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.

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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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Politics

soundoff (3,637 Responses)
  1. Char

    I have not seen the term deist or agnostic used during this discussion, but I admit I didn't read all the comments. I consider myself an agnostic but it is my choice to use whatever best describes how I feel about the topic of a God and religion.

    Sometimes I am insulted by believers, as if I am anti-god or hate God as they believe him or her to exist. Occasionally I am insulted or offended by atheists who take the discussion to another level, making hateful and demeaning remarks against those who do believe, as if someone must be mentally impaired if they believe.

    I have always said I don't feel the presence of a being that fits the description of a God. That does not mean that I need proof in order to believe. If I wake up some morning and feel something extraordinary I will take it as a gift and won't seek proof. I doubt it will ever happen but my mom always said so long as I was open to the gift that was all she thought a loving God would ask.

    I can only imagine that Rep Sinema does not want to be put into a box about her religious beliefs or lack there of. She has the right to not want to be labeled. She could in fact be very religious. But it has been my experience that those who feel strongly about their religious beliefs usually express it frequently throughout the day, as they want to share their joy.

    My personal pet peeve are people who claim to believe but give the impression they are only saying it to pacify others or to be voted into office or promoted at work. I like to think that if there really is a God, he or she is not likely to appreciate the lies told by non-believers who pretend to believe. If after I die I discover there really is a God, I hope he or she will find a way to let me know that while being disappointed in my lack of belief, that I am respected for not lying about it, and for not trying to spoil the beliefs of others. And that the way I lived my life, despite having no fear of punishment after death, was worthy of respect.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
  2. zaphed

    religion is a way of life.. not based on any reality

    January 8, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
  3. thelegend9185

    We don't really need words to describe the absence of something. A person who plays golf is called a golfer, but we don't call people who don't play golf, non-golfers. I don't call myself an atheist in conversation because I don't prosthelytize against the faith of others. If I'm asked I'm more likely to use the term agnostic, since it usually references a lack of evidence to suggest there is a god, but an openness to the suggestion should such sufficient evidence become available.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
  4. bp

    History has proved repeatedly that religious people are the most hateful, violent and intolerant on Earth. Atheists need to be careful in light of that. For example, genital mutilators of children and suicide bombers are exclusively people of faith. Sinema needs to be careful.

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." – Voltaire

    January 8, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • yet another none

      This is why I don't use the term atheist to describe me. Because generally I see those that embrace the term along the lines of bp – going too far with their language. I think all of humankind has the capacity to be evil – some use religion to justify their actions, and some are atheists like Hitler and Stalin. So to make this sweeping generalization about religious people just doesn't advance the conversation and doesn't acknowledge that there are also a lot of very good religious people in the world who are better people because of their religion.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
  5. Paul Karch

    Who, exactly, do 'humanists' represent? They certainly don't represent humans... as the majority of us are smart enough to believe in the Supreme Being.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • bp

      I agree with your post, except that it should read "the majority of us are stupid, gullible and weak-minded as to the Supreme Being."

      January 8, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • mulehead

      umm...wrong again there bubba. Do you know that believing only in the Christian 'god' alienates most of the people on earth? Lets just start with the people of India – your narrow minded view of theology condemns approx. 1.3 Billion people in India – a mostly polytheistic society. And which of the pastors or ministers would you like to volunteer as a proper example of 'gods' mouthpiece? Ted Haggard? Peter Popoff? Jimmy Swaggart?

      Oh! there's even a wiki on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_scandals_involving_evangelical_Christians

      January 8, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
    • Marc Parella

      Paul, I am a smart guy. I live in San Francisco and I own a house in Phoenix. I have two degrees and own my own business. I am a Atheist. I have given religion a lot of thought.

      Atheism is not a religion and it is not an anti-religion. It is simply the denial of a mystical explanation of the origin of the universe. That simple. A conscientious atheist should change their mind in a heart beat if there is ever solid empirical evidence of a mystical beginning.

