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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. AlienShark

    You would be surprised how many "debaters" in the CNN forum are really shills working in boiler rooms taking all their talking points and arguments from papers their boss gave them. A quick internet search will teach you all about their little known but thriving business.

    http://consciouslifenews .com/paid-internet-shill-shadowy-groups-manipulate-internet-opinion-debate/1147073/

    January 12, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
    • Interesting

      I was always wondering just how many were paid for their efforts.

      January 13, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
  2. Correctlycenter

    I choose to use wisdom, logic, and have studied and acknowledged the undeniable scientific and factual evidence, with reason, that God Almighty created the heavens and the earth, and all living things on it .God bless...

    January 12, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
    • Athy

      Who created god almighty?

      January 12, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
    • DoctorDan118

      Fail. There is no way you can use logic and reason and come to the conclusion some sugar plum fairy in the sky waved his magical hand and created us. It may be possible that is what happened, but it is not the result of logic or reason, it can only be concluded by BLIND FAITH. Please educate yourself on the difference. Sugar plum fairy bless...

      January 12, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      If there is evidence and logic, then do share.

      January 15, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
  3. TheVocalAtheist

    She's already indoctrinated into the political paranoia of politically correct semantics. Too bad.

    January 12, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  4. Richard the atheist

    I believe we all came from fish. My great great etc granddaddy is a fish. I believe mermaids existed at one time and maybe big foots

    January 12, 2013 at 7:49 am |
    • In Santa we trust

      Is that the loser Chris? Actually we do have fish in our DNA – read Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin.

      January 15, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
    • fintastic

      ...and talking snakes, devil man with the pitchfork and pointy horns, flood that never happened... etc, etc, etc...

      January 30, 2013 at 8:16 am |
  5. Stupid Fat Cow

    I'm actually smarter than Chris is. Which ain't sayin a lot.

    January 11, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
    • Athy

      Hell, a rock could say that!

      January 11, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
    • Athy

      But can you say, "moo?"

      January 12, 2013 at 2:03 am |
  6. End Religion

    I'm a tard

    January 11, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
    • Observer

      Chris is back. Guess the playground closed.

      January 11, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
    • mama k

      maybe chris is also david defrank?

      January 11, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
  7. Athy

    'Atheist' is a dirty word

    January 11, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • Observer

      "Grime" is a dirty word.

      January 11, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
    • Athy

      "dirty" is a dirty word. I see Chris has hijacked my name. Pitiful.

      January 11, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
    • End Religion

      Someone set off Chris' Assberger's

      January 11, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
    • Athy

      Apparently so. But he was fun to play with for a while.

      January 11, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
    • mama k

      I don't think so. but i can advise you not to use orange glo on your windshield.

      January 11, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Muckluck is a dirty word.

      January 11, 2013 at 9:32 pm |
    • Correctlycenter

      Oh the finite mind of an atheist, God has existed and will always exist! Praise God...

      January 12, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
    • Susan StoHelit

      Atheists like to dwell in the sunlight, living in reality. When you put dirt out in the sunlight, flowers grow, and grass, and the entire ecosystem functions – in the real world. Not a thing wrong with dirt – it makes the world go round.

      January 14, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  8. Tom, Tom the Piper's Son

    I'm a fat ugly cow, and I eat like a pig

    January 11, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • End Religion

      TTPS' shadow, don't be hard on yourself. There's always a McDonalds you could work at.

      January 11, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
  9. Observer

    Chris, your right I'm an idiot. Atheists are stupid

    January 11, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
    • Observer

      Grow up. Why advertize that you don't even have the IQ to come up with a unique name?

      January 11, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  10. Chris

    Atheists are STUPID idiots,

    January 11, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
    • Observer

      Chris,

      lol. You are just showing a lack of intelligence and maturity.

      January 11, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      As opposed to smart idiots. Thanks for clearing that up Chris.

      January 11, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • Athy

      Gee, Chris. That was such a deep, profound comment. It must have taken you quite a while to compose that intelligent remark. You're a very talented writer. Have you ever considered becoming a professional writer?

      January 11, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
    • Chris

      U guys all suck, seriously, you stupid water head idiots. I'm glad you idiots have to deal with these stupid religious people forcing their beliefs on you through the government. You stupid tards deserve it. And go ahead and raise up your stupid billboards during Christmas time like anyone cares

      January 11, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
    • Observer

      Chris,

      Grow up, kid.

      January 11, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
    • Chris

      Shut up ,observer. Your stupid, and anybody who pays attention to what you say will themselves become more stupid

      January 11, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I'm waiting for Chris to call us all "doo-doo heads".

      January 11, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Says Chris, who can't figure out the "you're/your" conundrum.

      January 11, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
    • Chris

      Shut up you fat cow!!

      January 11, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Commas save lives, Chris. Use them.

      January 11, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
    • mama k

      "go ahead and raise up your stupid billboards during Christmas time like anyone cares"

      This is all I can find of substance in your ramblings, Chris. What's really upsetting you? Oh wait, maybe this is Chris Kringle, in which case, maybe I can understand.

