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.
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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.
I go back to college very often as I teach courses there. And not religion. A primary problem of so-called atheist arguments is their "belief" that no gods exist. Ed (above) even used the phrase "choose not to believe." Put another way, Ed has faith that no gods exist. That creates another difficulty for Ed, as he has to be able to have knowledge of all possible definitions or conceptions of God that he does not believe in. I doubt he has that much knowledge.
The religious people can spin the word 'atheist' all they want. They can try to vilify the term but in the end we, atheists, determine what that word means to us.
There is some semantic sophistry there: Not believing in the existence of deity has a different explanatory burden from believing that deity does not exist–yet both lead to the same real-life behaviors and orientation toward religious practice.
Thus, I consider myself as a non-believer, on those few occasions when I consider the matter at all. And yet, in the conventional terminology, most would think me an "atheist."
Religious belief and practice play absolutely no role in my life, although I do like the weekly organ recitals at a church bear where I live.
So I could sit here and make up all kinds of absurd magical nonsense and you wouldn't ask me to prove it? The burden of proof is on the person making the claims. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Take a logic class the next time that you go back.
I hope you don't teach anything important.
A fairly easy way to avoid your criticism exists. The real issue is not a matter of belief, but a matter of decision making. Whatever it is that we decide to do at any time during the course of our lives, our actions result from presuppositions about the world or environment in which we interact. While most of those presuppositions are implicit, unexamined, and generally work well enough, many decisions are too important to go unexamined. Problematic presuppositions will eventually lead to actions that fail to attain their goal. The purpose, then, of adopting an explanation (a theory) is as a guide to decision making. So how do you decide which explanations are most reliable? You have to have criteria of some sort. One such criterion is naturalism, which is the idea that there are no intrinsic constraints on knowledge, and further questioning and examination is always appropriate (Mark Bickhard's naturalism). That is to say, an explanation must not lead to epistemic dead ends. For instance, if a theory posits that supernatural beings are responsible for a particular phenomenon, or it has its origins in a supernatural realm, then the explanation fails to be naturalistic because supernatural beings and realms, by definition, cannot be explained. In general, supernatural claims cannot be investigated. How do you determine which of several supernatural claims are true if no means to examine them exist nor can exist? To not accept naturalism as a constraint in decision making is to have no constraints at all. Whatever constraints one does employ from within a supernaturalism are arbitrary, even if consistent within its own logic, since the underlying presuppositions of the supernaturalism itself are unconstrained. A naturalistic atheism is one in which one is only willing to accept claims about the existence of beings that are constrained by naturalism. An atheism predicated on the naturalistic constraint is both principled and not based on blind faith, and thus it is not subject to your criticism.
For the purpose of clarity, my second to last sentence should read, "A naturalistic atheism is one in which one is only willing to accept claims (about the existence of beings) that are constrained by naturalism."
On the other hand, despite being unconstrained by naturalism, some kinds of religious faith can be useful for some people dealing with difficult problems. For instance, if people have such poor character that they can't do good things in the world unless they believe in an all knowing, all seeing being who will make them suffer for the rest of eternity if they don't do right, then belief in such a being is at least useful for the rest of society, if not for them as well. Or if people's lives spin so out of control (or they otherwise have a strong need for control but little means to attain it) that only faith in God's Plan will allow them to live their life without debilitating anxiety or guilt, then such faith is certainly useful, and the world is a better place for it if such release makes it possible for them to lead better lives.
Whatever utility religion has for individual believers, it is foolish to think that such belief is necessary for all people to pursue the good life. Sinema's statement about her life apropos of her status as a believer or non-believer reflects this fundamentally problematic assumption.
