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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. John P. Tarver

    There are many spiritual people are not religious. I have found over the past deade that pagan worshipers know more about God than most Christians.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
    • truth be told

      You would be wrong ... but thanks for confirming that all atheists are liars once again.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
    • Gadflie

      I'm calling Poe's law on Truth. LOL!

      January 8, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Whatever you think you know about an imaginary being is a delusion...or you are J.R.R. Tolkien.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • zeyn2010

      Christmas decorations were inherited from Pagans who celebrated the winter solstice and days getting longer... Christians decided it would be a good idea to celebrate Jesus' birth at the same time after they converted the pagans since they ahd that tradition. Jesus supposedly was born sometime in September I think. So I guess Pagans may know more from most of the Christians since not many Christians are aware of these facts...

      January 8, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • Observer

      truth be told,

      "all atheists are liars"

      What ignorant FACTLESS nonsense. Well done.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
    • truth be told

      @observer
      Thanks for adding proof to my comments.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
    • lol??

      Why would somebody worship a pagan?

      January 9, 2013 at 12:21 am |
  2. chumlee

    if this author wants to be taken seriously he should lose those absolutely stupid looking ear rings and those even dumber looking holes in his ears.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Those are called "gauges," usually referred to as "guages" by the idits who wear them.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
    • lol??

      Digital or analog? He probably doesn't believe in nalog. Hold that in front of a mirror and you get golan heights.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:18 am |
  3. Mel

    Atheism is just fine if that is your belief system. However, it is a religion, an -ism, a non-theistic religion. It just does not believe the same as a theistic religion, but it does have its beliefs that must be taken on faith. It loses strength when it becomes anti-theistic.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
    • rdeleys

      Oh really? And just what are those things that atheists must accept on faith? This is all new to me!

      January 8, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • Uh-Huh

      Wrong. It's like saying atheism is a religion is the same as not playing football is a sport.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Mel, you just said that being without belief is a religion, when a religion is by definition a belief. So, to your way of thinking, without belief is the same as belief. That is so illogical as to be embarrassing...you might just as well say that dead is the same as alive.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
  4. Gadflie

    There is no evidence that Madison, the author of the 1st amendment, was actually a mason.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
    • zeyn2010

      Mason's I thought may have believed in aliens...

      January 8, 2013 at 11:37 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Was he really a bricklayer?

      January 8, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
    • lol??

      There's no evidence Madison wasn't mad.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:14 am |
  5. NorthVanCan

    Take it from Sweden. Religion has no place in government. It's the root of most of the worlds problems . It's just religious people cant see it cuz they bin blinded by the " light".

    January 8, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
    • lol??

      Root? I like beer, so make some root beer and quit yer complainin'. OOooops, the socialists won't like their hubbies drinkin' it. Plan B,,,,LSD!

      January 9, 2013 at 12:12 am |
  6. lamarkia

    Atheism is a religion. So, stating none is more accurate in this case

    January 8, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
    • rdeleys

      So atheism is a religion? Please explain to me the tenets of that religion.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
    • Uh-Huh

      Atheism is a religion like not painting is an art.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
    • DrV

      Atheism is NOT a religion. It is requires no form of faith, sacred texts or precepts other than by significant and concrete evidence, which is always up for debate and willing to be disregarded in the light of new evidence. A common analogy that makes this very obvious is: Atheism is a religion in exactly the same way as not collecting stamps is a hobby.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Atheism is a religion like dead is alive.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
    • lol??

      Yup sqeptiq, atheism came to keep you dead.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:09 am |
  7. Peaceful Muslim

    Both Atheists and christians are too crazy and extreme.
    I am nonreligious but very spiritual.

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

      You believe in spirits but not gods?

      January 8, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
  8. Just call me Lucifer

    Ironman is as real as Jesus. Prove me wrong.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • Dan

      I can't. They were both created by man.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
  9. truth be told

    Atheist is a dirty word always has been always will be.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • Gawd

      Ok. Go believe in your sky fairy. That makes so much sense.

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

      We haven't heard so much from you since the massacre that God watched in Connecticut.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
    • zeyn2010

      I do think it is too strong to say there is NO God – how sure can we be right? I'm sure alien intelligences who may have visited us were misinterpreted by the primitives of the earth and spawned all kinds of religions. So maybe there are gods who created us in their image...

