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. Matt

    That the author takes offense to the congresswoman's comments is shockingly ignorant. Her statement does not, in any way reflect that atheism is bad, or results in poor character. It reads as it means, that for her, and her only, that atheism does not represent her beliefs, character, or anything else. Taking offense to it is the problem of the author in this case. Why does he feel so insecure about his beliefs that he cares one iota what a congresswoman thinks about her own character and beliefs as they pertain to atheism? A shallow criticism of the elected official to be sure. Religion or non religion is personal, not global. If the author believes that the congresswoman's comments are so offensive, then he believes that atheism is global and not personal to him, and he misses the essence of personal belief.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:05 am |
    • Aaron

      It's certainly possible that this congresswoman's statements are a deliberate act of moderation on her part - to avoid offending her Christian colleagues (though I'll call myself agnostic versus atheist). Perhaps the author is just generally fed up with elected officials needing to "fit in," and believes this to be a loose sort of partisan mentality where something more radical was wanted.

      I suspect there are quite a elected officials who do not truly believe, and go to church simply because it's required to hold office.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • Saraswati

      Yeah, it was a pretty dimwitted criticism. If the woman doesn't feel "atheist" sums her up she shouldn't have to use the term. I don't believe in a god or god, but I also don't label myself an "atheist". It would be a trivial term and who I am and what I value are much more than that.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:16 am |
    • the AnViL

      "Religion or non religion is personal, not global."

      except when delusional religious idiots work overtime to restrict equality for americans who do not believe as they do... or when they conspire to inject their theology into school science courses...

      or when equally as ignorant, delusional muslims fly planes into buildings screaming GOD IS GREAT!!!

      or when mentally ill people chop the arms off their children because the god of abraham told them to do it.

      silly mat...

      evolve, son.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:17 am |
    • Matt

      My comment that "Religion or Non Religion is personal not global" is the essence and truth of religion as it pertains to the individual. What you are referring to is human greed and thirst for power, that uses religion or non religion as the vehicle to obtain those ends. That is not the essence of religion.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:23 am |
  2. Benjamin Franklin

    The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:04 am |
  3. lamarkia

    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.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:04 am |
    • Ed

      I don't need faith to believe that no gods exist, the same way that I do not need faith to believe that no fairies, leprechauns, or unicorns exist. The burden of proof lies not upon atheists to prove gods to be false. On the contrary, the burden of proof lies upon the person making claims that a god, or gods, exists.

      I'm quite certain that you're not a professor at a college, but if you were, then I'm sure that the college is not too prestigious if they were to hire a charlatan such as yourself. Professors demand that students cite sources within their essays to help build the case that they're trying to make, correct? If you demand that students cite sources to validate the claims which they are making within their essays, then why do you not demand evidence from religious scholars, preachers, bishops, etc. when they claim that a god, or gods, exists?

      I actually paid attention when I took my biology and astronomy courses. I think that you may have had someone else do your homework for you in your science courses, because only a moron would dismiss scientific evidence as insufficient.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:05 am |
  4. mistamista

    Until Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindi and the rest understand that spirituality is NOT religion, atheist will NEVER be accepted as a proper term for non-religious. I've been to 6 different churches in my life from all walks of faith, but none of them benefited me spiritually. Atheism forces me to use my mind to consciously employ deeper thought to discover my spirituality, whereas organized religions have done nothing but eliminate my feeling of peace and complicate my otherwise simple life.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:03 am |
  5. Laura

    The representative sounds to be agnostic, meaning that she believes in God (or some sort of higher power) but does not associate herself with a religion. Atheists (from my understanding) do not believe in God or any higher spiritual being.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:02 am |
    • nate


      January 9, 2013 at 12:06 am |
    • huh?

      That's not what agnosticism means. Being agnostic simply means admitting that you don't know and it is in fact unknowable.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:11 am |
    • LinCA


      You said, "The representative sounds to be agnostic, meaning that she believes in God (or some sort of higher power) but does not associate herself with a religion."
      Nope. Gnosticism is about knowledge about gods, or the lack thereof (agnosticism). Being agnostic does not imply a belief in a god or higher power. For that you have to be a theist.

      Atheists (from my understanding) do not believe in God or any higher spiritual being.
      True. Theism is about belief in gods, or the lack thereof (atheism).

