hold dogmatic faith based ideology as fact, to the point they make muslim fundamentalists look rational

    January 8, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
    • Observer

      The most radical Muslims are following many of the mindless commands to kill people that God required when he set up the original rules in the Bible. Read it sometime.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
    • Doug

      I'm atheist and Libertarian–as far as you can get from Communism.

      Try again, Christian. Your side is slowly losing, and your lies and BS can't cover it up.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
    • adex

      cultural...

      By my count you were able to string together at most 4 words before saying something that was completely baseless and untrue.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
  2. Spiffy

    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.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
  3. BelladonnaCove

    Well at least Miss Sinema isn't muslim.....

    January 8, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
  4. chicadow

    My biggest question on religion and politics... Who cares?! If you live like Ghandi but call yourself a Satanist, so what. Your beliefs are your business and labels are meaningless, especially when everyone has a different stereotype for each one. Last thought, why are people always"proud" to belong to a group. If you are a proud gun owner, are you proud that you passed the background check? If you are proud to be a Christian is it because you weren't late for your baptism? To me pride should stem from an accomplishment. Proud you climbed Everest, got a degree... But hey if you feel it, go with it I guess.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
  5. blake

    Sorry, but it is hard to empathize with Ms. Sinema. At least half of Congress is made of folks who may be professing Christians, but for all practical purposes, they are secular humanists. This is not limited to, but includes most of the members of Congress in the Democratic party. There is nothing Christian in their worldview, their beliefs, or their behavior. They live and speak each day as if God does not exist. They profess to be Christian because it is politically expedient.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
    • akmac65

      You mean like so-called "conservatives" trumpet their "christianity" to the heavens (or at least to Christian voters) in order to get votes? Remember that Jesus advised that prayer is a private matter, not a public display.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
  6. Mick

    I have no doubt whatsoever that there's no god. But I'm not crazy about the word "atheist" because not everyone is aware that it simply means "one who doesn't believe in the existence of God". People are like "Well, Joe Blow is an atheist and he believes (fill in the blank), so you must believe the same thing. So when asked my religion, I just say "none". Now my only problem is with people assuming I fit into that ridiculous "spiritual but not religious" category!

    January 8, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
  7. John P. Tarver

    Religion is the cure for normal human psycosis. An atheist is by definition psycotic.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
    • tony

      Your use of longer words is good. Misunderstanding them isn't.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
    • Observer

      John P. Tarver,

      You really shouldn't try to use words that you have no clue what they are.

      Two misspelled words that were critical to your comment. Well done.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      In the English language, only those words appearing in the King James Bible have a correct spelling. Prior to the KJV English was a free form of communication, with no spelling rules; but thanks for playing.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
    • adex

      These are just words strung together. There is no argument here. There is no evidence here. There isn't even an explanation. You are psychotic if you don't believe in god? How does one come up with these terrible ideas? All of the anti-atheist arguments are just terrible and all could be batted down with the slightest bit of logic.

      Come on put some thought into it. Try a little.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
    • Athy

      John, it's psych..., not psyc...

      January 8, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
    • Observer

      John P. Tarver,

      Neither word appears in the KJV. Pathetic attempt to try to avoid your "ooops".

      January 8, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
  8. edmslave

    i'm an atheist, and have many friends on both sides. you don't an ancient book to tell you what morals & values are. even before you become an adult, these things are instilled in you...I believe it's in good upbringing. my parents aren't religious, and left it up to me make my own decisions. for that, i'm profoundly grateful. if you can't decide early on that respect, compassion & love for you fellow man are genuine good guidelines to live by...then you probably are the people who instructions for using shampoo were written for. the burden of proof is not on us atheists, but on all believers in any deity. would someone's fervent belief in bigfoot hold up in court, no matter how many claim to have seen...yet have no proof to offer. faith is the absence of logic & reason, it requires none. I don't begrudge anyone whatever they require to get through their daily lives. and in times like these, I like to refer to this gentleman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-RGN21TSGk

    January 8, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
    • Mulehead

      Carlin was so great – miss him. Also miss Hitch – here is his revised list of the ten commandments. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9weXGtCk7c

      January 8, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
  9. ForReal

    I can see why politically she would wise not to call herself an atheist. In politics it's all about offending the smallest number of voters while still getting elected or reelected,,,, truth is an abstract subject for them!

    January 8, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
  10. The Flamingo Kid

    Atheists are evil.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • Observer

      What's wrong with evil? The Bible brags that God does evil.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
    • tony

      Yup. We have devoted our lives to seeking you out to destroy you, whoever you are.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
    • Mick

      Oh yeah, we bad.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
    • John the electrician

      "Evil is as evil does" pal.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
    • akmac65

      "Believers" who judge others are also evil in the eyes of their proclaimed savior.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
  11. John

    If you believe nothing made everything, then you are following a religion that has "nothing" as your god creating everything.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • Stefan

      If you believe that god created everything...and nothing created god...then you too believe that nothing created everything. We just remove the unnecessary middle man.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
    • John the electrician

      Man created God. So where does that leave you now?

