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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. naturechaplain

    Completely agree with Chris. Those of us who are naturally not super-natural should be proud to stand in the public square and fully participate. Amen!

    January 8, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  2. Bob

    Maybe she's an agnostic and wants to avoid promoting the impression that she is so stupid as to believe that there is some way she can know for sure that there is no God.

    January 8, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Or maybe you're just to stupid to realize that agnostic and atheist are not incompatible, and that atheism is not the position of "knowing" that there is no god.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • JP

      Spoken like a true idiot.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • ME II

      There are various definitions of "atheist".
      Don't be so quick to assume yours is the correct one.

      January 8, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
    • lninpa

      Are you implying it's ok for people to say they know for sure there is a god, but it's stupid for people to say they know for sure there isn't a god, or are you implying that both are stupid? Both seem pretty stupid to me, but the latter is much more likely than the former so logically if it is stupid to proclaim you know there isn't a god then it is even more stupid to proclaim that you know for sure there is a god (but most people do, so I guess most people are stupid).

      January 8, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Ohio

      atheism = without God.

      Jesus = God with us.

      January 8, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
    • Bob

      I know that "atheist" literally means the same as we have come to know "agnostic" to mean, but in American culture, the term has become synonymous not only with people who are sure God does not exist, but people who are also politically active against or opposed to theism. As a politician, she probably does not want to be perceived as antagonistic to religion, and associated with what the term "atheist" has come to be accepted to mean, even though she may prescribe to it's literal meaning, because she does not want to be construed as as ignorant and hostile as the typical politically active atheist tends to be. Basically, the loudest, most ignorant sector of atheists have ruined the term for the reasonable atheists out there. Congrats!

      January 8, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @Bob

      You are sorely misinformed.
      Is belief and knowledge the same? No? Then atheist and agnostic are not the same. How is this so hard for people to understand?

      January 8, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • El Flaco

      There are billions of gods. Everyone of us has a god that lives in his brain. That part of our brain tells us what we want to hear. Unfortunately, your god will die when you do.

      January 8, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • Bob

      There's really no need to shoot the messenger here, it's just really obvious that politicians get elected when people like them, and many people, even nonreligious ones, do not like people who associate themselves with groups of people that are hostile to any group, even the religious, and American atheists have become synonymous with hostility against religion and the religious. Atheism as a poltical stance has gone the same way as all other elements of partisan politics; it has become extreme and divisive, and there aren't enough atheists out there for a politican to get elected by solely. Hence, even a politician who considers themselves atheist isn't dumb enough to associate themselves with the hatemongers who like to loudly proclaim their atheism. If there is one thing that politicans know, it's how to get elected.

      January 8, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • Robert

      "and American atheists have become synonymous with hostility against religion and the religious."

      That's not true, it's been Christians spreading lies like this to try and quiet their message. You can't just an entire group by a few bad apples, if we did that then your religions is horrible!

      January 8, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • Bob

      I'm not saying all atheists are hostile, I'm saying that the stereotype that is being developed by the most vocal contingent of atheists and the content of their rhetoric is that they are basically an ignorant hate group, and it's in their best interest to notice that this politician's unwillingness to associate with the term indicates a broad public relations problem, the likes of which theists have had to deal with for hundreds of years. When you start gaining a little bit of a following, all of the sudden you're the target of people who want to point out the shortcomings of a minority of your members as if it's representative of the entire movement. The vocal, hateful atheists such as you find on sites like this present the same problems to the acceptance of atheism as the hateful fundamentalists present to the acceptance of true Christianity.

      January 8, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @Bob

      You really think there was no stereotype of atheists before? When your own holy book says that anyone who doesn't believe in it are evil people who cannot do any good? Are you that blinded?

      January 8, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • Robert

      "I'm saying that the stereotype that is being developed by the most vocal contingent of atheists and the content of their rhetoric is that they are basically an ignorant hate group"

      That's why the conservative Christian group has lost all credibility and is slowly being phased out of Congress, because of their rhetoric and they are a hate group.

      January 8, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • Bob

      hawaiiguest needs to learn what a stereotype is.

      And I agree that the fundamentalist Christians have created a negative stereotype of all Christians just like the evangelical atheists have. Both are the most ignorant and loudest contingent of their repsective groups.

