You’ll Never Guess How Many Members of Congress Do Not Believe in God October 17, 2008

You’ll Never Guess How Many Members of Congress Do Not Believe in God

Congressperson Pete Stark accepted the 2008 Humanist of the Year award this past summer. An edited transcript of his speech is printed in the latest issue of The Humanist.

Before you get to that article, though, there is a brief introduction explaining how Stark became the only openly non-theistic Member of Congress:

In the fall of 2006 the Secular Coalition of America announced that they would award $1,000 to the person who identified the highest-level atheist, humanist, freethinker, or other nontheist currently holding elected public office in the United States. SCA Advisory Board Chairman Woody Kaplan, a civil liberties activist and former member of the ACLU’s National Board of Directors, took some of the suggested names and interviewed close to sixty members of the U.S. House and Senate. “At the time, twenty-two of them told me they didn’t believe in a god,” Kaplan recalls. “Twenty-one of them said, ‘You can’t tell anybody.’ One of them said you could: Congressman Pete Stark.”

Twenty-two?!

Incredible.

It’s been nearly two years since the SCA’s contest and still, Stark is the only non-theist. Hopefully, some of the (21!!!) others will come forth after the elections.

Oh. And Pete Stark beat you on the Math portion of the SATs. He scored an 800.

He just barely beat me. I missed one question. (I have since hated hexagonal prisms. And the entirety of the Verbal section…)

Anyway, here’s what Stark says about his non-theism:

My most recent accident was becoming a well-known humanist. Somewhere along the line a nice group of people, the Secular Coalition for America, sent a form requesting information from those of us who support separation of church and state. In response to a question about belief you could check one of three boxes. I checked the one that said I didn’t believe in a supreme being. Then there was a blank to answer the question, “What religion do you associate with?” I wrote, “Unitarian” and sent it back to them. (What I didn’t know is that there was a reward offered to find high-ranking nontheist politicians and that some guy out in Hayward, California, was hustling to make $1,000 by turning me in. I met him later at one of my town hall meetings, and he wouldn’t share the money with me. I told him, “That’s not fair!”)

Within a week of the SCA’s announcement of my response, I received over 5,000 emails from around the world, 4,900 of them congratulating me and all mistakenly saying it was an act of courage. It wasn’t — it did not take any courage at all. I just filled out the form. I did hear from a few people who disagreed. Now, having been in this business as long as I have, I’ve got a collection of lipstick-written letters calling me names that I can’t even mention in liberal mixed company. But the 100 or 150 negative responses that I got were the sweetest, kindest remarks. They would say, “We hope you are happy. Is there anything we could do to help you?” I have never been criticized in a more generous way and I said, “I like this business.” I mean, if that’s as tough as the critics get then what a great decision I made.

(via The Humanist)

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  • NachtMaher

    I wept when I read this post. It gives me so much hope for a nation I am powerless in.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Kaplan’s claim of all these secretly atheist Congresspeople does not seem credible. Yes, I can believe that there are elected atheists or agnostics who claim to be religious. But they have to be better at keeping secrets than this. What, this guy just came and interviewed some Congresspeople, and more than a third of them blurted out that they’re secret atheists, but he can’t tell anyone? Their secrets aren’t going to be secret very long if they just tell random people about it.

    Did he also ask them whether they had secret affairs, or had taken bribes, or were secretly gay? Because gosh, if he just promised not to tell anyone, but crossed his fingers behind his back, he could break some great news stories.

  • Kaplan’s claim of all these secretly atheist Congresspeople does not seem credible. Yes, I can believe that there are elected atheists or agnostics who claim to be religious. But they have to be better at keeping secrets than this. What, this guy just came and interviewed some Congresspeople, and more than a third of them blurted out that they’re secret atheists, but he can’t tell anyone? Their secrets aren’t going to be secret very long if they just tell random people about it.

    I know Mr. Kaplan and he knows many of these Congresspeople personally. He lobbies on behalf of many issues and is pretty well-connected. They know he won’t talk if they ask him not to.

