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.
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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.
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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.
REALIST – is the right religious identification. A person who believes in what is real. Realty changed my life – it can change yours too!
Absolutely! That is why I am a Christian!
I've always viewed athiests as close-minded, lacking imagination, and lacking in intelligence. So, if someone wants to reject the label, I don't blame them.
Yeah – religious people can believe in anything with no restrictions where Atheists are limited to the world of reality. Who's the free thinker now?
You said, "I've always viewed athiests as close-minded, lacking imagination, and lacking in intelligence."
You must either know very few atheists, or be dumber than a doorknob. There is a strong correlation between IQ and rates of atheism. The smarter people are, the greater the chance they reject the religious bullshit. To be a believer you have to be ignorant, willfully or otherwise.
I don't expect very many believers to grasp the concept, but I keep trying. Maybe I should use smaller words.
That's funny, most scientists, including the one that invented the computer you're sitting in front of, identify themselves as Atheists or non-religious.
98-99% of the world's most renowned scientists are secular. Most atheists have a scientific worldview, meaning they don't claim to "know" anything 100%. We simply have not seen any evidence to support the "god" hypothesis, and a lot of evidence to the contrary.
So, the arguments for atheists NOT being unimaginative, ignorant, and unintelligent are:
non-atheism = religions
a confusion between fact and anecdote
It just confirms the impressions I already have. I'm sure there are plenty of imaginative, intelligent, knowledgeable atheists in the world, but they're the exception rather than the rule.
I know there is a God. But I don't belive in religions.
I think religions are man made, and are designed to have power over people.
If everyone followed the 10 comandments, we wouldn't need religions and law enforcement.
Perhaps we wouldn't need governments?
or God could of done a better job at making us.
Could have, not could of.
I respect your attempt to be open-minded about the possibility of a god, but I think it's misguided. I have two questions for you. 1) How do you define god? It's pretty hard to do without religion. And 2) If you can't define god, how can you say you believe in him/her/it? I could make up any word and say I believe in it, but if I can't say what it is, then I don't really believe in anything. I believe in Milgdorfs. What is a Milgdorf you ask? Something powerful in the universe that influences things.
Thanks Dippy appreciate the correction.
Newsflash, 'Christianity', 'Muslim', 'Jewish', and the others are not bad words either. I am so tired of atheists saying we cannot force religion on them, and then they turn around and force atheism on us!
Reality dictates that anyone who believes in fairytales as provided by the man-written bible and koran are fools.
I'm the devil and I approve this message.
where are atheist forcing anything on you? do they come to your school? your front door? when you are sick in a hospital bed? do they protest funerals? do they want to stop you from marrying?
As the religion of atheism grows, they will find, as other religious groups have, that people don't all believe the same way. We are all human and won't completely fall in line with a certain belief string. There are protestant Christians, evangelical and catholics. Likewise there are sunni and shiite muslims. Atheist will find in time that some will follow their main religious beliefs, while others will mix and match. Such it is with new religions...
Atheism is a rejection of the dogma of religion. It is an attempt, as much as we are capable of, to base our beliefs on evidence. Is it perfect? No, but it's objectively better than any alternative that I have ever seen.
Atheists care about their fellow man. Religious people care about their own "after-lifes." If you ask me, that's just flat-out self-centered. Stop praying and go DO something!! Atheists don't threaten to kill religious people, but religious people often threaten (and sometimes even kill) atheists and anyone who does not share their same narrow beliefs. I have never heard of a mass murderer who was an atheist, but I have heard of plenty who were Christian or Muslim. The problem with the two biggest religions is that they were *designed* to attract and retain the most followers. This was deliberate. Man created religions – all of them! They consider all non-believers as immoral, "damned to hell," subhumans. This is how they justify mistreating and/or killing others. Religion has been the excuse for most of the worst violence man has inflicted on his fellow man. Atheists respect life above all else. We do not believe in an afterlife. We live for this life only. We follow the "golden rule," because we do want others to treat us as we treat them. We don't need the threat of eternal damnation to make us be good. We are good, because we weren't raised to hate others. Despite that, religious people fear us more than they fear an unbalanced person carrying a gun. Go figure.