      I am what they call a soft atheist. I don't practice converting people to atheism. People of faith are welcome in my world and I encourage individuals to explore their uniqueness in discovering their religion. What you feel as the presence of God might be something different for someone else - and you should respect that. For me the presence of God is human potential, and humanists believe God is Human Potential. That's what they believe in.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
  6. GayAtheist

    the 21st Century will kill religion. It's a done deal.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      Amen brother.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:13 am |
  7. NTreeN

    Not a wish, just facts...

    January 8, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • Observer


      Not FACTS, just opinon and wishful thinking. FACTS can be proven. Guess again.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
  8. lee

    “(Rep. Sinema) believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.” I simply don't see the problem with this. I don't believe that being an atheist defines my life's work or personal character either and more than I see calling oneself a Muslim or Christian or Jew or whatever defines their work or their character. All of it is a part of who we are but each individual piece of use doesn't not "define" us. Get a grip Chris and trying to insist that she define herself after you.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
  9. Tom Joad

    Oooohh, you don't believe what I believe. You are not American.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
  10. Zobit

    Atheists deserve equal representation in this country. It shouldn't be something we have to hide or be ashamed of.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
    • Christian

      Everyone has equal rights moron.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
    • Bob

      "Representation" and "Rights" do not mean the same thing. We have a thing called a "Dictionary" you should try reading sometime instead of your book of fairy tales.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
  11. RC

    I'm not sure what I am (humanist/agnostic/atheist/whatever) and it's not too difficult to understand that Rep. Sinema may be in the same boat. So don't condemn the lady because she can't decide just what she is and don't try to place a label on her just because you've got your own agenda. Sounds like the atheist version of Act Up? Get a life!

    January 8, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
    • BeadlesAz

      RC – perfect!!!!!

      January 8, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
  12. Andrew

    I can understand Rep. Sinema's reluctance to shy away from the word atheist – it has historically been the kiss of death for elected office in the past.

    And many others as well have suggested we "Religion: none"s stay away from it. They have suggested "non-believer", "freethinker", "rationalist" and others. But I love the word myself and wear it proudly. I've looked at the vacuum of evidence for the existence of gods and concluded that all gods are most certainly myths. I've also looked at history and our current state of affairs and the things religious people say and believe and concluded that religion is pure evil and harmful to the individual mind and the community.

    So call me a very proud atheist, who loves to debunk religious bs and make the world a better place.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  13. Joseph G

    Thank you, Chris, for advocating tolerance and understanding. Not believeing in religion or a higher power is no more or no less dirty/wrong/smart/idiotic than believing in either. As an atheist, I don't like being derided for something I feel is the truth, especially when I have not been presented with any physical evidence proving why I should follow any religion. However, it is disgusting and appalling to me when atheists deride people of faith. I have yet to be able to present evidence that fully excludes the existence of a higher power or something beyond this world.

    In other words.... Fight nice everyone and relax. We all die in the end anyway.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  14. Mike

    She could non-religious as well as a theist. She may be a deist, like the founding fathers. I am disheartened when people, atheists in specific, think that "non-religious" means "atheist".

    January 8, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
  15. Paul Karch

    I am beginning to wonder at the sanity of aethiests, especially this guy. A REAL chaplain, priest, pastor, represents GOD and GOD's teaching. Who, exactly, do 'humanists' represent? They certainly don't represent humans... as the majority of us are smart enough to believe in the Supreme Being.

    ...I like how logic, reason, truth defeat all lies... doesn't give the liars and insincere a leg to stand on 🙂

    January 8, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • Observer

      Everyone just picks and chooses what they like from the Bible and ignores the rest.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
    • Bob

      What exactly is smart about believing in something that has no basis in reality? A bunch of "gospels" written by people who obviously didn't have any knowledge beyond what was known by humans at the time, which isn't much. Smart? That's not the word I would use.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • Todd

      Most of us are smart enough to believe in a Supreme Being? Really? Do you know how stupid that sounds? I'm not sure I would call believing in a sky fairy that watches us from above and determines the outcomes of wars and sporting events to be very smart. It's all BS and you know it. There is absolutely no way in this universe that humans have the mental capacity to explain the nature of the force/power/energy (whatever you want to call it) that kicked off the big bang that ultimately resulted in the universe as we understand it today and ultimately life on earth. Stop with the fairy tales and get a grip on reality.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:45 pm |
    • Justin T.

