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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. bob

    Atheists: Doing the right thing, regardless of what you are being told to do.

    Religious: Doing what you are told, regardless of if it is right or not.

    February 28, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  2. The Anti-Christ

    Atheists are my kind of people.

    February 23, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  3. frankb2910

    I'm willing to bet if there really is the Islamic paradise with 72 virgins. That there will be a good chance there will be 72 mother in laws with them.

    February 23, 2013 at 8:00 am |
    • jim

      All the more reason for women not to die virgins 🙂

      February 27, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • Keith

      That is the real problem isn't it.

      March 1, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
  4. anthonyhantonh

    And I support you in your right to be atheist. Hey, faith is hard. Not everyone can handle it. Just leave us alone though and let those who have faith worship in peace.

    February 20, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Faith is indeed hard.
      It can be exhausting to continously suspend critical thinking in order to accept ancient, dogmatic answers to questions for which we now have, or are developing, quantifiable answers. The double-think required to hold onto supernatural explanations for natural phenomena in the face of hard evidence is tough to maintain.

      February 20, 2013 at 10:03 am |
    • proud2bsecular

      Did you even read this article? Leave you alone to practice your faith in peace? What kind of persecution complex do you have to have to believe you are not being allowed to be religious in this country? Wow. Faith is hard? Really? Being part of the unquestioning majority? Sigh. I suppose things always seem harder on the other side of the fence.

      February 20, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • Yeppers

      Name one time an atheist has prevented you from practicing your faith in a manner that did not bother others.

      February 20, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
    • Alf

      To yeppers
      In the Soviet Union under communism (one time example)

      Another example
      China
      Another example
      Cambodia
      Another example
      Cuba
      Another example
      North korea

      February 23, 2013 at 8:09 am |
    • sam stone

      worship as you wish. do not use your faith to deny others their civil rights

      February 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  5. tasnuba ahmed

    muslim is the best .. religion .... and iam sure adout that if anyone doesn't believe in god ... they r not going to happy in their life ,,,,.. and all pepole know that islam is the best religion i n the whole world ..... yeah its true that some muslim is bad but not all muslim .. please dont hate muslim.ppl ... this is the best riligion ....:)

    February 14, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • Red

      Yes, it is. You CANNOT go wrong with a mixture of monotheism and good behavior. It's the best "insurance policy" one could possibly have!!!

      February 16, 2013 at 9:13 am |
    • anthonyhantonh

      Tell me a little about what happens to muslim who no longer wish to be muslims. I believe the sentence under sharia is death? How about adultary? Death too? Honor killings? Jihad? This is not religion. Its a death cult.

      February 20, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • KTN

      Your English is horrible!

      March 1, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  6. Michael

    Atheism is not a bad word, but people call you an Atheist likes it's a crime to be one. They only crime I see these days are those that believe in imaginary friends like jesus, god, angels, allah, zeus, pharoah, etc. Bottom line is ALL religions are made up fairy tales. So, don't call me an Atheist. Call me a non-believer of your fairy tales.

    February 11, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  7. Longbow

    Yeah it pretty much is. Atheism = Moral relativism = Immoral, self-justifying existence. Most atheists I've met claim that they live by some sort of internal moral code, only to break it or change it when it becomes inconvenient. Since there is no accountability as there would be with an external code of values (i.e. religious beliefs), this becomes a self-satisfying feedback loop. Some atheists also claim that living within the law is the same as living by a set moral code. This is also a fallacy=laws are unacceptable exceptions to human behavior whereas a moral code is a framework for all human behavior. One who lives by a set moral code will not consider breaking laws because it is wrong to do so, while a person who does not will abide by the law merely in fear of the punishment for doing otherwise. Thiere is a clear difference here–people without clear, externalized, accountable moral codes make their own rules and break them as they see fit (which really isn't a rule). THAT is why atheist is a bad word, atheism is immoral, and the vast majorist of atheists are deluded, self-indulgent sycophants of a sick, consumption-based society. My two cents =)

    February 10, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • Gyro10

      what a worthless comment.

      February 10, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • Michael

      Atheism is immoral? Compared to what, your fake religion? I am just as honest as anyone else in America. I believe in life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, honestly, and love. Keep your stupid religion to yourself, I don't wanna hear anymore. Those who believe are very much brainwashed. (and just as immoral as anyone else).

      February 11, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • SDH

      Yes, and I've too seen many religious folks claim the same moral compass and in turn go completely opposite. It clearly shows that no one is either right or wrong since we're all human and make mistakes. It all depends on who you turn to to alleviate the pain of wrongdoing... that is, if there is any pain at all. There are terrible people in the world who do not feel such pain and keep doing the same terrible acts against humanity over and over again. And even more frightening is that some hide behind the shield of religion to justify their acts.