      January 9, 2013 at 12:12 am |
    • ATList

      That's not what agnostic means. Agnosticism, by definition, is asserting that human beings cannot definitely know whether or not God exists, and thus that person will not say there is or is not a God because they have no way of knowing for sure. Some people call it "weak atheism," but there's the real backbone of it.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:14 am |
  6. Kevin

    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 chose 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.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:02 am |
    • Athy

      Kevin, that's just wishful thinking. You need to get real, if you can.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:07 am |
    • mistamista

      No, that's not correct. In fact, most people understand that there IS a greater power, but it's not the image that we created. Human beings are smarter than the lies we've been sold for thousands of years, but in fairness, most people DO understand that there is MORE to this life than waiting for the next one.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:09 am |
    • David in NC

      I am a person, and I do not find any evidence that there is a god. Belief has nothing to do with it. However, since I am a person, and I do not "believe" there is a god, your point is invalidated. And I am fairly certain I am not the only humanistic atheist that invalidates your claim.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:16 am |
    • Saraswati

      Yep, because deep down inside everyone sees the world exactly the way you do. If they would just wake up and stop being so dumb we could have a peaceful world where everyone realized that really you were right about everything all along.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:18 am |
  7. Derp

    When despots of the past have outlawed religion, it's because they saw it as a threat to their power and authority. It really has nothing to do with the religious content, or the irreligion of the despot in question. History has shown that a demagogue who means to rule absolutely will do what is necessary to that end irrespective of their religious convictions. Through history there have been religious and non religious despots and the vast majority of the time their decisions have rarely been guided by religion, and when it seems like it was... you might read a bit more deeply to find that religion has been more a tool than a compass for those that mean to rule.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:01 am |
  8. pamela j reynolds

    Religion and belief in "god" are matters of geography, politics and quien es mas macho.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:01 am |
  9. Dan J

    Maybe if all those militant atheists stop suing to keep Santa Claus out of the parades, people would be more tolerant. Respect needs to be mutual, my friend.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:00 am |
    • Athy

      Santa Claus is swell. No atheist wants to ban him. Get real, Danny.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:02 am |
    • zeyn2010

      Actually Santa Claus had nothing to do with Christmas until the 1940s when they decided to add him to an ad to create a need for gift giving...

      January 9, 2013 at 12:04 am |
    • Zenna

      When has that ever happened? Absurd.

      It's far, far more likely that one religion sues to restrict another one - especially self-proclaimed Christians restricting non-Christian religions....like Islam (and all the other religions that too many Americans confuse with Muslims.)

      January 9, 2013 at 12:11 am |
    • breathe deep

      If you actually knew the history of it, you would know that the entire "war on religion" started when a jewish group wanted to put up a minorah next to the nativity scene in the public square in Utah that was funded by tax payer dollars. The christian group didn't want their space objectified by the jewish show of faith that didn't use any tax payer dollars that weren't already being used by the christian groups using that money.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:27 am |
  10. apshai

    I would rather have someone in office that doesn't believe in bronze age myths and fantasy. Someone who can truly separate church and state without religious bias.

    It's tiring to constantly listen to the old young earth creationist dogma...dogma for which they are completely incorrect and lacking in any evidence. The old watch argument...fossils/floods...and the cherry for me? Evolution which has mountains (literally in terms of geological evidence) of evidence through paleontology, geology,physics, DNA, biological etc...versus religion which has not a single piece of evidence going for it. Evolution is the most reasoned and logical explanation for diversity of life on this planet.

    It also amazes me that so many of the young earth creationists use technology created and invented through science on a daily basis while completely ignoring it as evidence. The beauty of science over religion is that science can be wrong...it revises when new evidence is brought forth.

    The proof of evolution is all around us...from Marsupials to adaptation...to the wonderful beauty of mutation and natural selection that evolved eyes (another silly age old argument creationists will use) into so many varied types with varying functionality. We have the evidence of the slow evolution of eyes all around us in the natural world...an example of every step in the evolution of eyes is still present somewhere on a living animal today. Looking at our differences in skin colour...again all beautiful adaptations of our remarkable species...like the eyes evolution of skin colour was a long gradual change over tens of thousands of year.

    Fair skinned individuals adapted to extract vitamin D more efficiently given lower hours of sunlight in their northern climes...whereas darker skinned people adapted to have more protection from UVA/B rays...extracting vitamin D slower but taking less damage in the process...isn't that such a beautiful thing?