      January 8, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      Religion is for phucking idiot sheep who are afraid of the dark. Oooh... I'm sooo scared about what happens when I die that I will grovel on my knees and pray to NOTHING to save me. Darwin dictates your days are numbered.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
    • Uh-Huh

      Your nonsensical ideology will die with you.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Opinions are like rectums; every a**hole has one.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
  10. NorthVanCan

    America call it's self the "light on the hill" and all that jazz. But if they only knew where they stand in global ethics they would never believe it. Slavery was never legal in England and people have always been free in Canada . But try telling that to an American.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • just wondering

      Right to bear arms ? Indian list? Riot act? Right to free speech, like calling a qu eer a qu eer? Freedom in Canada?

      January 8, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
    • Sensible Sam

      Slavery was legal in Great Britain until 1833, when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
    • Saraswati

      There’s plenty to criticize in the US today; focusing on sins of the past just indicates you're too ignorant to know current world affairs. If you want to criticize a country pick its current policies. Looking at ancient history is just laziness (and check out Canada's internal policies in WWII and England in China for a start if you want to compare history). I have, btw, lived in all three countries. No one corners the market on either good or evil.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
    • AnonMe

      Simply not true. Slavery was legal in both England and Canada and there were slaves in both at one time or another. Do not forget that the US had slaves when they were the colonies under Britain. Slavery in Britain was not outlawed until the middle of the 1800s. I will leave it to you to look up the exact date. Since Canada was still part of Britain at that time, it would have outlawed slavery at the same time.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
    • lol??

      Women own the baby. It's part of her body. That's why she kills the slave. She doesn't want to be a slaveholder.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:06 am |
  11. EvidenceBased4

    If you do not base your most fundamental understanding of reality on invisible magic, you are of poor character and cannot be trusted. Got it.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Black box radiation and something from nothing are pure science, no need for "magic".

      January 8, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
    • zeyn2010

      Yeah right? LOL

      January 8, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
    • lol??

      Are you talking 'bout Keynesian economics?

      January 9, 2013 at 12:03 am |
  12. Steve

    As a Christian, I do not care if my elected officials are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, atheist, agnostic, or of any other religion, so long as they are moral people. There is good in every religion, and that includes atheism and Islam, just as there is bad, which a lot of delusional people can't seem to wrap their heads around.

    That being said, what I can't stand are atheists who go around belittling others for believing (and not grasping the fact that not all Christians think that the Bible is intended to be taken 100% literally) and thinking they're intellectually supreme for it. Same goes for religious folks who go around spreading hate, though.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • Chris

      Truth

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

      Thank you. I am an athiest who agrees with your statement 100%.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      well altodiva, if you're going to be one, you should learn to spell it.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
    • lol??

      The triunity's fingerprints are everywhere. So are fakes.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:01 am |
  13. John P. Tarver

    Freedom from religion has no place in our Republic. The First Amendment is a Free Mason product and Free Masons believe a complete individual must choose a religion. A human has a spiritual and a physical component.

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

      I laughed. Good trolling.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
    • zeyn2010

      Maybe we aren't all humans LOL!

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

      prove everything you just said

      January 8, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
    • Steve Kaz

      and you have a mental illness

      January 8, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • rdeleys

      That is complete nonsense.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      Humans have physical and spiritual components? Prove it god boy.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Does a "Free Mason" lay bricks for free?

      January 8, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
    • lol??

      Ya caught 6 of them tadpoles. yeah 6. did I mention 6?

      January 8, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
    • mama k

      Tarver's watching too many Walt Disney movies.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:02 am |
  14. 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 11:25 pm |
    • Roberto

      I doubt you're actually an atheist. If you were, you'd realize that we are the most insulted and degraded group in the United States.

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

      I'm glad to see someone else who stands strongly with their beliefs to the point you don't need to insult others. The Atheists who are constantly insulting Christians and others are no different then those Christians who bash on Atheists.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • dar

      your own beliefs? I thought you were an atheist. If you believe there's consciousness, you can't be an atheist. If you don't believe there's consciousness, I feel sorry for you.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
    • lol??

