Atheism – The Last Taboo

Atheist Demographics

Source: Politico

On Real Time with Bill Maher last August, Maher asked his guest, newly retired Rep. Barney Frank, if he felt liberated now that he was a private citizen. Frank said he did, since he no longer gets phone calls saying someone screwed something up and he has to “unscrew it.” Maher pressed on, saying, “You were in a fairly safe district. You were not one of those congresspeople who have to worry about every little thing. You could come on this show and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist, and it wouldn’t bother you.” Frank shot back: “Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?” Then he pointed back and forth to Maher and himself.

The audience loved it. Maher doubled over in laughter and delight. But while few seemed to care about Frank’s pot-smoking admission, atheists across the country—myself included—were disappointed that he hadn’t acknowledged his lack of religious belief sooner, when it could have made a real difference. We were left wondering why a man who served 16 terms in Congress and who bravely came out as gay all the way back in 1987 felt the need to hide his atheism until he was out of office. Was it really harder to come out as an atheist politician in 2013 than as a gay one 25 years ago?

Incredibly, the answer might be yes. For starters, consider that there is not a single self-described atheist in Congress today. Not one. It wasn’t until 2007 that Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from Northern California, became the first member of Congress and the highest-ranking public official ever to admit to being an atheist. (And even he framed it in terms of religious affiliation, calling himself “a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.”) Stark was elected twice after this, but when the 20-term congressman lost his seat last year, it was to a 31-year-old primary challenger who attacked him as irreligious, citing, among other things, Stark’s vote against our national motto: “In God We Trust.”

Indeed, the same year that Stark came out, the Secular Coalition of America was able to identify only five atheist public officials in the entire United States. After Stark and a Nebraska state senator, the third-highest ranking atheist was a school-board president from Berkeley, Calif.—this despite the fact that, according to a 2012 Pew report, 6 percent of Americans say they don’t believe in a higher power. That leaves at least 15 million Americans without any elected officials to represent their point of view. Basically, atheism is still as close as it gets to political poison in American electoral politics: A recent Gallup poll found (once again) that atheists are the least electable among several underrepresented groups. Sixty-eight percent of Americans would vote for a well-qualified gay or lesbian candidate, for example, but only 54 percent would vote for a well-qualified atheist. Seven state constitutions even still include provisions prohibiting atheists from holding office (though they are not enforced). One of those is liberal Maryland, which also has a clause that says, essentially, that non-believers can be disqualified from serving as jurors or witnesses.

When I spoke recently with Frank, he told me his decision not to come out as an atheist wasn’t a matter of political expedience. “Atheism didn’t come up,” he said. “It wasn’t relevant to policy.” He mentioned his contributions to secularism and the separation of church and state—such as his fight against Sen. Rick Santorum’s bid to make faith-based organizations eligible for tax funding. Frank told me that for many years he had “affirmed” instead of swearing an oath. “I haven’t said ‘so help me God’ in a very long time,” he said, “but no one notices.” But Frank also told me he avoids the term “atheist” because people don’t like it. “Atheist is a harsh word,” he said. “It sounds like a repudiation to people—it sounds aggressive.

Many people feel the same way, and some have tried to coin new, less charged words—“nontheist” and “non-believer” are popular. Instead of running away from “atheist,” though, we should take a lesson here from the gay-rights movement, which reclaimed a word that had been used as a slur—“queer”—and made it a rallying cry.

And what better time than now? Last week the Freedom From Religion Foundation illuminated an eight-foot-tall scarlet “A” in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, right between a manger and a menorah. In New York, a Times Square billboard sponsored by American Atheists asks: “Who needs Christ during Christmas?” Call it the War on Christmas if you want; it’s the best time of year to get our message out. What we need most is for more elected officials to come out of the shadows and admit what they (don’t) believe. We know there must be some closeted atheists in Congress—out of 535 people, simple math tells us so—and countless more holding state and local office. It’s time for them to show up and make a little noise. After all, ’tis the season.

I’ve been an outspoken member of the secular community since 2003, when I wrote Doubt: A Historywhich tells the story of religious and philosophical doubt all over the world. I decided to go public as an atheist during George W. Bush’s presidency, when the pressure brought to bear on the government by the religious right seemed to demand that atheists be more vocal in response. This isn’t just about opposing the rise of the religious right in American politics, though. In fact, there is a much richer tradition of American atheism than many realize.

To start, we atheists had a kindred spirit in Thomas Jefferson, who was often accused of being one of us. In 1787, Jefferson wrote in a letter to his nephew: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you.” Jefferson fought tirelessly for the separation of church and state and created the University of Virginia to be the first secular university. He was not alone: John Adams wrote in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli that ours was no more a Christian country than a Jewish or Islamic one. The Senate unanimously approved the treaty.

Of course, there remains a fierce debate among historians about just how religious America’s founding fathers were, but it’s clear why Jefferson and Adams’s generation felt so strongly about religious freedom: At least in part, it was because they were not far removed from an era of heretics being tortured and burned alive in the town square. They remembered the excessive force of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, and they did not want the United States ever to witness such horrors. (Today, the horrors of religion are more often about ignorance and inequality, but they are still there.)

