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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. Riddley

    People have brought up most of the issues in the comments; I won't repeat them. But:

    – It isn't God's purpose (if there is one) to hit you over the head with evidence of him/her. If that happened, then you wouldn't be choosing between good and evil, you'd just be accepting observable fact - and you could still be as evil as all get out! God wants people to choose, and he wants them to choose good. That's a central point.

    – Something people haven't liked to talk about, but stories are becoming common in the media recently, is that a very large percent of people are mentally ill, perhaps as much as 20%. Unsurprisingly, there are mentally ill on both sides of the fence. That is, there are mentally ill atheists and mentally ill religious folks. The thing is, they don't wear signs. So when you hear someone who sounds really peculiar - on either side of the fence - there's a strong chance they are mentally ill. Their thinking sounds weird? It is!

    The question whether every individual has the ability to choose between good and evil is one that has bothered Christians, for example, for thousands of years. The same concern is shown in (non-religious) courts, more recently, which is that not everybody who commits a crime is fit to stand trial. Suffice it to say, however, that at least some few people may be atheists because a proper ability to reason, their mental illness affects them. These are not atheists who need to be held up as examples of reasonable atheism!

    January 9, 2013 at 1:10 am |
    • Answer

      You need to equate a god. You just did.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:15 am |
  2. Heather

    Athiest is not a religion. Therefore "none" is accurate.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:09 am |
  3. DanH

    Good grief...first you fire away at people who say a prayer before eating, then you want to argue there is no God, now your upset that someone clarified HER stance as: none. Instead of IMPROPERLY being identified as an atheist. Get your head unscrewed and get on with your life. She doesn't need to care about how you take anything she says...PERIOD.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:09 am |
  4. JoeATX

    The author of the article cannot tell the difference between atheist and agnostic. Like the people they attack all the time, atheists actually believe in something. They are believers, believing that there is no God. Agnostics don't know if there is any god. Most of them simply are not interested in proving that they are right, fighting for their "belief" and making it part of their lives. Being an agnostic myself, yes, atheist is a dirty word to me.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:09 am |
    • Josh

      Meh, I just go with Atheist,many of the people I have told I'm agnostic don't even know what it means.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:11 am |
    • BldrRepublican

      @Josh-

      Yes we do. It means you're lazy and want to take the easy way out by not being accountable for your actions. It means you want to discern right and wrong within the context of the event, at that immediate moment in time. It means you want to roll around in depravity here on earth, because "that's all there is", huh?

      Some murderers think the same thing – "why not kill? What's gonna happen to me if I do??".

      That's what it means.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:18 am |
    • Kenchandammit

      Christians are also believers. Since your position as an agnostic is equidistant from the positions of both Atheists and Christians, I take it the word 'Christian' is also a dirty word to you?

      January 9, 2013 at 1:18 am |
    • Josh

      @BldrRepublican

      Who says I need to believe in god to work hard? Who says I need to believe in god to do the right thing? Who says I need to believe in god to be a moral person?

      Could it be that you need the threat of eternal damnation if you don't wrong to be a good person?

      I do not believe in god, I make every effort to improve peoples lives. And my ultimate goal with my degrees is to cure things like Cancer, clear arteries and extend people youth. Maybe it is because I believe this is our one and only shot.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:28 am |
    • Josh

      Really wish there was an edit button >.<

      January 9, 2013 at 1:32 am |
    • small 'c' christian

      Believe it or not, it is possible to be an agnostic theist. That is, you believe in God, but feel no compulsion to be purelly dogmatic about it. You are able to let your inquiring mind ask questions and ferret out answers without fear of divine retribution.

      On the other hand, one can also be an agnostic atheist, disbelieving in the existence of God but willing to listen to those who do with an open mind.