Most communist nations are atheistic, and a LOT of people have been killed by atheistic China and Russia. Learn some history...
China, former Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba, Khmer Rouge, all states with an official policy of atheism.
Responsible for ~70 million deaths in the last century.
And a lot of people have been killed in the name of religion or by "religious" nations. What's your point? Should we add up all the dead and whoever has the least wins?
@ Darwin: i think you are confusing atheism with communism. communists didn't believe in goblins either do you think it is because of there Agoblinism that people where killed.
I'm sorry, "Chad", but your assertions regarding atheism are unfounded. One could just as easily conclude that Hitler killed in the name of Christianity as that Stalin killed in the name of atheism. Of course neither is a valid point and does not serve well to generalize in describing any particular system (or lack thereof). There have been times, however, when religious groups have killed specifically in the name of their religions. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".
But why do we need to be labelled to not believe in god. Religion isn't in our DNA. It's in our need for understanding. You shouldn't be labelled anything if you are doing the natural thing and finding real answers as we were meant to do (i.e science)
Im not super religious but im so tired of all these athiests trying to take away every tradition especially around the holidays, cant even put a nativty up jeez if u dont belive why do u care? Atheist suck if u dont believe in god why do u feel the need to proclaim it to the world .. Why have an atheist chaplin? Also in regards to this story just because she put none for religion does not mean she is not spritual or believes in the possibility of a higher power.
Atheists have stopped you from putting up a nativity in your yard? LOL! Right.
If Athiests, as odd as it sounds, picked a holiday and turned it into something similar to Christmas – would you be OK with seeing decor and other things symbolizing that holiday? I really would like to know. It seems that Christians/Catholics, who are the majority of the country, get the most offended at any little thing that goes against their beliefs. Some even claim there's a War on Christmas (see Fox News). I hear way less stories of Jews/Muslims/Hindus/Athiests complaining, and the ones I do hear about usually come from Christians.
Not that I think Athiests should make a big fuss over Christmas-related material. I come from a non-religious family and we still celebrate the holiday, only because it's tradition.
The problem with identifying yourself as atheist is that most vocal atheists tend to be anti-religious and not just non-religious.
Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens actively seek to ridicule and undermine other people's beliefs.
If you personally do not believe in God, but you don't mind that other people do, and you believe that everyone's beliefs should be respected, I'm not sure that falls into the category of Atheist these days. I am Atheist, but I would also prefer not to be lumped in with the jerks who think that if you don't believe what they do then you're ignorant.
It's hard not to promote atheism without ridiculing religion. The whole concept of superstitious entities controlling our lives is so preposterous that it's difficult to avoid knocking it. Sorry, that's just the way the shit stinks.
Religious belief is a disease state. That being said, religion is a remarkably positive, coping enabling aberration. We have found through research that the brain is designed so that a specific region of the brain could be assigned as the " religious belief center" and that it is fairly normal for non-realists to beieve in god(s) and on top of that, the positive coping behaviors that the psychosis engenders hand help a perform lead a more productive life. Becasue of that reality, do we need to convert more people to realism? Probably not.
So 1850, this discussion.
I have no problem with any person claiming their religion but DO NOT take away my right to be a Christ follower (or Evangelical, religious, etc.) in my home country. God loves all people regardless of the faith they claim, or not.
Whose trying to take away your right to be a christ follower? and is that even possible when you are dealing with a super being?
You said, "I have no problem with any person claiming their religion but DO NOT take away my right to be a Christ follower (or Evangelical, religious, etc.) in my home country."
Is anyone threatening to take away your right to believe and worship as you see fit? I don't see anyone advocating for banning any religion. As long as you keep it to yourself, I couldn't care less what you believe, or what and how you worship. Keep it out of my life, and you won't hear from me.
You said, "God loves all people regardless of the faith they claim, or not."
Imaginary friends only exist in the mind of the believer. They tend to love who the believer loves.
Prove there is a god and I'll kiss his golden sphincter just like ya'll.
You have the right to believe in a magic guinea pig that created humanity, if you so choose. But that doesn't mean that others don't have the right to call you foolish for doing so.
I live in Utah, where I'm known as a "non-Mormon". If you understand why that's annoying, you will understand why the term "atheist" is annoying as well.