Other presidents were also less than religious. James Monroe is not known to have had any religious affiliation or beliefs, nor is Abraham Lincoln. After his death, Lincoln’s wife reported, “Mr. Lincoln had no hope and no faith in the usual acceptance of these words.” His lifelong friend and executor, Judge David Davis, agreed, saying, “He had no faith in the Christian sense of the term.” This was confirmed by another of Lincoln’s closest friends, Ward Hill Lamon, who knew Lincoln in his early years in Illinois, was with him during the whole Washington period and later wrote his biography. As Lamon put it, “Never in all that time did he let fall from his lips or his pen an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus as the son of God and the Savior of men.”

William Taft, before becoming president, turned down the post of president of Yale University (then affiliated with the Congregationalist Church), saying, “I do not believe in the divinity of Christ.” According to a 1908 article in the New York Times, “the report is being energetically circulated that Secretary Taft is an atheist.” Taft did not deny it but continued to attend Unitarian church services. And when he ran against the famously religious William Jennings Bryan, Taft was viciously attacked for his irreligion but still won handily.

The Cold War changed all that. Atheism began to seem almost treasonous amid tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, because the Soviets were officially and emphatically against religion. Sen. Joseph McCarthy famously used the phrase “godless communists” to bash the political left and others he considered his enemies. In this context, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed laws in the mid-1950s inserting “God” into our Pledge of Allegiance and putting it on all our money. (It had been on most coins earlier, but Eisenhower made “In God We Trust” our national motto, henceforth to appear on all bills.)

Things are now changing again. The USSR is long gone, and ever since the Sept. 11 attacks our most murderous tension is with groups of people who are fanatically, maniacally religious, and who see us in the West as secular. Pope Francis recently softened the Catholic Church’s stance on atheists, suggesting they are not automatically damned to hell, and here in the United States the rise of a new libertarian-minded faction in the Republican Party and its embrace of Ayn Rand, an avowed atheist, has changed attitudes among some on the far right. In 1958, when Gallup first polled Americans on the electability of various groups, only 18 percent said they would vote for an atheist. With the number now at 54 percent, it’s clear that attitudes are shifting, even if we have a long way to go.

In fact, the fastest-growing religious category in the United States is what are called the “nones”—people who say they have no religious affiliation. One-fifth of Americans are in this group today, according to Pew Research Center polling. Among adults under age 30, a full third count themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Some of them believe in a god or gods; some do not. They are not going to want to be pushed around by any sect one way or another, and as their numbers increase, they won’t have to allow it.

Yet American politics clearly has not caught up with this shift. President Obama seems to work hard to show he is was Christian (rather than a Muslim or an atheist, both falsehoods that have dogged his political career). In the last election, GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was a constant challenge for his campaign, and evangelical Christians never fully embraced him. Then again, things do change. The Catholicism of Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, did not seem to be a problem for evangelicals, as it had been when John F. Kennedy was running for president. Still, it’s been a slow slog: With not a single elected official at the national level—not even one—who is openly atheist, it’s hard to see that America is ready for its first openly atheist president anytime soon.

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Melody Hensley, the chief executive of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Inquiry, says she knows closeted atheists in Congress and believes it would help immensely for some of them to come out. We had a near miss with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) when she was elected a year ago, Hensley sighs. Although 10 other members of Congress declined to specify their religious affiliation, Sinema was the only one to list “none.” Atheist groups celebrated—prematurely, it turned out. Sinema’s office quickly issued a clarification: “Kyrsten believes the terms non-theist, atheist, or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

Hensley shared with me a Facebook exchange she had with Sinema shortly thereafter, in which Hensley told the congresswoman her statement seemed to denigrate atheism and that the statement seemed cowardly. Sinema replied that she would not use that language in the future but protested: “I am not a theist, nor am I a nontheist. I don’t like labels.”

Frank expressed a similar discomfort with labels in explaining why for all those years in Congress he never talked about his atheism. I think very highly of Frank, but I wasn’t convinced when he told me he stayed silent about it because it wasn’t relevant to policy. Coming out as gay was no more relevant, but he did that. Yet Frank did say something that changed my view of his stance. “Being Jewish complicated it for me,” he said, “because with all the anti-Semitism in the world, I didn’t want to look like I was separating from Judaism.” He told me that while we were speaking on the phone, he was looking at his desk, and there he saw both a Tzedakah box and a shofar, one given to him by a gay congregation. Being Jewish was part of his identity, even if he didn’t go to temple on Jewish holidays, and he was protecting that when he kept quiet about his atheism.

I’ve identified myself as a Jewish atheist since I was 12, and it’s a very fair point that Frank is making: When you grow up one generation away from an attempt to exterminate your whole people, you do not want to see your people disappear by other means.

Yet the “atheist” part of my “Jewish atheist” identity is just as important. Initially after writing my book Doubt, I avoided the atheist label, saying only that I did not believe in God. After some reflection, I realized I needed to defend what I truly believe. I now call myself an “atheist,” and proudly. That choice has cost a number of brave people dearly, whether in readers or elections or friends, and I think it is both an honest step and a courageous one for those in public life. I hope the atheists now in Congress will take that step themselves—and this time, not wait until they’re safely out of office.

Jennifer Michael Hecht teaches in the Graduate Writing Program at the New School and is author, most recently, of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.

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