      Some of the contributors here would be surprised how many of us there are out there- on both sides of this equation.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:22 am |
  5. Name-GOD'S PRINCESS

    Breath deep, seriously!!!!! Boy that is messed up 4 u 2 even think something like that!!!!! Wow!!!! Just because i chose 2 shorten my words is a cause 4 sacrifice.....whoah, why so much hate??really, what happened 2 u that u r so hateful?? I AM PROUD 2 BE A GOS LOVER N JESUS FREAK!!! I WILL GET SOME REFRENENCES 4 U ABOUT SOMETHINGS THAT R GOING ON IN THIS
    WORLD RIGHT NOW N I WILL DOUBLE DARE U 2 PICK UP A BIBLE AND TELL ME THERE US NO GOD!!!!!!!!!!!! ALL THESE SUPERSTORMS,EARTHQUAKE,TORNADOS, N FLOODS R PREDICTED!!! U CAN'T TELL ME THAT ALL THESE MASS SHOOTINGS GOING ON IS NOT FROM AN
    EVIL SOURCE(SATAN)!!! U CAN'T
    BLAME THAT ON GLOBAL WARMING!!!!! IT IS AKSO PREDICTED THAT SON WIL BE AGAINST
    MOTHER, DAUGHTER
    AGAINST
    FATHER,BROTHER
    AGAINST
    BROTHER, SISTER AGAINST SISTER, N SO ON!!!!!

    January 9, 2013 at 1:08 am |
    • Giggles

      This is why I come here. The religious nutters are just so funny! And their grammar! All-caps!

      Just delicious.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:10 am |
    • Athy

      Your blather is impossible to read. Try again in normal English, if you know how.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:11 am |
    • Edward

      Can't pick up a bible....don't have one, and for good reason. Double dare you to throw yours away!

      August 29, 2013 at 2:01 am |
  6. BldrRepublican

    @Blessed are the Cheesemakers
    "If your god rewards or punishes based on belief or non-belief that makes him an asshat not worthy of worship."

    And that was a judgement made by a single person, who has a TREMENDOUS number of faults (just because I don't know them doesn't mean they don't exist).

    You are as haphazard and error-prone as anyone. Your judgement on whether God deserves worship or not means absolutely nothing. You are just one man, and, frankly, no one cares what you think.

    God says it. I believe it. That settles it.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:08 am |
    • Republicans Got Stomped

      You're stupid. You proved it. That settles it.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:09 am |
    • BldrRepublican

      Unfortunately, I tend to believe I'm smarter than you, by a long shot. Oh, and by the way, more intelligent, better looking, and a whole lot nicer.

      You lose. Perhaps a thorough self-evaluation might bring you around.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:12 am |
    • Kenchandammit

      You can say, 'God says it', but you and everyone else knows that he didn't say it to YOU! The totality of your knowledge of god comes from what other people have told you. If nobody ever once mentioned 'god' to you, you would not have ever conceived of such a thing.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:29 am |
  7. Dolly

    Why can't we all just shut up & get along?

    January 9, 2013 at 1:07 am |
    • Answer

      You didn't even have to read anything.

      Somehow you're ticked off by your own clicking. Hilarious.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:09 am |
    • BldrRepublican

      4/5th of the worlds population is religious. 1/5 is not.

      That makes you a MINORITY in that respect. Perhaps you might be wrong?

      January 9, 2013 at 1:10 am |
    • Brilliant

      The majority is always right.

      The majority in Nazi Germany was therefore right.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:12 am |
    • Answer

      So size is the definition of being right?

      Might or numbers make right?

      So funny!

      So if the Arab nations or heaven forbid that the Communist Chinese overtake your own white christian race.. then you're wrong. HAHAHAHAHA – too funny.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:13 am |
    • small 'c' christian

      Builder- cite your source. I find that number overly high. 4/5? Is China included in those numbers?

      January 9, 2013 at 2:32 am |
  8. Dsculpin

    Are we STILL talking about gods in 2013 as if they were real? Pathetic humans. That is so BC.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:06 am |
    • Barath

      very true bro but ppl won't understand

      January 9, 2013 at 1:10 am |
  9. Altee11

    Fairly well said and explained stance that shows how we can all disagree on faith, but coexist with each other so long as we all deal with each other as humans who are equal, rather than using our specific beliefs as ways to divide ourselves and claim supremacism over others.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:04 am |
  10. Jimmyjam048

    Atheist is no worse than "GodLess" .
    Which is what it means.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:04 am |
    • Chris

      We are all godless, just some of us know it and others can't handle it.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:07 am |
  11. GO_GOP

    Question: Why are atheists always angry, upset and complaining?
    Answer: Because they have no social life, nothing to fall back on in times of crisis and no guidance from our Lord to take them through life.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:04 am |
    • And Your Fallacy Is . . .