  • llewelly

    Kaplan’s claim of all these secretly atheist Congresspeople does not seem credible.

    Although I admit to being skeptical of the 22 (out of 435) – I think it’s easier to hide non-belief than many other things a Congressperson might become unpopular for. A secret atheist isn’t going to get caught in an airport bathroom trying to signal the guy in the next stall to come over and discuss the relative merits of Ingersoll and Sagan.

  • Jamie G.

    A secret atheist isn’t going to get caught in an airport bathroom trying to signal the guy in the next stall to come over and discuss the relative merits of Ingersoll and Sagan.

    Unless he asks to put his Ingersoll in your Sagan.

  • Epistaxis

    Did he also ask them whether they had secret affairs, or had taken bribes, or were secretly gay?

    If only I could take offense at your implication that atheism is as bad as those things.

  • charfles

    I beat the ass out of the verbal section. Sucked on the math section, but I only took it once and hadn’t seen geometry in 4 years.

  • It makes me sad that overt non-believers don’t generally stand a prayer of getting elected, if you’ll excuse the pun. Heh.

    It might not be as bad as the US, but the UK is pretty bad too.

  • The ratio seems low to me: 22 out of 60. I’d not be surprised if the actual split was more like 50/50 or better in favor of not believing.

    Sure, some of those people are like the Senator from Arkansas that Maher interviewed for Religulous, but I would think that more of them are educated enough and honest enough to know better. (Maybe not honest with us, but honest with themselves, you know?)

    I mean, these are the rulers. When have the rulers been so clueless about religion’s role as a political lubricant?

    Atheism only matters when deliberately contrasted with theism. So there’s not a god: so what? They have a political agenda to carry out. Talking about there not being a god all the time makes about as much sense as talking about how there aren’t mermaids all the time. That is, if you are living in a deity-free world, which I am of the opinion is the world the politicians and the wealthy mostly live in.

    Unless they’re Marky Mark.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Epitaxsis, I’m not implying that all those things are equally bad. (I’m an atheist.) Just that they’re all things that Congresspeople would like to keep secret, and are unlikely to just announce to an interviewer who asks them, even in confidence.

    llewelly, Justin, like I said, I can believe that there are lots of secretly atheist Congresspeople. But I think they would want to keep this potentially devastating political secret under tight wraps. They’re not going to tell this to an interviewer, even one who seems trustworthy, just so that he can get an accurate head count.

  • QrazyQat

    Look, we have a counbtry where the Democratic VP candidate recently did a pushback speech against the GOP VP candidate’s suggestion that there are states which are “unAmerican”. In it he pointed out that all the states are patriotic, which is apropos. But he also felt the need to add “under God” in that speech.

    It’s that bad, that if you’re running for high office you feel you have to add “god” to comments that have no religious connection whatever. Where even meeting with an atheist group is ground for attack. You don’t think people would stay in the closet with that kind of attack waiting for them if they come out?

  • Haha, I also missed one math question. 😉

  • I don’t think it’s so impossible/improbable for politicians to reveal their religious beliefs “off the record”. For reporters, it’s a matter of reliability and reputation, meaning that if you get potentially damaging information from a source that wants to stay off the record, you keep the source anonymous or you risk having more difficulty coming up with interviewees next time around, because you have this reputation of embarassing your sources. The same principle can be applied to a lobby group like the SCA — if you want the support of Congresspeople, which is what lobby groups want after all, you don’t go around spreading damaging info about them when they explicitly asked you not to.

  • Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth

    Liberals? May they come forth soon! What about the Unitarians?

  • Catie

    I saw Religulous yesterday and was rather impressed by the statistics Bill Maher provided. This is a nice addition to that, and it gives me a bit of hope for this country, in the face of the frightening religious right.

  • We need more elected officials like this. Not so much devout atheists, but ones that are willing to stand up for keeping church and state separate.

  • “…lobby group like the SCA…”

    The Society for Creative Anachronisms has a lobby?