Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is "atheist" a dirty word?

According to the Pew Research Center, the 113th Congress is the most religiously diverse in history.
The new, 113th Congress includes the first Buddhist to serve in the Senate, the first Hindu to serve in either chamber and the first member of Congress to describe her religion as “none,” continuing a gradual increase in religious diversity that mirrors trends in the country as a whole.

Indeed, there are now three Buddhists in Congress, two Muslims, and one Hindu, though all are somewhat under-represented compared to their numbers in the American population as a whole.

If you want to see over-representation, you need to look at the Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Mormons in Congress, all of whom have a much higher representation in Congress than their numbers in our general population would justify.

So which group really loses out? Yup, you guessed it:
Perhaps the greatest disparity, however, is between the percentage of U.S. adults and the percentage of members of Congress who do not identify with any particular religion. About one-in-five U.S. adults describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – a group sometimes collectively called the “nones.” But only one member of the new Congress, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), is religiously unaffiliated, according to information gathered by CQ Roll Call. Sinema is the first member of Congress to publicly describe her religion as “none,” though 10 other members of the 113th Congress (about 2%) do not specify a religious affiliation, up from six members (about 1%) of the previous Congress.2 This is about the same as the percentage of U.S. adults in Pew Research Center surveys who say that they don’t know, or refuse to specify, their faith (about 2%).

Get that? About 2% of Congressmen simply don't specify a religion, which almost exactly matches the number of Americans who do the same in Pew surveys. But around 20% of Americans indicate that they don't have a religion at all, and we've finally got one representative in Congress, when one hundred representatives would give us proportional representation.

Of course, it's more complicated than that. (You guessed that, too, huh?) "No religious affiliation" does not necessarily mean atheism. In an earlier Pew survey (when the 'nones' were considerably fewer than they are now), only about 5% of respondents indicated that they did not believe in "God or a universal spirit."

That's still a significant number, of course - much more than Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormons, among others. I would certainly settle for 25 representatives in Congress,... for now. :)

Oddly - I did say this was complicated, right? - of those people who don't believe in God or any universal spirit, 14% still describe themselves as Christian! Funny, huh? That's the definition of atheism, yet only a quarter of those people are willing to call themselves atheists.

As I say, that's the very definition of atheism, that you don't believe in a god. That's just... what the word means. That's all that the word means, nothing else. But when you're probably the most despised religious minority in America - with more Americans saying they'd be willing to vote for a Muslim president than an atheist president - it's a word even atheists avoid using, apparently.

But let's look at our one representative - the one member of Congress who, like 20% of the population, indicates that she has no religious affiliation: Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat (of course) from Arizona.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema

Rep. Sinema took the oath of office with her hand on the U.S. Constitution (something all of our politicians should do!). She is openly bisexual. But she is not - openly, at least - an atheist, although she was apparently widely identified as an atheist and as a nonbeliever during her campaign:
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.”

She does not, however, accept the labels "non-theist, atheist or non-believer," and I'll get to that in a minute. But let me note that she doesn't have to be an atheist. The 'nones' include a lot more than just atheists, even if you accept the definition of the term. She could be a deist, like many of our Founding Fathers were. Or she could just have nebulous ideas about spirits or something.

That's just fine. The thing about religious diversity is that religious beliefs are... diverse. And really, it's none of my business, anyway. But if she is in the closet, just because atheists are so unpopular, I would find that rather dispiriting, especially since she's so open about her bisexuality. Really? Are we atheists hated that much?

But OK, I accept that she's not actually an atheist. No problem. This, however, is a problem for me (and for Chris Stedman, who wrote it):
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.

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." ...

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?

Exactly! I don't care if she's not an atheist. That's her business. And if she's simply choosing to remain in the closet, that's her business, too. I know closet atheists. They're not out for good reason, normally - business or family reasons, or both. That's their choice to make. I would not even encourage someone to come out of the closet if it's going to cause big problems for them.

But I do object to this press release. There's nothing wrong with being an atheist. Indeed, I'd say it's very, very right. Of course, you're free to disagree with that. But "not befitting of her life’s work or personal character"? That's offensive. That's insulting. And we wouldn't accept that kind of thing if it were directed at any other religious belief.

Only atheists can be freely insulted here in America. Certainly, only atheists will object when they are. When Muslims are insulted, Christians like Colin Powell (and many others) stand up and point out how wrong that is. You don't have to agree with a religious belief yourself to respect a person's right to hold it - and to recognize that they can still be a good person.

But will Christians - or anyone else - stand up for atheists in this way?

This is one reason why I do urge atheists to come out of the closet - if, of course, it won't cause problems for them. I'm sure that being openly bisexual didn't help Kyrsten Sinema in her campaign. But she'd have had no chance at all of being elected years ago, before so many other members of the LGBT community had outed themselves. That let straight people see that they weren't so scary after all. :)

Well, we atheists are pretty scary, I suppose. After all, you don't have to worry about gay people turning you gay, but you do have to worry that atheists might lead you to think. And who knows where that might end up? (But trust me, it's really not that bad.)

We've got real problems when 14% of atheists still label themselves 'Christian' - indeed, when only a quarter of atheists are willing to use that label at all. (Admittedly, I've heard all sorts of objections to 'atheism' as a label, even just because it has 'theism' as part of it. Like objecting to 'woman' because it contains 'man,' huh?) But, as in the gay community, it's not going to get better without us atheists opening that closet door.

Of course, this is happening, more and more. We're getting there. More people are opening that door all the time. But it's going to be a long time before we're proportionally represented in Congress, I'm afraid.

And an openly atheist president? Dream on! (Seriously, it's not impossible - someday - so it's worth dreaming about. Australia already has an openly atheist prime minister. How far behind are we from the rest of the developed world?)


Jim Harris said...

I can't help but believe that there are lots of non-believers in Congress. Sure, I know it's the kiss of political death to admit it, but then we know how politicians are. They will say whatever it takes to get elected.

I would feel a whole lot better about my government if it didn't believe in ancient superstitions.

Chimeradave said...

That's the same thought I had Jim. That lots of people in Congress say they are religious because it is part of their political persona.

It is really offensive that the congress woman said being Atheist doesn't befit her character?

Now I want to know what she has against Atheists? And how she does think of herself.

If you want to keep your beliefs personal that's fine, but you can't say I'm not this and I'm not that and then not say what you actually are. This isn't 20 questions.

WCG said...

Me, too, Jim.

But believing that Congressmen are secret atheists is like believing that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, isn't it? In general, since I can't read minds, I accept what people claim as their religious beliefs.

Of course, many atheists are still in the closet, I'm sure. But on the other hand, those Congressmen were raised from birth in their religion. It's not like they converted suddenly when they decided to run for office.

And they're not scientists, where evidence-based thinking is required. This is politics. Believing what you want to believe is probably an advantage in that field of endeavor.

WCG said...

To be perfectly fair, John, I think that was a statement from her campaign, not from Kyrsten Sinema herself. So,... I just don't want to assume anything that might not be true.

Certainly, the "nones" aren't all atheists. Indeed, some seem adamant about avoiding all labels. I think much of that is bizarre, but we're all human, and it's hard to generalize more than that. Especially when it comes to religion, people are diverse.

So if Sinema is not an atheist, no problem. But I hope she instructs her staff better next time.