I am an Agnostic Atheist, but I believe religion is necessary in contemporary society. If we are to be truly objective, there is no denying that life is as full of wonders as it's full on tragedies. If I had been able to stop asking questions, I am sure it would have been easier to survive the trials of life simply believing what I was taught. It is for this reason that when I see people living their lives guided by faith, I would never dare to challenge them to start asking questions. Life is challenging enough for most already to be adding the burden of uncertainty, so out of compassion and empathy, I keep skepticism to myself.
I am sure most Atheists simply ask for the same compassion and understanding from believers, because it can be hurtful when loved ones tease us with an assumption we simply cannot accept, even if it's done out of goodwill.
Yes, religion is needed as there are those of us who want to control you.
Atheism = Common Sense
Common sense = anything obvious to you that you think you shouldn't have to explain to the other person
I don't believe in gods, but it is anything but "common" sense of everyone would think the same way.
If religious people could be reasoned with, there would be no religious people.
I was forced to attend Sunday school every Sunday and hated it. In college, I took a course called Introduction to Religion as an elective. It blew the top of my mind right off, everything that I had ever believed or was forced to believe, turned my life upside down. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat. What was true, what was bs? I went through a long period of searching, and reading. During this time, my mom died and I was heartbroken. Then something happened to me, I don't need to get into details, but it was an amazing thing that happened to me, I will never forget it and I treasure the privacy of it. The journey to where I am now was long and filled with questions, skepticism, and formulations of new thoughts. In the end, so what if I belive in God, so what if you don't? I won't belittle you for not believing in God (I remember the posts after the Newtown CT killings taunting people with the questions"where was your God?") and you shouldn't belittle me for believing in one. Love is not something I can actually see but I know it exists, I see its manifestation in a kiss, a couple holding hands, a child's smile, the offering of help from strangers. God is not something I can see, but I have faith that God exists, manifested in every kind act from strangers, in the almost unbearable beauty of the desert and sky, the ocean and trees, and in all creatures great and small. Blessings to all, no matter what you believe.
I think you just WANT it to be true for some unknown reason.
Clearly your private moment was an irrational emotional event that moved you to decide to choose lies and falsehood about sky faeries.
See my problem is that I am supposed to accept your belief, even though it is totally irrational, purely because society says it is the polite thing to do. To me this seems almost as foolish as believing in a sky faery in the first place.
i respect your right to believe in crazy irrational things, but I will never respect your religion or its kooky silly beliefs.
No atheist is not a dirty word. But according to past articles from this rag and these authors, Christian is.
Yes, that is correct. a lot of people have been killed through out human history just because of your silly belief in a sky faery........That saddens me, and confirms christianity is a very bad thing.
I don't see any inherent disrespect for Christianity or any other religion prevalent here. What I do see is fighting back against attempts to "sell" religion to unwilling customers, and in the larger scheme against efforts to impose religion-based beliefs on nonbelievers through the force of law. Like swinging one's arms in the air, your right to your religion extends only as far as my chin.
Could she please make churches pay their fair share of taxes (and back taxes)?
Wouldn't that be something?!!
They could have their political speech + it'd solve a lot of our fiscal problems too.
The writer here is confused by trying to interchange the terms "non-religious" and "atheist." The category "non-religious" encompasses a variety of positions: i.e. people who are spiritually-minded but who aren't a part of any official religious body; the religiously indifferent; those who would be called agnostic; etc. To be sure, atheist are a sub-category of "non-religious." But typically, atheists are those who, on philosophical or other grounds, are firmly convinced that the material/physical world is all that there is ultimately. But such "atheists" would comprise only a small minority of the overall American population. The other "non-religious" people would vastly outnumber such convinced "atheists."
Ed chooses not to "believe." That means Ed's religion is that no god exists. Ed cannot know this.
I highly doubt Ed's worldview revolves around something he doesn't believes exists.
For me, I never "chose" not to believe–I just don't believe, in the religious sense.
I really think you cannot comprehend the experience of the nonbelievers among you.