      January 8, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
    • John

      Stefan, it looks like you were honest in claiming atheists believe "nothing" is their god creating everything. Fine. But God claimed he's always been there, he didn't say "nothing" formed him. Anyway, you appear to be admitting that atheists give credit to a god called "nothing" as the creator of everything... and that is a religion.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
    • Stefan

      I don't really care if you want to call my beliefs a religion or not, that is a debate that doesn't interest me...but I would like to once again specify to you that just how you can believe that god has simply always existed, and does not have any creator or time of creation; I have a similar belief about the universe. It has always existed, their is no creator and no time of creation. The concepts are very similar in that regard, we just apply them to different things. Once again, I just remove the middle man of god, as stated above.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
  12. infonomics

    Atheism is an intellectual consequence from pursuing the truth.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • menoc

      Agreed.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
    • cm

      define truth....(note one usually cannot)

      January 8, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
    • John the electrician

      "We should base our desisions on facts and evidence" 1995 Bill Clinton.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
  13. salathieljones

    Reblogged this on The World Outside of Yourself.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
  14. John P. Tarver

    The notion of seperation of Church and State has to do with keeping Governmnet out of Religion. Freedom of Religion is the subject of the First Amendment, not freedom from religion.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
    • LinCA

      @John P. Tarver

      You said, "Freedom of Religion is the subject of the First Amendment, not freedom from religion."
      It's impossible to have freedom of religion without freedom from it. For anyone to be free to pick the religion they want, they first have to be free from all others.

      Here is the first amendment:
            "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
            exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people
            peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." (emphasis mine).

      It's impossible to freely exercise your religion if others keep insisting you follow theirs.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
    • John the electrician

      That would be "pursuit of happeness" Slick.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
    • Andrew

      Oh John, you are not exactly an intellectual heavyweight are you. You don't have to think very long and very hard to understand that you can't have freedom of religion without freedom from religion. What would it look like exactly, freedom of religion but no freedom from religion? The government ensuring that catholics, muslims and jews are all treated equally under the law, but throwing non-believers in jail for non-belief? That wouldn't really work would it? Such a society would never have freedom of religion – the same intolerance that throws the atheist in jail for non-believe would eventually get around to other minorities (by the way, that is the same intolerance I sense in you).

      You are not really thinking, slogans just pop into your mind now and again, and you type them out.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      electrician- The preamble of the Constiutution is not part of the Law, but thanks for playing.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
    • Athy

      John, it's separation, not seperation. And check your spelling of government. Geez, how do you expect to impress anyone with fifth-grade writing?

      January 8, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
    • akmac65

      Freedom of religion ("separation of church and state") also presumes that religion is prohibited from hijacking the government. The so-called "religious right" is making an attempt to force their beliefs into law, rather like the extremists in other religions in other countries.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
    • Athy

      It's constitution. And don't capitalize law. Thanks or playing.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
  15. menoc

    I AM ATHEIST.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
  16. chuck

    That ISN'T what we WANT from our elected officials. RELIGION DOESN'T MATTER SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE. Stop wasting our time.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
  17. NTreeN

    Drugs are for people who can't handle reality.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
  18. John P. Tarver

    Atheists are divergent from modern science and I don't blame the Congress woman for not wanting to be associated with today's flat earthers.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
    • tony

      Funny. Blaming atheists for evil has been your mantra up 'til now.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Atheists tend to be mass murdering evolutionists, like Hitler for instance.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
    • Observer

      John P. Tarver,

      Do you do ANY research at all? Hitler was raised as a Catholic and frequently talked of his belief in God. Ooops

      January 8, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
    • Doug

      Excuse me? Hitler was a Catholic. Gott Mit Uns was on the belt buckle of every Nazi soldier. I don't think an atheist would do that.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Hitler was an evolutionist who believed he could recreate the English honey bee evolution outcome by killing off certain tribes of humans.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
    • John the electrician

      What evil have you done in the name of your religion?

      January 8, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
  19. Michael

    Keep religious beliefs to yourself, practice what you like, how you like, as long as it doesn't affect me in a negative way and I'll do the same for you. Religion has no place in government, it's place is in your church, mosque, synagogue or wherever else it is that you practice your beliefs. And by the way, why are you so concerned with how others pray and if they make it to some place that you may believe in and they may not?

    January 8, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
    • Anne S

      ionteresting that you want no discourse discussing belliefs – does this mean you have none of your own, or that you find the ideas of others, particularly those with whom you don't agree, to be such an anathema or so threatening that they cannot even be discussed?

      January 8, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
  20. Shawn Irwin

    Religion is for people who can't handle reality.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
    • cm

      Believing in something enhances one's existence. You offer nothing to this thing called life with your views. Believers are happier – look in up.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
    • Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

      Especially for coping with the living Hells that some create for us. When we cannot trust other humans, what's left other than war or zoning into something that calms us.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
    • John the electrician

      Crazie people are happy too.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
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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.