    January 8, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
    • ari

      you act like all christians disbelieve in evolution when in fact the world's largest christian sect (catholicism) teaches evolution as part of its dogma.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:01 am |
    • Dan


      January 9, 2013 at 12:02 am |
  11. Mandor

    Atheist means different things to different people.
    a) for some it means simply seeing no reason to believe in god.
    b) for others it means complete certainty that god does not exist
    c) for others it implies extreme bitterness and vindictiveness towards religion in general, and christianity in particular.

    I would say only a) is required, the others are window dressing and extra baggage that people bring along with themselves. but if the congresswoman feels she'll be regarded as C), then I understand not wanting to be identified as an atheist.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
    • ari

      a) is more agnosticism, b) is atheism, c) is just a characteristic of some atheists

      January 9, 2013 at 12:00 am |
    • A Mom

      You make an excellent point! The Congresswoman could fear the following:
      That Believers could be:
      1. A generally spiritual person believing in a supreme being.
      2. A devoted follower of a particular faith.
      3. A religious zealot, certain of their own faith, wanting to impose it on others and being openly hostile to any other faith or worse, lack thereof.

      She could be worried about 3. Personally, I don't care what faith someone follows as long as they don't try to convert me.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:18 am |
    • leonid7

      ari, a) by itself is actually also atheism, and would be the one i would most identify with. An agnostic must also see no reason to disbelieve. Atheism simply removes the 'maybe'.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:28 am |
  12. Carl Sagan

    You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it's based on a deep-seated need to believe.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
  13. AnotherAtheist

    Atheists unite! Atheism isn't a bad word, and let's not be ashamed that we don't believe.

    My fun story: I come from an EXTREMELY religious family, but at one family gathering the topic of religion came up and a lot of people came out of their shell and admitted they were only pretending to be Christian so they would fit in with the family and be perceived as a "good person". No need to wear that mask any more. How many people around you are secretly Atheists? Ask around; the answer may surprise you. There is nothing wrong with not believing, but ignorance and hate makes people (especially politicians) pretend to be devout. Politicians lie, cheat, steal, take bribes, cheat on their spouses, and yet at the end of the day put on that "I'm Christian so I must be good" mask.. it's disgusting.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
    • Saraswati

      I have lived all around the US and the majority of people I associate with don't believe in gods. I attended a college that was over 80% non-believers and that was 25 years ago. There are millions of like minded people out there...I'm really at the point where I think all these people whining aobut how oppressed they are need to get out and get a life and realise you make your own friends and associates. Yes, there are issues, and yes I work to promote the separation of church and state, but all the atheists I see online here griping about how everyone around them is so Christian and they feel so oppressed by their families...you know what? MOVE. I know everyone can't, and for the few of you genuinely stuck I feel bad. But most of you are young and unattached. For god's sake just MOVE.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:01 am |
    • apshai

      Bingo and well said. I would add that part of the reason so many atheists "pretend" or avoid discussion is that society seems to have this taboo against criticizing evidence...something that I do not understand. We should challenge religion...the survival of our species and the damage religion can do are too high to simply ignore.

      I have recently made it a point when someone initiates a conversation regarding religion to challenge them on their statements in a non argumentative manner. When the discussion deteriorates (which it usually does as religion is a belief void of real evidence) at least I have challenged that person as in their peer group their beliefs likely go unchallenged...for most it goes unchallenged for their entire lives and children have their free will taken away from them.

      We should not feel that criticizing religion is a bad thing. If I have to hear "god bless" or "god chose them and let the others die" then I have the right to challenge that statement. Religion has had it all go their way for far too long.

      Isn't it so convenient that the supposed words of a perfect being are so conflicted and contradictory? Isn't it convenient that religions change over time to remain "in sync" with current societal norms? If these are the words of a divine being why should the intentions change as society matures? Why don't they still stone adulters (Christians/Jews) or murder those who leave the religion they were indoctrinated in to "Islam". While I think that young earth creationists and moderate Christians are equally deluded at least the young earth creationists stick to the bronze aged mentality when it comes to interpretation.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:10 am |
    • HW

      Nice, you fail to believe, okay, that's your choice! "I'm Christian so I must be good" <– is stupid, if you feel like that, me too, but guess what, no body talks like that except you! and that's disgusting. We are all born Atheists, but all try to become believers. Trusting in god is not a gift; it's a process which takes time. Many people who are Christians but do not totally believe in god, and that does not mean they are "secretly Atheists", they are just trying to find where god is in their lives. They are weak believers (me too), but at least they do not refuse god (feeling that god is around is just so hard and sometimes looks stupid, right?).