Kevin–Your beliefs, expressed in your first two sentences, simply do not match my experience. You are free to believe them, but my experience says you are wrong about that–and since you are writing about (people like) me, you should give my perspective considerable credence. Given that, the rest of what you wrote makes no sense and has no reality for me. I hope your faith does not depend on misunderstanding people like me.
I've no problem with 'atheist', but I prefer the term 'skeptic'. I doubt too many things to be labelled with respect to just one of them.
Religious people have an obsession with the word "atheist." They've been trying for ages to apply a label that they can use to vilify those who employ reason and logic against their dogma.
They've never succeeded and will never succeed. But the losers will keep on trying.
Skepticism is healthy, because it concedes that there is a great deal that we can never know for certain within the bounds of human investigation. Even Jesus' disciples had moments of doubt, as did Thomas when he wanted to reach out and touch the body of Jesus to determine if it really had been crucified and risen. The merits of faith can't be conclusively determined with a microscope or telescope, or by mathematical equations, because faith lies just outside of the comfortable parameters of rationalization. One thing we know about science: the more we know, the more we realize what we really don't know, and what we may never be able to know.
"I think deep down, all people know there is a God, and that we will have to answer to Him" – Answer to him? That's the root of the insanity surrounding religion. All that's going to happen when you die is lights out, just like before you were born. Get used to the idea.
What I've never understood is why atheists seem to anticipate with great glee the idea of "lights out" forever. It seem as if they long for it. I've never understood that notion. Atheists are a strange bunch.
@kennyzales, I don't think that's really very common among atheists:. Those who genuinely believe there is no god simply think it is something you can and should make peace with. Most people, if asked, would like more than a mere 80 or so years. I can think of a lot of things I would like to happen after I die, but that doesn't mean I just pick and choose to believe the best one...not if I want life here on earth to function effectively.
It's not an anticipation – it's just the logical conclusion. If not then the 'afterlife' is filled with every creature that's ever existed. Going that direction invokes so many paradoxes it just gets crazy. It is just the logical conclusion and I'm ok with that, just as religious folks are ok with going to 'heaven'. Even if there is a creator, who doesn't care about me directly, I'm happy to have been given this chance to think about the universe, to see it, to live it. I'll go to my grave happy that I fulfilled my assigned role – whatever that was.
Psalm 14:1.............enough said!
"I do evil" – God
Ah the wonderful if you say there is no God then you are a fool, therefore there is no reason to even look at your evidence.
But it"s ancient bullshit. It says nothing relevant.
I find it amusing when people quote fiction.
The fool has said in his heart, There is no Santa.
Well let us examine Psalm 14:1 shall we?
1 The fool[a] says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.
Psalm 14:1 The Hebrew words rendered fool in Psalms denote one who is morally deficient.
So, those without god are morally deficient – like say, Peter Popoff – one of gods preachers....or Jimmy Swaggart.... Or the Rev. Jerry Fallwell....who should have been convicted of treason. Or the many priests that have ruined the lives of countless children....o wait...they 'believe'....
If that's your benchmark....I'd think a bit of self-examination would be the order of the day.
Jim, for those us who don't know, read, or believe in the bible, quoting a scripture to make your point makes NO point. Use your own words, and your own brain if possible.
I don't understand why Chris Stedman is disheartened. As an atheist, he has nothing to defend.
Surely he doesn't believe that humanity needs humanists, that's so naive.
Yes, religious organizations have built hospitals and helped the poor. And all of it was helped out by atheists and agnostics who had to pay more taxes to make up for what the religious organizations DIDN'T pay.
You are an idiot.
i don't know where you got the idea that only atheists pay taxes, but dude, no. and anyways private hospitals and the like are built with private funds, not tax money.
You are an "IDIOT" if you don't think atheists and agnostics don't have to help make up for taxes that religious organizations don't pay.
Get an education so you won't make such mindless statements.
I didn't say that ONLY atheists and agnostics have to make up for taxes NOT paid. Work on reading comprehension.
