Congressman Pete Stark of California made news this week as being the only member of Congress to “come out of the closet and [acknowledge] that he does not believe in God.” This revelation came from a survey done by the Secular Coaltion for America. From their press release:
Rep. Stark is the first open nontheist in the history of the Congress. Recent polls show that Americans without a god-belief are, as a group, more distrusted than any other minority in America. Surveys show that the majority of Americans would not vote for an atheist for president even if he or she were the most qualified for the office.
Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America, attributes these attitudes to the demonization of people who don’t believe in God. “The truth is,” says Silverman, “the vast majority of us follow the Golden Rule and are as likely to be good citizens, just like Rep. Stark with over 30 years of exemplary public service. The only way to counter the prejudice against nontheists is for more people to publicly identify as nontheists. Rep. Stark shows remarkable courage in being the first member of Congress to do so.”
The furthest the Secular Coalition’s press release goes is to refer to Congressman Stark as a “nontheist.” A quick Google news search shows a number of references to Stark as an “atheist.” Terminology is a frequent problem for non-believers, with terms like “atheist,” “agnostic,” “bright,” and “nontheist” thrown around, and arguments over which is best can often take on the tenor of a heated theological discussion. In the Los Angeles Times‘s view:
“Nontheist,” by the way, is the latest secularist term of art for folks “without a god-belief,” replacing the traditional terms “atheist” and “agnostic.” (The former believes there is no God; the latter isn’t sure.) But the American Humanist Assn. — and who’s not a humanist? — prefers nontheist because most Americans wrongly think that atheists are anti-theists: people who not only don’t believe but also object to others’ belief in God(s). The association took out an ad in the Washington Post on Tuesday to congratulate Stark for his “courageous decision.”
And Stark’s admission is a courageous decision. The Secular Coalition press release acknowledges that American society harbors prejudices against atheists. Again, the LA Times:
In a Gallup poll last month, 53% of respondents said they would not vote for an otherwise well-qualified atheist — far more than wouldn’t vote for a homosexual (43%), a 72-year-old (42%), someone married for the third time (30%), a Mormon (24%) or a woman (11%).
I don’t have the statistics handy, but I’ve seen similar percentages for whether or not a parent would approve of a child’s dating or marrying an atheist as compared to their approval for a partner of another religion or race.
Another statistic cited by the LA Times–“47% of Americans in a 2002 Pew survey said religious belief is a prerequisite to be a good person”–reminds me of comments the current President Bush made post-9/11, that a belief in god was the hallmark of a civilized people. His father, the first President Bush, said that “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.”.
We have a non-theist and a Muslim in the House of Representatives. If anything says loudly that the United States is a cultural melting pot, surely it’s that fact. 🙂
Admissions of non-belief like Congressman Stark’s should be welcomed and applauded because they can help to move American society from prejudiced and bigoted views of nonbelievers in gods. Congressman Stark has served his district with distinction for many years. He is clearly a citizen and a patriot and a civilzed person. We need more people like Congressman Stark in the public light, examples of a positive non-belief so that children don’t feel ostracized by society for their non-belief.