      Believing in a supreme being doesn't make you smart, it in fact does the opposite. It makes you ignorant and uneducated as far as current science and findings go. Go take modern college biology classes, study evolution. Catch up to the current facts of society, the science world, and reality in general , then claim to be intelligent.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
  16. Jlwhit

    Yes Virginia, atheist is a dirty word.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
  17. MesaMax

    Sinema is an embarrassment to the State of Arizona. She declared herself to be a "Prada Socialist". She is a basket case. She is certainly unworthy of being in Congress. It is a shame that somehow she got in.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  18. NTreeN

    Atheists will burn when the world ends. That's if the boulders don't crush them 1st...

    January 8, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
    • Observer

      A sadistic wish. How Christian of you!

      January 8, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • Bob

      Everyone will burn when the world ends if there is anyone left here to burn in a few billion years

      January 8, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
    • Lisa

      And yet, somehow, I'm not worried. Been hearing this for too long... without basis.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
    • Andrew

      "Atheists will burn when the world ends."

      For 2000 years christians have been claiming that the world is going to end very soon – within their lifetime. And generation after generation is proven wrong. Do you really think you have any credibility left on this topic? Don't you agree that we can probably all conclude you are just recounting mythology – baseless claims? Your god is doing a perfect imitation of a mythical god – invisible and silent. You're doing exactly what the follower of a mythical god would do – presenting baseless claims unable to provide evidence to turn the baseless claims into something meaningful.

      And why the threat of torture? Doesn't that say something about your character that you had 15 words to say about atheism and the first 7 were a threat of torture? At the very least it is shallow, but I think we can say your character flaws must run deeper even than that.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
    • Bob

      I think we're all being hard on this person for nothing. It's such an obvious caricature of a ignorant religious fanatic that I'm sure it was meant as a joke.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
  19. Universe

    God in Quran says, (holy Islamic scripture)

    If you obey the majority of people on earth, they will divert you from the path of God. They follow only conjecture; they only guess. [Quran 6:116]

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    ‘They said, "You have to be Jewish or Christian, to be guided." Say, "We follow the religion of Abraham – monotheism – he never was an idol worshiper." [2:135]

    “Proclaim, He is the One and only GOD. The Absolute GOD. Never did He beget. Nor was He begotten. None equals Him." [112:1]

    The Messiah, son of Mary is no more than a messenger like the messengers before him, and his mother was a saint. Both of them used to eat the food. Note how we explain the revelations for them, and note how they still deviate! [5:75]

    It does not befit God that He begets a son, be He glorified. To have anything done, He simply says to it, "Be," and it is. [19:35]

    “No soul can carry the sins of another soul. If a soul that is loaded with sins implores another to bear part of its load, no other soul can carry any part of it, even if they were related. ... [35:18]

    O people, here is a parable that you must ponder carefully: the idols you set up beside God can never create a fly, even if they banded together to do so. Furthermore, if the fly steals anything from them, they cannot recover it; weak is the pursuer and the pursued. [22:73]

    They do not value God as He should be valued. God is the Most Powerful, the Almighty.[22:74]

    “There shall be no compulsion in religion: the right way is now distinct from the wrong way. Anyone who denounces the devil and believes in God has grasped the strongest bond; one that never breaks. God is Hearer, Omniscient.” [2:256]

    “God: there is no other god besides Him, the Living, the Eternal. Never a moment of unawareness or slumber overtakes Him. To Him belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. Who could intercede with Him, except in accordance with His will? He knows their past, and their future. No one attains any knowledge, except as He wills. His dominion encompasses the heavens and the earth, and ruling them never burdens Him. He is the Most High, the Great.” [2:255]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to clear your misconception by going to whyIslam org website.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  20. jesus valdez - admirer of virtue

    religious apologists trying fit their dark-ages myth into rational and evidence-based models.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
    • david c

      great comment

      January 8, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
    • mama k

      Oh jesus, how I do love the vision of your son, Juan, when I close my eyes and take my first sip of morning espresso.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
    • mama k

      lol. oh, sorry, jesus. i was daydreaming. of course you have a good point.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:49 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.