      January 11, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
    • Chris

      Your a stupid, fat ugly cow

      January 11, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • Observer

      Chris,

      The Internet is not a cure for your anger problems. Sports or other strenuous exercise is a better outlet. No one on here is what has made you so angry with the world.

      January 11, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • Athy

      Chris, it's "you're," not "your." You're playing way out of your league. Go swim in the shallow end of the pool, buddy. You'll drown here.

      January 11, 2013 at 8:32 pm |
    • End Religion

      I think Chris is upset the atheist banners must have spoiled his Xmas fun.

      January 11, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
  11. aallen333

    Atheism reflects a faith in not having faith. If I have faith in not having faith, my faithlessness is faithless. What a confused lot atheists must be!

    January 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • zeyn2010

      LOL! I think you made up stuff and got confused...

      January 11, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • fintastic

      Confused are the people who base their beliefs on book of ancient mythology......

      January 30, 2013 at 8:30 am |
  12. aallen333

    By definition atheism reflects a belief that there is no belief. So if I believe there is no belief, what am I believing. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing. So what are we talking about – nothing.

    January 11, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
    • the AnViL

      a·the·ist [ey-thee-ist]
      noun
      a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.
      Origin:
      1565–75; < Greek áthe ( os ) godless + -ist

      January 11, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • zeyn2010

      Belief in this case means a thought process not a doctrine.

      January 11, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • fintastic

      @allen.......... I think you're getting it...... no god, no heaven, no he11, ... just fairytales and mythology.

      January 30, 2013 at 8:32 am |
  13. atheist is not a dirty word but atheists are durty people
    January 11, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  14. 3511danny

    What is an interfaith activist? By the way, those earrings don't look too good on you.

    January 11, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  15. jennymay

    If everyone started out on this earth without being indoctrinated into some sort of dogma and tradition, perhaps left to their own devices and open minds, the meaning of life and the life force behind us all would be more readily revealed.

    January 11, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • 3511danny

      Do you mean like in Germany or Russia?

      January 11, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • jennymay

      I'm sorry Danny but currently there is no place in the world you can be born without either your parents, teachers, TV or government telling you what to believe and how to believe it. I'm not sure what your point is. Just trying to be political and annoying?

      January 11, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  16. Chris

    Atheists are so annoying, they have no morals and are so stubborn! I have a guy at my work who is a devout atheist and is the most stubborn son of %#€€, he can never be wrong about anything. The sad part is he feels that he's smarter than everyone but he's really a tard. Had another friend that as soon as he claimed he was an atheist, he left his wife and became the biggest jerk

    January 11, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • Bible Clown©

      "Atheists are so annoying, they have no morals and are so stubborn! " Another silly lie. Why does Jesus employ so many liars?

      January 11, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • jennymay

      I find generalizations so annoying.

      January 11, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • Athy

      I find Chris annoying.

      January 11, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • End Religion

      if he's atheist and everyone else at your work is not, then he is smarter.

      January 11, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
    • Religion is Not Heathly for children or ANY living things

      I guesss the TRUTH really hurts after you have spent your entire life believing in imaginary beings and other delusions...

      January 11, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
    • Obvious

      Chris:
      "...he can never be wrong about anything. The sad part is he feels that he's smarter than everyone but he's really a tard."

      You obviously have not met our Christian @Chad or @HeavenSent, or @lol??, and a few others on here, have you?

      January 11, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
    • fintastic

      baby jebus is crying Chris....

      January 14, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  17. Pedro

    Can a frog turn into a prince? Only in fairy tales. Evolution is a myth

    January 11, 2013 at 7:37 am |
    • Proud Atheist

      Yeah, and why are there still monkeys around!! Checkmate atheists.

      January 11, 2013 at 9:32 am |
    • jennymay

      You do realize that's not how it works, right??

      January 11, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • Religion is Not Heathly for children or ANY living things

      "Yeah, and why are there still monkeys around!!" Quite simple, For the same reason that WE are still around! Humans and monkeys both evolved from common ancestors! Those common ancestors are no longer around because they became US! DUH!!! You clearly have NO understanding of what evolution is nor how it has shaped our human form and characteristics! Ignorance is a terible thing.

      January 11, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
    • Susan StoHelit

      I love those questions that expose ignorance.

      If I came from Grandpa John, why is Grandpa John still around! Checkmate biologists! The Stork wins again!

      January 14, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
    • fintastic

      Maximum ignorance there Pedro!

      Do you realize that people are laughing at you when you make a comment like "evolution is a myth"?