      Straw Man

      January 9, 2013 at 1:08 am |
    • Athy

      We have plenty of the first two and no need of the third.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:08 am |
    • Roy Cathey

      I have a AWESOME Social life...you know why??? Because I'm not concerned that God is looking over me judging my every move LOL

      January 9, 2013 at 1:09 am |
    • Observer

      lol.

      Who is it that is extremely mad about gay marriage and abortions? Now THERE are angry people. Guess again.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:09 am |
    • Josh

      I'm a Molecular Biology/Particle Physics dual major, with a 183 IQ. I belong to a fraternity. I've had, well, some would say too many girlfriends. I can fall back on my family in a crisis. And my conscience guides me just fine.

      Nobody ever knows I am atheist unless I tell them. I get invited to church groups all the time.

      Perhaps, you have some prejudiced view of us in you head, but I'm here to tell you that we are ordinary people for the most part.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:09 am |
    • Dolly

      Amen again! I can't imagine not having God in my heart. He changes lives. He gives us hope, peace & love.
      The rage in some of these comments just screams 'LOST SOUL' to me. If only they listen, open their mind & hearts.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • GO_GOP

      Observer: Both Gay "marriage" and abortions are not allowed by our Lord and the Bible says so. We do not support that. And it has been proved being "gay" is a lifestyle choice encouraged by liberals. And abortion is of course murder. I am strongly against them but not mad at it. Gays and abortionists will burn in hell and that is enough for me. I need not hate them.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "GO_GOP", but "the Bible" and "our Lord" are elements of mythology, therefore your assertions are unfounded. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent true statements is: "EPIC FAIL".

      January 9, 2013 at 1:19 am |
    • Observer

      GO_GOP,

      Picking on gays is just an example of Christian HYPOCRITES. There are FAR FAR MORE Christian ADULTERERS who divorced and remarried (unless their previous spouse was already an adulterer.

      The Bible NEVER mentions abortion and actually offers more to support it than to oppose it.

      Read the Bible sometime.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:20 am |
    • small 'c' christian

      GO-GOP, your fundamentalist roots are showing again. Time for a touch-up

      January 9, 2013 at 2:37 am |
  12. Shawn

    I find the comments about atheists being smug or arrogant or even funny because the claim to know that this isn't a God to be strange. I'm an atheist and like most atheists that I know, I don't claim to know that there isn't a God, I just claim that I don't believe that there is a God. I don't believe in anything supernatural. It's not some kind of trick or willfulness on my part, I just don't believe. You can't force belief, you either do or you don't. What I think is arrogant are the people who tell me that they think I secretly or subconsciously believe in God because I believe that it's important to work to better the lives of all people and because I attend a UU church. That's even more annoying than the people who tell me that I'm a Satanist.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:03 am |
    • Bible Bob, Knight of Infallibillibabbity

      YOU ATHEISTS ARE SO ARROGANT!!! You all believe that you are just one of 7,000,000,000 people on this planet, and that when you die, you just end. What hubris!

      You should be humble and believe the amazing supercreator is your personal friend who will lavish you with eternal pampering while he tortures the people who don't agree with you! That's humility!!!

      January 9, 2013 at 1:07 am |
  13. Abin

    What a stupid headline.. who cares about her personal life... isn't there more important things to cover?

    January 9, 2013 at 1:02 am |
    • lol??

      Does she wear any type of headcovering? I like the type that covers the mouth, too.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:31 am |
  14. Nathan Wentzlaff

    That's fine. In this country you have religious freedom. If you don't want to believe, that is a freewill choice. From what I believe, we choose whether we want to love God and follow Him. However, He gave us the gift of free will. Therefore you can choose to be separated from God. Although, from what I believe I would hope no one follows this path. Taking a snapshot of America right now it is hard to fathom what may be next for this nation. Atheism is just another result of what happens when a country stops obeying God's Word. He gives them up to their imaginations. Many imaginations fuel atheism even more. Imagining that life spontaneously combusted from non-life and that we "evolved" from single cell organisms is a fairy tale. You believe in time and chance processes. In the end, everyone believes by faith. Since science is the observable environment. Evolution and all origin ideas are not science. I used to be an atheist but I met God in my bedroom one day in college. He clearly revealed himself to me in through the Holy Spirit. I never thought I would say this but, Jesus is alive and he wants to know you deeper than anyone on Earth can. Everlasting life is a cry out of repentance away!