If religious organizations had to pay their FAIR taxes, they'd have a lot less to spend on hospitals, etc.
As if atheists are the ones paying taxes. Were you dropped on your head?
As if atheists were NOT the ones paying to make up for your church not having to pay taxes, or were you lumping in all other religions church's not paying taxes to make up for yours?
The sailor does not pray for wind, he learns to sail.
One cannot learn to sail without wind
I grew up a a Nazarene. I recently left as a Jehovah's Witness. I am now a person who is disgusted with so called Christian Religions. Lots of talk lots of hypocrisy! I believe there is a creator. But I have started to doubt any man who goes around quoting scripture like its his only wisdom. Religion makes seasoned people into blind sheep. And imperfect men (pastors elders) greedy to get more money from those blind sheep. On top of that they promise things that will never come to past. They also say God didn't heal you because you lacked the faith. Or God took your 10 year old son home. Oh that means God killed my son so he could have him for a better reason and I get to grieve. So now God is in the killing business? Or maybe he allows evil to kill. So what does that make God? He has evil do his dirty work while he pretends to be holy a righteous. God does things and we are supposed to sit back and suffer, worship and pay his pastors. LOL. What a joke.
Antichrist- I also grew up Nazarene but left it when I was 19. Never looked back. However, I do admit there were some good people in the church. Some who meant well and lived a good life. But I too am tired of all the hypocrisy in all the religions. How many priests do we have to hear about, molesting kids? How many ministers doing it also? And does it really matter how many people are praying for you to get well? Is that how it is decided who will get well. ie THIS person had 1000 praying for them, but this child only had 10 praying for her, so she will die. Is THAT how it works? If so, I want no part of it. What I try to do now is to live a good life. Be a good person. Don't lie, cheat, steal, etc. Love those I should, take care of those I should. I contribute to many causes that I believe in. Be good because it is the right thing to do. Not because you are afraid of some hellfire and damnation. Or because you are afraid of some vengeful god who will cast you into the fire. If that is why some people are being good, then I find that a poor reason.
Congrats on leaving the Witnesses – I left as well. The best days of your life are ahead of you; live them to the fullest. Peace.
I think deep down, all people know there is a God, and that we will have to answer to Him when we die. I believe a person really has to work hard to believe that there isn't a God. God will be fair in the final judgement. We all have an appointment when we die, and God will do everything He can to get our attention...think about your life, and how God has gone out of His way to tell you that He loves you and wants to bless your life, now and for eternity. God is love....human kind can be so evil, but that is each individual's choice: to choose to love or to hate. But God gave us all a free choice to love Him back, or it wouldn't be love at all. Read your bible, His love story for all people.
Why would god be a "he", isn't it a bit shady that it is conveniently human-like?
I don't know how you could be more wrong. I would have to try very hard to believe in an invisible guy in the sky that created everything a few thousand years ago, people created from magical ribs, talking snakes, people walking on water, etc. The bible is a nice guideline but it should not be taken literally. It is a bunch of fairy tales to help weak-minded people behave.
You have been brain washed. NEXT!
I know deep down that you are wrong. Not everyone believes there is a god and you are a fool to think they do.
Right on, Dan.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Yep, deep down everyone is just like you but some are too dumb to realize it.
I don't find it hard work to believe there is no God. The lack of God makes a lot more sense than if there was an all knowing, all powerful, all paradoxical God.
That's some childish, self-aggrandizing babble, Kevin.
How about this: deep down, we all believe fairies and werewolves exist.
That's how silly your post sounds to this non-believer.
Love story? Have you ever actually read the OT?
What you have stated is fairly problematic. Why should everyone believe in "God" deep down? Having taken a plethora of philosophy classes as well as religion classes, I would say that you need to search deep down and come up with a logical reason why you believe in "God". Note that I said "logical" reason...not just a tingly feeling or something that you grew up with and have never taken a moment to question.
