More than a decade after Rep. Pete Stark became the first sitting Congressman in modern history to come out as explicitly non-theistic (though he called himself a Unitarian), the now-retired politician finally has some company.
This morning, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) — one of the nine members of Congress to not have an official religious label to his name — announced that he would embrace the label of “humanist.” (With a small “h,” if that matters.)
The American Humanist Association defines the word as “a progressive lifestance that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.” (Emphasis mine.)
Huffman added that he felt the labels of “non-religious” and “Agnostic” also applied to him. His announcement came with an endorsement from the Freethought Equality Fund PAC.
“I’m honored by this endorsement because it recognizes and reinforces my efforts to ensure that everyone in this great, diverse country is treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their religious or nonreligious views.” Huffman stated. “Today more than ever, we must defend the religious liberty our founders enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
“Like many people,” Huffman continued, “I’ve struggled with questions of faith and religion for most of my life. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I am convinced that people of all religions, as well as the nonreligious, can work together to make a positive difference in the world.”
That’s… a strange statement to make. It could have been said, word for word, by any other religious member of Congress. But Huffman went a step further in using the word “humanist” to describe himself.
We had hints this might happen a few years ago when he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert for his old show’s “Better Know a District” segment.
COLBERT: I see you’ve listed your religion as “Unspecified.”
COLBERT: Would you like to re-specify as Roman Catholic?
COLBERT: Door’s always open.
HUFFMAN: … nothing against Roman Catholics and I love your new Pope…
COLBERT: Thank you very much. “Unspecified.” C’mon, grow a pair. What is it? What is it? Are you an atheist?
HUFFMAN: I–I don’t know…
COLBERT: Agnostic then?
COLBERT: What is an Agnostic but an atheist without any balls?
HUFFMAN: [Awkwardly nods]
COLBERT: [Smiling] I see you’re choosing not to specify your response to that “Unspecified.” I’ll just put you down for heathen-slash-hellbound.
The Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein notes that Huffman didn’t make today’s decision without talking to people first.
After talking with everyone from his wife to the Rev. Pat Conroy, the House chaplain, to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Huffman decided that the right thing to do was switch his category. He thinks his constituents will appreciate it. Just one friend advised against it, saying it could hurt him politically.
“I don’t believe my religion is necessarily relevant to the work I do. But I do think it doesn’t quite feel right to just take a pass on the question, because your religious views can speak to your moral and ethical framework on the world. And that is something I think the public is entitled to know,” Huffman said.
He added, “I suppose you could say I don’t believe in God.” If that sounds wishy-washy… well, it is, especially since he also said, “I’m not completely closing the door to spiritual possibilities.”
No atheist should ever close the door to new evidence. The difference is that most of us accept that’s probably never going to happen. But if his philosophical wavering helps make the announcement a little more palatable to his constituents, then I can hardly blame him for doing it.
What I don’t appreciate is how he suggested there was something wrong with the “atheist” label.
… Huffman is believed to be the first to call himself a “humanist,” saying the tag “atheist” offers a level of certainty he doesn’t feel — and perhaps arrogance.
“I’m not hostile to religion, and I’m not judging other people’s religious views,” he said.
That comment suggests a misunderstanding of atheism that plays right into the hands of Christian apologists. Atheism isn’t certainty. (Even Richard Dawkins famously said he wouldn’t go that far.) Atheism doesn’t necessitate hostility to religion, either. Atheism doesn’t require judgment of others — any more than all of us feel we’re right about certain issues and everyone who disagrees with us just isn’t there yet.
But, putting aside the hesitation, this is a big deal. We live in a country where atheism is still stigmatized and many politicians see it as a deal-breaker for getting elected. Better to keep quiet and get elected than come out and have it used against you. If a Democrat from California is uncomfortable coming out as non-religious, what hope is there for anyone else?
Today’s announcement, then, is a huge step in part because there’s a good chance it won’t make a lot of headlines. A liberal from California says he’s a Humanist who supports the religious rights of believers and is personally open to spiritual experiences? It’s hardly firebrand material. Perhaps, though, it’ll open the floodgates to other members of Congress also admitting they’re part of the community of reason.
One side note: Rep. Jamie Raskin said some of the same things as Huffman a couple of years ago. Raskin announced that he’s a “humanist,” using the AHA’s definition, only to distance himself from the word “atheist” (and non-theism altogether) when reporters began asking about it. His official religious label, as recorded by Congress, is “Jewish.” On paper, anyway, there’s no indication he’s a secular Jew.
Huffman’s decision parallels some of what Raskin said, except for the last bit. Huffman will go from not answering the question about religious labels to saying publicly that he’s a “humanist.”
I’ll take it.
Whether or not you’re one of his constituents, considering thanking him on his Facebook page. And since he’s up for re-election in 2018, you might want to make a donation right now. Show him that you appreciate his courage in saying he’s a Humanist.