      February 12, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • stevennthony

      b.b.b.s.s.s.

      February 12, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Longbow, I hate to break it to you but that was the most obvious example of delusional self-justification that I have ever seen. Congratulations.

      February 13, 2013 at 12:38 am |
    • mr.right

      dude, atheists dont go around saying "be an atheist " or have bumper stickers that say "dont believe" but YOU do

      February 28, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
  8. LAST DAY

    Atheism is not the right Way to go anymore,
    because there is indeed ONE GOD who has unmistakably and absolutely debunked Atheism!
    So here are the ultimate –MATHEMATICAL and SCIENTIFIC– most powerful and superb Proofs
    for the eternal Salvation and evelasting Benefits of all humankind now:

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES

    February 9, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
    • Michael

      You're fricking brainwashed, there is no god.

      February 11, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  9. jonat

    Maybe not a dirty word, but a sad nothing of a word.

    February 9, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  10. kimsland

    I'm an atheist and proud 🙂

    When the US gets an atheist as president who openly confirms his/hers rational thinking, then I'll trust they are going in the right direction.
    All I see and hear from the president is how he'll pray for those in need! Absolutely ludicrous, people who state the believe in mythical creatures should first be laughed at, then backed away from.

    Majority atheism is the only way for humankind to advance into the future, religious people should really pray for this 😉

    February 7, 2013 at 6:46 am |
    • mr.right

      i would buy you a drink

      February 28, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  11. dugee

    The political opponents of Thomas Jefferson tried to label him as an atheiest during his run for the presidency.He was more enlightened than the typical politician of his day regarding religion and had promoted freedom of and freedom from religion. Because he did not fall into a completely Anglcian or Puritan camp he was an 'athiest'. It was wrong then to make someone's personal views on the role of a deity in the human condition a reason for insult. It is still wrong and we should be better this now.

    February 4, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  12. keith

    Religion is like a penis. It doesn't matter how big it is or how proud of it you are, you just shouldn't shove it down other people's throats.

    February 2, 2013 at 6:03 am |
  13. Gregory L. Faith

    Since there is "supposed " to be a separation of church and state, why are you asking what a representative's belief is in the first place. Don't ask, don't tell. None of your business.

    January 28, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • proud2bsecular

      I love this point. If church and state are separate, then whatever you call yourself religiously/not religiously should be extraneous to your work in government. You are elected by people (not a deity) to work for people (not a deity). An elected official's job is to follow the law or work to change it legally to benefit the people they represent. I would love us to evolve to a level where officials did not feel compelled to reveal their faith/non-faith. SHOW us you are moral people through your actions in office. Don't try to justify your morality through your religious label. Or like Simena, justifying your morality through denial of a non-faith label. Wouldn't it be refreshing if a politician had the conviction to say "I don't see how my faith or non-faith is relevant here; I'm not going to use any more energy in confirmation or denial of a label....there's a lot of important work to be done that needs our attention".

      February 20, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  14. danielwalldammit

    It's not clear to me that her denial is based on the pejorative implications of the word. If it is, then I agree wit the author. But the wording alone does not warrant such a conclusion.

    January 28, 2013 at 5:00 am |
  15. Maximus

    I occasionally run across this eloquent quote on these forums; seems like an appropriate time to repost it:

    "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."...Stephen F Roberts

    January 26, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      It's a good quote.

      January 28, 2013 at 5:02 am |
    • elgeevz

      While Roberts' quote is indeed eloquent, attemping to reason with anyone who believes that a first-century Jew walked on water is an exercise in futility.

      January 30, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  16. CGAW

    I think anyone trying to discuss a politician's religious beliefs are like trying to discuss a criminal's beliefs on abiding the law. Quit worrying about what "suppossed religion or beleif" your politician subscribes to and be more concerned with their motives, intent and speech to influence this country – chances are they subscribe to the religion of "me and what can I do to make life better for me".

    January 24, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
  17. AlienShark

    Powerful lobbies such as the Pro Israel lobby, American Atheists and many others pay top dollar to have shills come to these forums, spread their agenda and copy whatever info they can get about the people who disagree with their point of view. If you knew how many of the "debaters" in this forum were paid shills
    sitting in boiler room type operations all day basically getting into character and arguing the agenda their boss gave them you would spend less time debating them and more time talking about their little known but thriving industry. anyone who is in the lobby industry or marketing research knows about this business but the majority of the average forum readers have no clue that the person they are talking with is in character and secretly copying their info and telling some lobby if they agree or disagree with their agenda. Mad grimy. I don;t care what your politics are one way or the other...I just want you to be able to spot these shills when you come across them.