So what you're saying is you're an Amormon.
Good, Phil. I'll use that one (with your implied permission, of course).
It's amazing that some that believe in extraterrestrials can't fathom that one or more would help us by providing us a civil code and belief system that civilizes us with the intent to detract us from caving each other's skulls in. Sadly, whether religious or not, we're still inclined to cave each other's skulls in.
i dont think we are too inclined to smashing each others skulls in, violent crime rates are way down, and its not even close to the majority of people who commit violent crimes. if anything we are prone to using the threat of getting are skulls crushed in, as an controlling method to keep us scared and in line.
“(Rep. Sinema) believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”
That's because it's a non-issue. You could label her a video gamer and then ask, why isn't she a vocal advocate for American gamers?
I don't care is she's gay or straight or lgoes to church or play video games on her smartphone. Does she embezzle funds? Does take lobby money from big business? Can she work to get America's finances on a good path? Those are important questions.
I think a gamer(also any other activity or belief) would be upset if she said, there life style is not befitting to her personal character. im also a bit concerned that she said "personal character" does she have a different character that's not personal? if so i want to know what it is.
Labelis like atheist or nonbeliever are negative in that they only give information about what someone does NOT believe in (with the NOT being the literal negative). I would much rather be labeled by what I DO believe in. That's why I prefer to call myself a rationalist. Thank you, Greg Graffin, for helping me understand the difference.
...but atheism *is* just as whacked as religion. It's a stated certainty without any universally approved evidence to back it up, just like any religion. The only sane stance is "I don't know." I love it how people say, "I believe in God because I just can't believe that life formed by itself." Ok, but... because you can't believe life formed by itself, you *can* believe all the random stuff in the Bible? Or the Qu'ran? Or the ? That makes no sense either. Believe in "God" if your brain is tired of trying to assimilate non-metaphysical explanations of life's beginnings, but don't call that a reason to tack on all sorts of other nonsense. You may as well be saying, "Because I just don't understand the science, I've decided that The Lord of the Rings is a factual, historical account of prehistoric man."
You can still put up a Christmas tree and fill your kids' stockings if you don't believe in God. Really, quitting the God habit is far easier than ridding yourself of most other bad habits, and hey! 2013 is young! Let this be the year you declare that you've really been given no evidence that Jesus or God ever did... anything! And that the only reason you believe is because, like most believers, your parents told you something and you took their word for it. There's no shame in being a gullible kid, but being a brainwashed adult is a sad, sad thing.
Why don't you believe in the flying spaghetti monster? It's impossible to prove that it doesn't exist. I can think of an infinite number of things which are impossible to prove, does that mean we should believe in all of them? What does that even mean? Why should the Christian god get some special place in this infinite space of non-provable possibilities?
Aaron, your argument is valid only if your answer to the question "is there really a tooth fairy" is an honest "I don't know".
More to your point, do we have to make a blanket statement that all of these things might be possible because it's impossible to prove that they're not? What is the purpose of that statement? Does it really have any meaning if you accept that anything you can't prove might exist but you have no way of knowing?
i think if you dont know if something exists, im pretty sure you lack the belief in its existence. then again you might just be confusing agnosticism with atheism. As "i dont know" would fit better under the heading of agnostic. Like if you are asked the question does god exist i would say "i dont know"(agnosticism) , and if you ask me do you believe in god i would say no(atheism).
@Luke: Atheism is not merely a lack of belief, it's belief of a lack. I am nonreligious, not claiming to be in any way certain of how all of this universe came into being. I'll admit that some explanations are more compelling than others, but I could also just be strapped into the Matrix. How would I know?
@Gadflie: On the contrary; I know that the tooth fairy *does* exist, because I am him. :)
@Bob: I singled out Christianity (sort of) because that's what the majority of American respondents to this article think "God" means. To your other comment about why everything needs to be possible simply because we lack evidence that it isn't: That's obviously not a practical position to take in most real-world scenarios, however we're talking about deep existential stuff here - the stuff we have eternity to ponder.
"Atheism is not merely a lack of belief, it's belief of a lack."
Huh? how do you believe something that you lack, do you mean i believe that i don't believe in something? if that's your definition than disbelief has absolutely no meaning what so ever.