      January 8, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @Bob

      And you're completely ignoring what your own holy book says about not only atheists, but anyone who isn't a christian.

      January 8, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
  3. Salero21

    Now fuzzyheaded atheist claim and complaint about what they see as God being unfair.

    Because supposedly God has committed massive destruction and genocide like in the Great Flood. The problem for atheist is that nowhere in Scripture God claims or is portrayed as being "fair". God is Just; that does not mean that HE is fair. Another way I can say that is that, God is not fair but Just or will say that God is Just not fair. To the previous expressed concepts I can add, that God is Just not fair, but HE Commands men to be fair to one another. However the atheists want a God according to their imaginations. They want a god who would NOT punish sin and rebellion and who would NOT reward the faithful. Such a god would be fair to the atheists, but is only a fairy. God is not a fairy, that's why HE is NOT fair but JUST. Fairness and Justice is not one and the same thing always.

    January 8, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • Bob

      "God is not fair but Just"

      A synonym for Just is fair. So now your whole point is moot.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'However the atheists want a God according to their imaginations. '

      er no, atheists do not believe in god, they dont 'want' any kind of god from their imaginations.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • QS

      And there you have it folks – religion is nothing more than a system of control which uses punishment and reward as a means to that end.

      Hey, you said it, not me. :-)

      January 8, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Salero21

      Bob,

      The Fact that they're synonyms does NOT make them exactly the same thing always. I think I did point that out clearly enough. Is just like when some things are Legal but not fair. Some laws and rules are or were unfair thought their "Legality" may have been unquestionable. Some things appear "fair" but are not legal or just. Now, if you can't understand that, you're beyond help.

      January 8, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • S-3B Viking

      No where in scripture is God portrayed as being fair?

      Abraham argues for numerical righteous in Sodom...Moses' bargaining....the prodigal son story...."For God loved the world"...1 Corinthians 13...among so many others...

      But then God goes and contradicts himself....

      You make a great spokesperson for the need for conversion to atheism, Salero.

      January 8, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Salero21

      QS,

      I said GOD not religion, I did mention religion at all, and I always said GOD. Now you're clearly beyond help if your reading skills are so poor and below grade. Aren't you supposed to be back to school by now?

      January 8, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Athy

      You can't explain it, Salero. You're beyond help.

      January 8, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • lninpa

      Salero21 – is it "just" when innocent babies die from SIDS or other tragic accidents?

      January 8, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • lol??

      A&A's get fair outta SCOTUS.

      January 8, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
  4. lol??

    Mal 3:6 For I [am] the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed."

    January 8, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  5. QS

    Funny, isn't it? How religion can turn even a seemingly liberal person into a raging self-righteousness monster.

    Seems religion has a way of doing that to people. Sad.

    January 8, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  6. Salero21

    So no, atheism and atheist are NOT dirty words. Atheism is just sophisticated stupidity; nothing more and nothing less. If this Blog is clearly named Belief and atheist claim unbelief, then; what are they doing here?

    January 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • Observer

      Keep up your hypocrisy about "stupidity".

      Well done.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      because this blog is called 'belief' and not 'for those with belief only'
      its about both sides of arguments, discussions etc.
      but hey, why do i need to tell you that, you are apparently the smart one and im apparently the sophisticated stupid one.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • QS

      Interesting – so if Atheism is just sophisticated stupidity, that must make religion UNsophisticated stupidity.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • niknak

      It is not called the Religion Belief Blog.
      Just the Belief Blog.
      That could mean belief in science, not god.
      So what are you doing here?

      January 8, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Eric G

      So, using your logic.... Belief is unsophisticated stupidity?

      January 8, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      Well for one thing the fact that I don't believe in a god or gods doesn't mean I don't have any beliefs whatsoever. I believe in secular morality. I believe science is the best method for examining and answering questions about the natural world. Knowledge is a subset of belief and I strive to believe in as many true things and as few false things as possible.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • sam stone

      salero: what they would christianity be? self inflicted slavery?

      January 8, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • Salero21

      Eric G,

      It could be, if it is belief for its own sake. A misplaced belief like that of idolaters and pagans is stupidity also.

      That’s why for example this Belief blog clearly accommodates all types of belief. Faith in God the Creator of all thing and our Creator and Father is however far above and beyond just mere belief.

