Monday, March 12, 2007

U.S. Congressman comes out... as a non-theist

If you thought the deep, dark secret in American politics is being gay, you are wrong. Gay congress people first came out of the closet in the 70s. No, the deep, dark secret is not being religious.

Representative Pete Stark (a Democrat from California) came out of the non-theist closet, as indicated in a press release today from the Secular Coalition For America (I found this out from The Carpetbagger Report, which learned about it from the Shakespeare's Sister blog).

Stark is the first openly non-religious member of the U.S. Congress. That's right, apparently there has never been a member of Congress who has admitted to not believing in God. Note that he is listed as a "non-theist". He's not necessarily an atheist, he could be an agnostic.

According to the press release:
Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a member of Congress since 1973, acknowledged his nontheism in response to an inquiry by the Secular Coalition for America ( ). Rep. Stark is a senior member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and is Chair of the Health Subcommittee.

Although the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office, the Coalition's research reveals that Rep. Stark is the first open nontheist in the history of the Congress.

The religion of Canadian politicians is rarely brought up. I know the religious leanings of several Canadian prime ministers mostly by accident. It's not something that comes up during a campaign. I can't tell you the religious persuasion of most of the MPs (Members of Parliament) or MPPs (Members of Provincial Parliament) I voted for. I do know of several who were openly non-theistic, and it didn't hurt their ability to win an election. I'm not saying the rest of Canada is like that. I'm certain that it is an issue in certain conservative-leaning ridings. It's just not a big issue, and certainly not one on a national level.

By contrast, Stark is one of only four people who chose to come out in response to the Secular Coalition's inquiry. The others are Terry S. Doran, president of the School Board in Berkeley, California; Nancy Glista, a member of the School Committee in Franklin, Maine; and Michael Cerone, a Town Meeting Member from Arlington, Massachusetts.

Another part of the press release says the following:
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.

That ties in with my first blog of the year, where I mention that one of the big fallacies against the non-religious is that they are less moral than the devout. That essay can be found here:

The United States is a very religious country, one of the most religious in the world. Even still, some 10% of Americans are considered to be non-theists. Assuming that politicians have the same distribution as others in the population (and that's probably a stretch), then you could expect 53 or 54 members of Congress to be non-theists. Instead, only one has been identified. The others (and there probably are others) have to hide the fact or face defeat at the polls.

Which is funny. Most people despise politicians for lying to them. And yet if a non-theist is open about their religion, they will likely get the boot regardless of their actual performance or qualifications, thus reinforcing a need to lie. People complain about the morality of politicians. And yet as far as we know all but one of these "immoral politicians" is devout, and the vast majority are Christians.

My point is the same as in my earlier article. Non-theists are no more, or less, moral than theists, except perhaps in that they often have to hide their status if they wish to receive equal (Constitutionally protected) treatment in the workplace. Alana already suspects her non-theist beliefs have had an effect at work. I haven't bothered mentioning mine at work (not that they would have much effect on me at any rate, given that I haven't had a raise in almost 2½ years *grumble*). I wouldn't hide the fact, but I'm certainly not going to bring it up. If you live in the Bible Belt, freedom of religion is only a partial freedom at best.

The full press release is found here:


FreeThinker said...

I went to college in Louisiana, and I think you'll agree with me that it will be a long time before a deep-south politician "comes out" as a nontheist!

Allan Goodall said...

I went to college in Louisiana, and I think you'll agree with me that it will be a long time before a deep-south politician "comes out" as a nontheist!

Oh, definitely! It's more likely that a deep-south politician will come out as gay. (If you consider Florida as part of the deep-south, and most of the people I know in Louisiana do not, it's already happened.)

Michael said...

I'm trying to recall if the issue has ever come up in Canada. And I can't. Canada has plenty of "out" gay politicians -- the leader of the official opposition in Quebec is gay and he's admitted to doing coke while serving as a minister in the previous government -- but I can't think of any who've publicly described themselves as atheist or agnostic.

The most likely reason is that the subject just doesn't matter as much in Canada.