" I am nonreligious, not claiming to be in any way certain of how all of this universe came into being. I'll admit that some explanations are more compelling than others, but I could also just be strapped into the Matrix. How would I know?"
But do you believe you are in the matrix?
Atheism = Logic
My problem with atheists is the vast majority that I know do not respect other's religious beliefs. They think anyone who is affiliated with a religion is stupid, ignorant, and completely ignores science. While I understand how they don't agree with an exact interpretation of the Bible, I dont really think that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Furthermore, many atheists tote their beliefs as fact, without any proof. This is actually an extension of faith, a belief in itself. Its hypocritical and frustrating. I do not consider myself a Christian (agnostic, with gaia theory) but I don't think people who have religious beliefs are stupid and uneducated.
Now, there are plenty of respectful nonbelievers out there, and that is fine too. I am talking about militant atheism, everyone on this board knows what I am talking about.... take Shawn Irwin's quote about religion being for people who cant handle reality as an example. It is so off putting and honestly I have found it to be more obnoxious than the Jehovah's Witnesses.
There's a type of society in which people get to voice their beliefs and no one is allowed to challenge them. It's called fascism. If you'd like to live in a fascist society, kindly remove yourself from this one instead of imposing it on people who have freedom of thought.
You bring up several good points. As an atheist, i do try to respect that other people have been raised with specific religious beliefs, and they may not be in line with my thinking - yet.
But when those same people try to teach my kids that intelligent design, for example, is on par with the theory of evolution – my blood simply boils. (ironically – I was once a Jehovah's Witness – and graduated from a Baptist University)
I have many friends of many different faiths and non-faiths – yes it is annoying when either side cannot respectfully communicate their differences. Have a great week where ever you may be.
Whats to respect about them? the fact that they call atheists fools or that they deserve to be tortured forever? this is all inthe texts of the big 3 religions (Torah,New testament,Quran). respect is a two way street and the big 3 religions offer no respect to anyone just silent obedience .
@Luke – Good point as well – but at the core, with religion aside, they are people deserving of respect. You can't win an argument, or make headway in educating people out of the prison of religion by insulting them.
For example – I work with a very smart young man from a southern Indian state. Very well educated, as in wicked smart...is one of the nicest people i've known - and believes wholeheartedly in....ASTROLOGY! It's what his family has always believed in and a common belief for people in the area he was raised. If i would have burst out laughing at him, it would have damaged our relationship and not provided me a way to educate him.
I've since turned him onto both Hitchens and Harris and he's currently reading my copy of god is not great.
@mulehead: there are some religions out there that i have no quarrels with, there also Christians,Muslims,Jews that i do respect, but they also tend to ignore large chunks of there own texts. almost always the ones i find reprehensible, such as the fools part, the hell part, the almost going ahead with the child sacrifice and the flood, or that women should be treated like property. there is too much here that is completely against my own morals, that respecting them would make me a hypocrite if i called myself somewhat moral, if they actually believed this stuff.
@Luke – I'm with ya – most are really involved for the 'fellowship' more than anything – or they're still seeking approval of parents / siblings / spouses...fill in the blank. If they actually read the stuff they're selling, most would walk away....in a logical world. Unfortunately, that will probably not happen in our lifetime. Education, education, education – the only three things that matter. imho.
To me – the extreme nature of some religions, islam in particular, is what we need to work on exterminating. The belief that women are somehow inferior is a tough one to overcome in many illiterate places in the world. I'm holding my breath on the recent events in India – I'm hoping that women will finally gain a voice in that country – one that is really full of generally good people. And most hHndu's i know HATE the growth of Islam in India – what a petty, disgusting 'religion'.
Have a great week – peace
Why is it considered wrong to be one of the people to not believe in in the invisible, intangible, nondeductible, magical beings running around up in the sky? (Especially in light of the fact that each of the groups that believe in any of them ALL claim that ALL the others that they don't believe in are fanciful imaginings!)
In truth, all religious people are only smart enough to not believe in 99.9% of the fictional deities, while Atheists are smart enough to also get rid of that final .1%.
Well, compliments there, fella. Haven't you got it all just figured out? Ha!
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.