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

    January 22, 2013 at 11:01 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Any idea how to apply to these groups? It sounds like a sweet gig, and I think I could do quite a bit for many various groups. Thanks in advance!

      January 22, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
    • laststonecarver

      By are own thoughts, are we each captured. We decide which path to take with our thoughts, and how long to dwell on that path. Or we can change, and pick a new venue. Others may influence our decisions. Because of who you are, you will live that thought stream. Or you can change, and adapt to your environment. Your environment creates you. Some feel protected behind their walls, but thought is not bound by the physical, but instead by lack of imagination. There are pathways beyond the shills and lobbyists. Or you may wish to linger in the quagmire that is Power. And power is a swamp as vast as all can imagine.
      Change is essential – Stagnation =Death.
      Choose your paths wisely.
      We are the many eyed creatures. Employ your eyes. Think through your eyes, your perceptions, the way you See It.
      Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream. Or is it?

      January 23, 2013 at 6:18 am |
    • laststonecarver

      By OUR own thoughts – a proof of imperfection

      January 23, 2013 at 7:15 am |
    • Holysmokeandmirrors

      Dog gone it! They are paying me good money to be a shill. What are you trying to do, ruin the only good job I've ever had?

      I have a good mind to....hey!....what the.....Oh no! The boiler is about to blow! Gotta go!

      January 23, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • laststonecarver

      Mystery solved!!
      Cool magic hammer to beat on the pipes to make to boiler work.
      Who woulda thunk?
      Thor, your dad's coming, and he doesn't look happy.

      January 24, 2013 at 5:53 am |
    • the AnViL

      there is no evidence to support the claims of alienshark.

      conspiracy mongering is repugnant.

      January 24, 2013 at 6:56 am |
    • danielwalldammit

      Lol, ...oogabooga!

      January 28, 2013 at 5:03 am |
    • AgnosticPrime

      Please point me to the direction of a think tank that pays for posts. Seems like a great gig. Oh wait they only exist in Tea Baggers minds, got it. Like WMD's in Iraq and being cured from being gay.

      February 5, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
    • proud2bsecular

      Hey AlienShark, why are you wasting time on this forum? You should be out patenting a Shill Detector. I don't know how you sleep at night. Wait. Maybe you don't. Maybe your comments make more sense to me now.

      February 20, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  18. Holysmokeandmirrors

    I think that only believers of a deity are qualified to hold office! There, I said it! How can one honestly think that the hand of god is not at work when one looks at an approaching thunderstorm that is about to bring relief to a drought stricken region. Yes, we can be thankful that Thor, god of thunder, is answering the prayers of the farmer. At least my belief in my god will allow me to hold office, unlike those godless atheists! Plus, my god has one cool magic hammer!

    January 22, 2013 at 10:23 am |
    • danielwalldammit

      And he protects us from giants!

      January 28, 2013 at 5:04 am |
    • Gyro10

      Hallelujah! Amen!

      February 10, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  19. laststonecarver

    Can Kyrsten Sinema describe what she thinks, or does she even want to?
    Isn't she taking office to serve the people? Not just Some people, but All the people, whether they are believers or non-believers.
    Consider the invisible world of the mind, replete with all the believer and non-believer thoughts/thinkings.
    How can you describe what you think?
    How do you describe being a Believer? Do you find the words in a book?
    How do you describe being a Non-believer? Do you find the words in a book?
    And who are you describing your belief/non-belief to?
    I read this book called the "Book of Gates". Secret words had to be spoken at each of the doorways, and you had to know the names of each doorway, and a path led through the Underworld, and it was all abouts the gods of the Underworld, and the One being who had the power to traverse all those regions.
    And then I came to this realization that, what you eat is what you are, and that the Book of Gates, was actually a group of pictures describing the digestion of thought. You know, like making the Word Carnate (pun intended).
    The journey through the Underworld, was comparable to food, moving through a human body.
    Look up the Book of Gates and see what you think?
    Reality bites though, and I am back to this excercise.
    Whether you are a believer, or a non-believer, or LGBT ot not, or diverse or non-diverse, or whatever....
    You will still make decision about who you are. And just maybe, what you eat is what you are.
    And what is mind food anyway, and does somebody deliver it?

    January 22, 2013 at 6:33 am |
  20. gerald gebauer

    The earth is flat.

    January 21, 2013 at 11:09 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.