      January 8, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  7. stinkytojo

    I hate that this lady feels that she can't just outright call herself an atheist, but I do understand. I am an atheist who lives in the deep south and I have had to learn to just keep my mouth shut. When you say you're an atheist around here people look at you like you said you were a satanist. The general idea seems to be that if you're not a christian, you must be evil. Which is ridiculous, of course. I actually live my life more like a christian should than most of those who claim to be christian. For folks who have been taught not to judge, they seem to be the most judgmental group going. In this part of the country, anyway. I can't speak for the rest of the nation. I hope that one day we will all be able to believe what feels right for ourselves without being judged by others. Belief, or lack thereof, is a very personal thing and really shouldn't even be anyone else's concern. If we want to judge people, it should be for their actions, not their beliefs.

    January 8, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      when my daughter was talking to my wife's aunt she mentioned i didnt believe in god and the aunt, in shock, said 'you mean hes an *mouthed quietly* ATHEIST?'

      she couldnt actually bring herself to say the word out loud. too funny.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • ME II

      I'm not certain, obviously, but I don't think she is an Atheist.
      I suspect that she is some form of 'spiritual but not religious', hence the "... not befitting... her life's work" bit and the religious affiliation of "none".

      January 8, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • niknak

      I hear you Stinky.
      I work with fundies from all over the country, and it never ceases to amaze me how UN christian they are, especially when they get away from their family and friends.
      They also use the word atheist like they use communist.
      And the funny part is that they don't really know what either word means, other then that it must be something bad as it is used in their communicator to god on Sundays and on programs like Fox news as something bad.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  8. Scott

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_Spaghetti_Monster

    There you go.

    January 8, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  9. James

    I have met Kyrsten Sinema, she is a good person. It is easy to write a blog from a distance about her. It is much harder to make an effort to get to know her.

    The author makes a big deal about depth of character but simultaneously reduces her to a two dimensional symbol.

    January 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  10. Ravi Zacharias

    . “You need an ongoing context and a community of interpretation to keep the Bible current and to keep yourself honest,” “Forget the thought that the Bible is an absolute pronouncement.”

    January 8, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Why doesn't your god update it and keep it current instead of letting "his word" be misunderstood and takin out of "context" by believers and non-believers alike?

      January 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  11. detada

    I am a Christian and I have a couple of friends who are not ashamed of being atheists. They are some of the most caring people I know. They are far more caring than many of my "Christian" friends. They respect my being Christian and I respect their atheist position. They are honest and true to themselves and to their beliefs. We agree to disagree on religious issues, but aside from that, I am very proud to call them my friends.

    January 8, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • sam

      I wish more people thought this way.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      my wife, who is a believer by the way, calls me the most christian atheist she knows and that i act more what she considers christian than half of those she knows that call themselves christian.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • waterman

      Good for you and them. But if you were a conservative christina, you have to believe that they are going to hell and will be tortured there for eternity, because they did not "accept christ". Being caring doesn't matter to god, only who you accept.

      January 8, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  12. Salero21

    The GRAMMAR GESTAPO OF THE INTERNET is made-up mostly of atheists. Either that or the GRAMMAR GESTAPO is an atheist organized group.

    The ONLY reason for their miserable existence is to go about and around, chasing believers and people of Faith. Searching for and finding minor silly misspellings and mistypes, in the postings of Christians. Once that happens the GRAMMAR GESTAPO proceeds to club the violators with toothpicks till they die.

    Now while is truth we all should do our best to correctly spell and type; misspellings and mistypes will happen. The GRAMMAR GESTAPO OF THE INTERNET lead by atheist however is unable to understand in their sophisticated stupidity, that these are NOT formal writings. Nobody here is writing a book, lecturing anyone or in some sort of Academically Conferencing. All we're doing is expressing our opinions.

    Atheism is in fact sophisticated stupidity. That’s my opinion, based on my observations, and incidentally observation is the first step in a process. I have a GOD given RIGHT to my Opinion. A Right that men of reason have already acknowledge for centuries.

    This is a Blog called Belief so really, the athists insistence of denying that demonstrate for the billionth time, that atheism is nothing more than sophisticated stupidity.

    January 8, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • sam

      This is the only attention you get, isn't it.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Observer

      Salero21,

      Keep talking about the "stupidity" of others while demonstrating STUPIDITY about your own language.