      Why we believe in god (or why we need a god around us?) Simple, we still feel something naturally unnatural on Earth, and in our lives.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:48 am |
  14. christy

    What about those who intellectually assent to the existence of a higher being but don't necessarily care about that being and additionally believe that they (themselves) are their highest moral authority? Is that a true theist?

    Just because one believes someone exists doesn't mean one *believes in* that person.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
    • ari

      i believe the word for that is deist (as opposed to theist) and a couple of our early presidents thought along those lines.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
    • christy

      Ari, if that is so, then I think a lot of people in our country who call themselves 'Christian' (or whatever religious affiliation they were raised in), but are actually deists by practice and way of thought.

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

    There once was a time when all people believed in God and the church ruled. This time was called the Dark Ages.

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

      reply to: Gawd
      when those DARK walls close in on you, I'll bet you'll be praying to God, if not screaming for His help

      January 9, 2013 at 12:07 am |
    • Kev

      That's not what defined the Dark Ages, not to mention not everyone in the Dark Ages believed in the same god just like any other age in history.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:07 am |
  16. Tom

    We are all born atheists. Not a single one of us is born believing in god.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
    • Christina Godless

      So right Sir

      January 8, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
    • christy

      Ummm, there is a huge difference between indifference and disbelief.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
    • zeyn2010

      True, true....

      January 8, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
    • ari

      i don't think babies are capable of forming an opinion of a higher being one way or the other. or an opinion of much else besides their food, mama, and bowel movements.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
    • chuck

      You're right...we are also born with just about zero knowledge or intelligence whatsoever. So what's your point?

      Newsflash people, Heaven isn't just some place you go to when you die – it's here on Earth now. The bible is full of parables on how to achieve this. Don't take everything in it literally, but do look for the deeper meaning behind the teachings of Christ. Example: JC said Go to your inner room, shut the door, and pray. He didn't mean literally go into a room and lock the door...he's talking about meditation/centering prayer. Look up Father Keating for some great literature on the subject...Peace.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:14 am |
  17. Rafi

    People seem to think they know what "God" is, or what "God" isn't. First, they all need to stop and see if they can define "God." That process will take a lifetime, and will preclude any kind of definitive statement of "belief." Anyone who claims to "know," one way or another, is talking through their hat.

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

      Etymology carries us a long way. For instance, we know that the names for "God" used in the bible are the same names used by pharoahs and kings. We can pinpoint the origin of specific words and phrases to determine a likely origin. We can trace the borrowed mythology back to older sources and study the variations while comparing it to historical record. And everything points to the judaic god as being nothing more than an amalgamation of ancient rulers. And this same study applies harmoniously to every other religion.
      So the point could be made that the notion of God is nothing more than an error of reading comprehension, which would make it a useless notion to have even posed in the first place.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:11 am |
  18. Dan

    George Bush says he speaks to god every day, and christians love him for it. If George Bush said he spoke to god through his hair dryer, they would think he was mad. I fail to see how the addition of a hair dryer makes it any more absurd.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
    • Athy

      As if there were different degrees of absurdness.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
    • breathe deep

      Either that, or they would all go out buy the same hairdryer en masse.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:32 am |
    • breathe deep


      January 9, 2013 at 12:34 am |
  19. ari

    you're reading too much into it. people mistakenly labelled her as an atheist when, in fact, she just doesn't belong to a particular organized religion. she then corrected that mistake, since as she said, it is not indicative of her character–which is spiritual (if not religious).

    January 8, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
  20. look

    humanist chaplain? what the heck is that? this country is finished heaven help us.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Humanist chaplains have been around for a long time – if this comes as a surprise to you you need to get out more.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
    • Athy

      Yeah, it appears the country has already taken away your upper-case letters.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
    • umm

      Why is this so threatening to you?

      January 9, 2013 at 12:20 am |
    • breathe deep

      Yes, because only heaven can help us from the real issues that surround us that keep our eyes off the reality that consumes us.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:36 am |
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