      January 15, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  18. Dave Leone

    I read this carefully, then again, because I wanted to make sure I didn't react wrongly to the text. The author here makes a poor logic leap between nonbelief and atheism. Then, he goes on to create an offense where there isn't one. There are millions of people on this earth that have a sense of spirituality but not a defined religious belief. For many of those people, myself included, the term atheist seems limiting, as our beliefs change as we grow. At times I feel that atheist defines me succinctly, but at times, it seems woefully inadequate. To try to pigeonhole a legislator to a defined belief system or the complete lack of one, seems absurd coming from a nonChristan in a Christian dominated world. Like the subject of your criticism, any definition applied to her that doesn't reflect her individual belief system would be inappropriate. Muslim may not be a dirty word, but to call someone a Muslim who is not is inappropriate and they have every right to state that such beliefs are not in keeping with their spiritual life. The same goes for atheism, agnosticism or any other ism. If they don't reflect what she believes to be her level of spirituality, she has every right to reject them utterly. Your may continue to be offended, but that is your doing, not hers.

    January 10, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Non belief is atheism.

      Theism means "belief in god(s)."
      Atheism means "nonbelief in god(s)."

      That's what putting the "a" in front of a word does to it. It negates it. Let's try a few together, shall we?

      Typical / atypical
      symmetrical / asymmetrical

      Get the idea?

      January 10, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
    • Athy

      That's probably still a bit too complex for some folks. But keep working on it, some may eventually get it.

      January 10, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      A-Gnostic is when you admit that there's no way to actually examine the universe stone by stone to prove or disprove God. A-Theism is when you decide the existing proofs against God are sufficient.
      Who Cares is what most people think. Throw a twenty in the collection plate and you won't get fired this week for being an atheist.

      January 11, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • Religion is Not Heathly for children or ANY living things

      Clown – "A-Theism is when you decide the existing proofs against God are sufficient" Wrong! You have that backwards!
      A-theism is when you realize that there is not even one tiny shred of evidence to support ANY notion of a "god" whatsoever! There is no reason for so-called "proofs against god" since there IS NO PROOF of god whatsoever! There is NO NEED to disprove something that DOES NOT exist!

      January 11, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
  19. End Religion

    My dad, Hollywood, passed away recently and I wrote this poem to commemorate our time together on this planet. As we hopped from sex club to sex club looking for action, he taught me what it means to be a man. He was kind-hearted and often so generous as to pay for my hookers and booze for me, even before 18. We partied like it was 1999. He was a swell guy. Hollywood, this is for you. I love you, big guy:

    My Father who aren't in heaven,
    Hollywood be thy name.
    Thy candy cane
    Thy wildebeest
    on earth as it ain't in heaven.
    Give us this day our daily bread,
    and forkover our free passes,
    as we fuck over those who trespass against us,
    and lead us to nearest hemp station,
    and deliver us some pizza.
    For mine wears the condom,
    and uses a towel, with the gloryhole,
    for as long as I can.
    Amen

    January 10, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • gary best

      We are all free to be "free thinkers". I think to deny God is really to deny yourself. But for you athiests, God is crying out through his creation....THERE IS A GOD! But is respectfully have a few questions .....1.How do you explain the symmetry of the human body? 2. How did emotions and love evolve? 3 How did skin evolve? 4.How did higher thinking evolve? 5.How did the process of photosynthesis evolve? 6. Which elvolved first the plants or the insects that live on and pollinate the plants? 7.Can you give an example of a mutation that has added information to the genome? 8.How do you explain the origin of the first cell from non living matter? 9. Are you sure your answers are reaonable, right and scientifically provable, or do you just believe that it may have happened the way you have answered?.

      January 10, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      It's fairly easy to answer your questions, gary best, but the fact that you're asking them means that you haven't considered them very much and so you probably won't accept the answers. My suggestion is that you research the most scientifically accepted replies and evaluate them for yourself.

      Also, when atheists and/or scientists don't know how something came to be, they simply state that they don't know. It's an honest answer, and allows for more investigation. Saying "big invisible sky wizard did it with magic spellzzzzz!" doesn't really provide anything meaningful and seems lazy and stupid to me. Your answer to the same questions you have asked is "goddidit" which isn't knowledge, it's a proclamation of faith, and might as well be any other proclamation of faith. Do you have any idea what that means or am I wasting my time?

      January 10, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      I think the entire internet has seen this by now. Got any "Good Times" virus warnings?

      January 11, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • fintastic

      @garybest..... None of the answers to your questions will prove god's existence.

      January 14, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  20. Ex atheist

    Darwinian evolution is a joke

    January 10, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Yep, a joke on the Creationist types. The punch line is how stupid it makes them look since it is true.

      January 10, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • End Religion

      we don't allow anyone to leave atheism by the way. There is no such thing as an ex atheist: we punch their ticket if they attempt to leave our ungodly fortress of darkness.

      January 10, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • Ken

      Amen

      January 10, 2013 at 9:40 pm |
    • Religion is Not Heathly for children or ANY living things

      The "joke" is on YOU, since evolution is undeniably PROVEN by everything that has been discovered via genetics and the study of the human genome!!!! The debate was over a long time ago! There is NO DEBATE anymore!

      January 11, 2013 at 5:26 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.