      The irony and HYPOCRISY is classic! Great job!

      January 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      you are one strange little man arent you?

      January 8, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      where are atheists denying this blog is called 'belief'?

      January 8, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • riteous

      "GOD given right"? Do you realize how circular this statement is and how utterly unconvincing it is? Atheists can take your "right" away because they don't believe in a god and therefore your right is invalid. Show me where in the bible (or whatever doctrine you follow) where god gives you the right to an opinion.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      "GRAMMAR GESTAPO OF THE INTERNET is made-up mostly of atheists"

      So, you're finally agreeing that we're more educated then you. :-)

      January 8, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • Truth

      Because you have observations that god exists, right? You're a moron.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  13. It is Called

    Maybe this is when g-od comes into the picture ... when hammer hits THUMB.. da

    January 8, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  14. MagicPanties

    My invisible pink unicorn is praying that Congresswoman Sinema gets a clue.

    January 8, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  15. Lux

    So in the first paragraph the author equivocates a religious affiliation of "none" with being an aethiest. What about agnostics? Or non-practicing believers who choose no affiliation?

    So given the entire opinion piece is predicated on a logical fallacy, I'm choosing not to read the rest. Because I believe in cogent points, and affiliate with "rational thought".

    January 8, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • lol??

      Maybe they weren't in the debate mode.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • Christy

      If you had read more than just the first paragraph, you would have realized that the author's point wasn't that she listed her religious affiliation as 'none' and therefore he assumed she was an atheist, but the statement that she released suggesting that the term atheist does not reflect her character, as if to say that atheists have somehow less character than non-atheists. The author takes issue with the statement she released, not her lack of religious affiliation.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  16. capnmike

    People who either have not been brainwashed since birth with the enormous lie of religion, or who have the intelligence to see that it IS a lie and an enormous hoax, certainly seem threatening to the masses of people who actually believe all that codswallop...it threatens their version of "reality", as unrealistic as that may be. Too bad. There isn't any "god". It's something humans invented to explain things they didn't understand, and to control others...and that's all. Live with it.

    January 8, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • Andrew

      Some of the most intelligent people that have ever lived believe/believed in God. And there were some who didn't. Perhaps that means that believing in God isn't a matter of intelligence but awareness. Granted, intelligence is a factor in "awareness", but one of many. In fact, true intelligence cannot deduce whether God exists or not. and we all have faith in something.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  17. Rob Adamson

    What's up with the lifesavers in this boneheads ears? I must belong, I must belong, I must belong. Weak.

    January 8, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  18. Jim

    Atheists tend to convert when faced with a life-threatening situation. You can do without God until you need Him. But, will He then want you?

    January 8, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • El Flaco

      Name one.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'Atheists tend to convert when faced with a life-threatening situation'

      nice claim, care to cite the source?

      January 8, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • capnmike

      Im an atheist, and you are wrong. No "threatening situation" makes a lie into a truth.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • S-3B Viking

      Jim,

      Have you ever been in a life-threatening situation with an atheist and he or she converted?

      Much like your faith and apologies, your comment is pure conjecture.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • sam

      He is just really not a good parent.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Matt54

      Christopher Hitchens.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • S-3B Viking

      "But will he then want you?"

      And, Jim, you sound just as petty and childish as the God your religion has created.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Jim,

      That is just lying. I live next to a Marine who has fought in 2 wars who is an atheist.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • harroberts

      yet another drive by an ill informed religious puppet.....if u people think Jim is going to go any deeper than his blind assertion.......dont hold your breath

      January 8, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • TC

      Provide verifiable statistics. Thanks.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • Dave

      Albert Einstein, in an article I read on this website, said he viewed himself as a Jew from a cultural/ethnic sense. He did not believe in any god.

      Jack Kennedy is said to have told Bobby he was an aethiest. (I cannot recall the biography, it was quite some time ago)

      Hitler, on the other hand, belived in god.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • lol??

      I would have to say from what I've read that death bed conversions are rare. They crossed the line previously.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  19. pauleky

    Here, Here – great article!

    January 8, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  20. El Flaco

    Atheists have no religious beliefs. Atheism is not an opinion or a philosophy. Early Christians were called atheists because they denied the existence of most of the gods.

    January 8, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
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