    January 9, 2013 at 1:02 am |
    • Josh

      Acid is a hell of a drug

      January 9, 2013 at 1:03 am |
    • Athy

      God didn't give me the gift of free will. I always had it. Geez, you religies are weird.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:04 am |
    • Nathan Wentzlaff

      I have never tried acid but the day I was born again through the holy spirit I have felt God's deep love that is better than any drug I have ever tried. It can't even compare to drugs. Baptism of the Holy Spirit is an amazing thing that Jesus was promised to bring. He did the Name of Jesus has been lifted high since he died for all mankind 2,000 years ago. No love is greater than when someone will lay down their life for a friend ;)

      January 9, 2013 at 1:09 am |
    • Dsculpin

      Nathan, I suspect you were on drugs when your god came to you. If a 5000 foot high head of god appeared during the superbowl halftime show, i would be a beliver. But i know that will never happen. In is unfortunate that gods seem to only appear to those under the influence.

      Your comments also reflect a complete lack of understanding of how science and the world works. Science couldn't care less about religion or gods. It just slowly moves forward, witteling away at the mysteries of the universe. This is unlike your religious beliefs which remain static and rooted in an outdated world view.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:22 am |
  15. Jamie

    Atheists are just as guilty as the group they are trying to dismiss. But seems ridiculous to spend a lot of time talking about something they say doesnt exist. Both sides need to shut the hell up

    January 9, 2013 at 1:01 am |
    • Etalan

      plus both side need to pay their tax, obey civil law even if it effect their religion belief.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:11 am |
  16. bobo

    Most atheists I know, and I know quite a few having worked at a University, are pithy and judgmental. They reserve a few hours of each day to criticize Christians for really no reason. They are like bullies.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:01 am |
    • The Ole Bullsh!t Detector is Going Off Again

      Yeah, you know LOTS of atheists. They really do that. Right. Total truth.

      Do tell us why Christians lie so much.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:03 am |
    • Kenchandammit

      How about the Hillsboro Baptist 'Christians'? Are they 'bullies'? How about all those 'christians' who so proudly purchased their lunches at Chik-Fil-A in support of the anti-gay agenda? Are they 'bullies'?

      January 9, 2013 at 1:46 am |
  17. GayAtheist

    Ellen is the new Jesus.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:00 am |
    • Arvn Huac

      Well tell her to trim my hedges more neatly than the last Jesus did before INS got him.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:02 am |
    • Mulehead

      Ellen rawks! you crack me up. 'night

      January 9, 2013 at 1:03 am |
  18. Josh

    Of course she doesn't want to be labeled an atheist. I know from personal experience, you tell people that, and many instantly hate you and think you are a terrible immoral psychopath.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:00 am |
  19. Peter

    I am a non-religious, yet I find Atheist to be a dirty word.
    A quick reading of the comments will show that most of the Atheists here are as preachy and self righteous as the theists. Atheism has become a religion, and I do not wish to be identified with a group that is strikingly similar to the group I am trying to avoid. Even South Park makes fun of atheism's dogmatic tendencies ("Go God Go" S10E12-13). Mr. Stedman is a perfect example of the type of lunatic extremism that I want no part of.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:58 am |
    • Josh

      I would argue that it is not the majority, but the most vocal instead.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:01 am |
    • Santiago

      exactly

      January 9, 2013 at 1:03 am |
    • NeilAZ

      Ignorance throughout history, whether it is an insistence that some races of people are inferior and should be bought and sold as property or an insistence that an imaginary diety has a plan for the world and each individual, has never been easy to erradicate.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:45 am |
    • Kenchandammit

      I don't agree completely, but I like your comments and I bet you are the least violent person on here! Good for you.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:53 am |
  20. Prometheus

    I am here. I am a "None"

    January 9, 2013 at 12:58 am |
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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.