      Nuthin' worse than nouveaux atheists.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Dar, that was an "epic fail" if you were trying for logic.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:00 am |
  15. Darwin

    Sadly the religion of atheism is making little ground. Well, other than CNN forums. Latest polls (from CNN) have shown that those that have strong religious beliefs have not changed percentage wise in the US in the last 30 years...

    January 8, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
    • Roberto

      Immigration from Mexico is the only reason for that. But besides, who ever said popularity equaled accuracy?

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

      Actually, that is not true. Religion is on the decline fortunately.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
    • Martin

      Atheism is not a religion. quite obviously.

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

      @martin actually atheism takes into account for scientific fact. After examining the term scientific if act, even textbooks will tell you that no theory can use proven right, only wrong. Therefore it is only logical that the belief in science requires faith, an attribute of a religion. Yes, Atheism IS a religion.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • lol??

      It's helpful to read Revelation for the killer humanoids to be understood.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
  16. Weatherwar

    It's a dirty word everywhere. I can see why someone, specifically a politician, would distance themselves from calling themselves atheist.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
    • Dana

      It's not a dirty word. She should be proud that she doesn't believe in an imaginary, invisible guy in the sky that controls everything. It makes her sound more intelligent.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • Steve Kaz

      Me calling someone a Christian should be no different than someone calling me an atheist. It is simply my religious opinion. Just like Christianity and every other religion is an OPINION.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:37 pm |
    • lol??

      dirty yes, dirty no, .......dirty yes, dirty no,.........eeeeeyyyyiiiiii!!!!

      January 8, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
  17. zeyn2010

    I don't understand why it's better to believe in something we can't explain and be forced to think we are inferior creatures who need to keep asking to be forgiven??? I'm sure gods were misinterpreted. If they did create us, I'm sure they didn't want us to blindly worship them. Maybe in the beginning they advised us, however if they were truly 'god's they would be proud of what they created and would NOT demand we ask for forgiveness! Would YOU ask for forgiveness from a creature YOU created? LOL

    January 8, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
    • zeyn2010

      I mean if we have been created by other more intelligent beings by 'gods' obviously!

      January 8, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
    • Dana

      I wouldn't ask them for money either.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • lol??

      proud, now there's a twist.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
  18. Heyzuse

    Human beings are amazing creatures. One trait that we universally possess is 'the need for answers'. This trait is so strong, that even if we don't have an answer, our mind will create one. Think about that for a bit. For example, "fire" we didnt understand it, so we created a "god of fire".
    The most difficult thing for the human mind to comprehend is the fact that we don't have all the answers. And to take that a step further, the next most difficult thing is to not "come up with" an answer that is unsubstantiated. Yes, it is a cold hard reality that all of our swirling mass off cells will stop working one day. And "that's it". That's very hard for humans to accept.
    I understand the need some humans have for religion, as there are many. But what I personally find spiritually enriching, is the the cold and sobering reality of having the faith in knowing that I nor a "god" or anyone else has all the answers.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
    • lol??

      ye ol' get enriched trick, again.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
  19. empresstrudy

    You are in fact it's not. And many religious people don't believe it is. In fact the contingent of violently upset atheists in a mad search under the bed for the imaginary Inquisition are often the ones who raise the issue in the first place. The angry atheists are often as guilty of the intolerance in demanding NO religion at all as the people they're angry with are or appear to be or are believed to be theocrats no matter how tiny the minority of that group in reality is.

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

      Demanding that my children sing religious songs in a public school is as bad as demanding I be a Democrat because my Governor is. Demand that I wear my hair short. Demand that my kids wear only red shirts. Demand that my kid wear Nike or Adidas, but no Keds.

      The next time they have the kids sing "Freewill" at school, I'll let you know.

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

      nobody is as angry as the christian right, nobody

      January 8, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
    • lol??

      rh are you talkin' about peer pressure? Bully kommies use it in schools all the time.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
  20. menoc

    I believe she's a very smart woman and corageous for having the guts to stand on her own . . .

    . . . but I do have to admit that Kyrsten Sinema sounds a bit too much robotic . . . spewing political cliches is not very impressive . . .

    January 8, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
    • lol??

      did you actually say believe?

      January 8, 2013 at 11:42 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.