"God is love... God loves us so much.." Yeah. "I love you so much I want you to kill your children to prove it...... wait.. ha ha I was only kidding.." "I love you so much I want you to suffer (or will allow it to happen) so you can trust in me" "I love you so much I'm going to allow innocent millions even children to die and suffer in my name" "I love you so much I will allow more people to die in my name than any other cause in human history"... If that's your God's love, I'll pass.
I acknowledge that acting in a "moral" fashion is paramount to the advancement of our society and, if you choose to believe so, one's personal merit earned in the afterlife or in the eyes of a god. However, what on earth does "belief" in a specific deity (or any deity, for that matter) have to do with being a good person!? Is belief required to be a good person? Your opinion will be affected largely by the denomination of Christianity in which you were raised (my guess is that you follow some form of Christianity), but what does it say about belief when two people who share similar Christian traditions may disagree on the degree to which belief in god matters, i.e. Catholic vs. Protestant ideals.
If theres a God, then God is an ape. Just like us.
If he created us in his image then we would be invisible too.
Actually, we'd be nonexistent. Nothing from nothing.
I'm curious, if Darwin is correct and natural selection results in the survival of species through adaptation over a long period of time and human descended from apes...why are there still apes?
Really JT? lol
There are still apes JT because, as I'm sure you've heard thousands of times by asking the same question thousands of times, is because humans and apes evolved from a similar ancestor. But as I'm sure you've heard that ancestor tale many thousands of times, than you must know why we must get the flu virus vaccine every year. it's because it evolves to restrain the vaccines we make year after year. If the wolrd were set up the way you belive it was, then we would be able to get a flu vaccine that lasts the rest of our lives. but no, it evolves, and becomes tolerant of the anti-strains that we put out every year.
Yea...every time I go to the zoo I think how similar we are to the apes...and then one wipes his butt with his bear hand and I'm like...wow... you could be using two ply ultra cushioned Charmon if only you guys got with the program! I think they take comfort when I tell them it will be much better in a few million more years.
Breathe Deep, do you think human pinky fingers have always been the shortest or are they getting shorter given their lack of utility? If the later, how long before humans only have four fingers? Also, do you think wearing a pinky ring, while not my style, could delay or reverse this trend?
An Atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist believes that deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanished.
ah, yes, because no religious organization has ever built hospitals or helped the poor, ever.
ari, maybe after they are done lining their own pockets and playing hide the salami with some altar boys.
this is so true and makes more sense....
Reply to ari
Just think how much more they could have done without spending most of their money on temples and supporting priersts, bishops, cardinals, popes, preachers, ministers..........
an atheist holds him/herself to no code of ethic or moral... that's almost as bad as people pretending to believe in something.
The only difference is that 'well-to-do' atheists are often predictably indifferent, while pretending believers are deceptive and corrupt. Either case is not good at all.
Believing in God and believing in science don't have to be mutually exclusive. During the Golden Age of Islam, many muslims believed that science was a gift from God so that humans can better understand the gift they were given. Yes, there are a lot of religious people who do ignore science and do take the entire Bible literally, but not every Christian does just as not every muslim buys into the jihad idea.
Can a person be an atheist if they don't want those things? Are there other atheists denominations that don't believe in social welfare?
I am not ashamed to brand myself an atheist. My reasons are;If there is supposedly a God,why are there so many religions? As far as the Bible? Just a bunch of unproven theories. This is my opinion and I don't wish to offend anyone or any faith. I respect your beliefs and hope you respect mine.
atheism is for quitters, isn't that something to be ashamed of?
statistically there is a much higher chance that you will commit suicide...
Santiago, almost 2 out of every 10,000. And you are basing your argument on that statistic? Now, THAT is lame.
Good call, walkman66. I choose to believe there is an intelligent designer out there somewhere, but don't diss anyone's belief one way or the other when it comes to that. Why can't we just all get along? :-)
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