A Freethinker in Congress!

A brief update to pass along an exciting e-mail alert I received last night from the Secular Coalition for America:

On Monday, March 12, the Secular Coalition for America, a national lobbying group representing Americans who do not hold a god-belief, will make history by announcing the name of the first open nontheist member of Congress.

Yes, you read it right – there is an atheist in Congress, and one who is willing to step out of the closet and identify themself! I have no idea who it might be, though I can think of a few plausible guesses, and I can hardly wait the six days until the true answer is revealed.

This is huge news for freethinkers everywhere. Only one self-proclaimed nontheist in Congress, a legislative body of 535 members, is a dramatic underrepresentation considering our share of the population; but every political movement, freethinker or otherwise, has to start somewhere. Considering the tendency of politics to distill and amplify popular prejudices, since every elected official has to command the support of a majority of their constituents, even one atheist holding high office is hopeful news indeed. I’m certain there are other nontheists in Congress who have not yet dared to announce themselves – statistically, it’s inevitable – and perhaps the emergence of this trailblazing member will encourage others to speak up.

I’ve seen no official reaction from religious right organizations so far, though we can be sure they are already sharpening their knives. Given the predictable anti-atheist bigotry faced by past candidates whose nontheism was even suspected, there’s no doubt that the standard-bearers of superstition and ignorance will use this congressperson’s announcement as a point of attack against them in future elections (assuming they intend to seek reelection). And voters steeped in the politics of religious intolerance and division will likely go along, not realizing that the true courage and strength of character displayed by a politician willing to publicly speak out about their nonbelief is a far more trustworthy sign of integrity than pious professions of adherence to some ancient creed.

Whoever this congressperson is, I commend their bravery and the service they’re doing the atheist cause. In the long run, declarations like this will go a long way toward showing the public that we are people just like anyone else and deserve the same consideration. But realistically, in the short term, this courageous announcement may well harm its maker. For this reason, I personally intend to follow the NoGodBlog by making a substantial donation to this person’s reelection campaign, to reward them for their courage and honesty. (I reserve the right to change my mind on this if the congressperson in question is a supporter of George W. Bush’s lawless authoritarianism, but I find that unlikely.) I hope my readers will do the same.

Since we have time for speculation, does anyone have any guesses on who it might be? I think Bernie Sanders is a possibility, but there are other names that might also fit the bill.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.brad-johnson.com/forum/index.php Kevin Malone

    I first read about this at Mr. Hemant’s “Friendly Atheist” blog. In a second entry on the subject, he states that “Some people on this blog and others were wondering why the congressperson was coming out as a ‘nontheist’ instead of an ‘atheist’”, that “According to the Secular Coalition for America’s lobbyist, Lori Lipman Brown”, “His staffers say he does not identify as an ‘atheist’”, and that, in conclusion, this info “doesn’t give us any clue as to what the congressperson does identify with, but it’s not atheism.” Well, then, what could he be but atheist? Maybe this mystery Congressman doesn’t want to be too blatant?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I don’t see how there could be a difference between “nontheism” and atheism. It’s probably just a matter of which term this person chooses to use, to deflect the attacks that are certain to follow.

  • http://www.brad-johnson.com/forum/index.php Kevin Malone

    Yeah, as to your last sentence, my last sentence implies the same thought. But, for instance, I’ve seen a deist not lumped as a theist in several occasion. I just looked up “theist” at dictionary.com, and I see this would be a valid protest if one uses the first definition (i.e.–”the belief in one God as the creator and ruler of the universe, without rejection of revelation (distinguished from deism)” as opposed to the one obviously meant (i.e.–”belief in the existence of a god or gods (opposed to atheism)”. So, if by “nontheist”, he meant to use the first definition, he’s a deist, but a I doubt it. I find it more plausible that he’s, as I said before, just not being too blatant. . . due to level of animosity he may receive as a result, I suppose.

  • Polly

    What if he believes in a supernatural realm, but not in a god? Buddhists are not pure materialists, and maybe, are not “true” atheists according to the common vernacular. It is possible to believe in an afterlife or even magic without believing in a god, creator god, or gods.
    Just a thought.

  • John P

    It sounds like he’s/she’s still got a little politician in him/her. Using “non-theist” as a description doesn’t have the negative connotations usually ascribed to atheists. So it’s probably just political spin, in advance.

  • Rick B

    There would have been one that was a Humanist if the election had not been stolen from her for the second time. She was considered a shoo-in with an 8 point difference. I was a poll watcher in 2006 and I suspect hanky panky. Her rival had over 200 votes on 2 voting machines and no repugs had over 175 on these 2 machines. Sure there was some cross over, really hard to believe in an 80% repug dominated district, but it seems that some voters only voted for her opponent.
    Who were the parties involved? Lois Murphy (D) and her opponent was Jim Gerlach (R) who was mixed up with Tom Delay.

  • http://dubitoergo.blogspot.com Tom Foss

    I tend to use the term “nontheist” as a catch-all for atheists, agnostics, and the other not-theist types.

  • Polly

    Question re semantics: I thought “freethinker” referred to deists. Isn’t Freethought the same as Deism?

    Either way, I don’t particularly like the term “Freethinker.” (no offense) It just sounds kind of old-fashioned; like “Free Love.”
    I much prefer “atheist.” It’s terse and instantly, palpably recognizable. There’s no ambivalence about where one stands. Not that I’ve taken that stand publicly, yet, for various social reasons. :-(

  • anti-nonsense

    freethinker can refer to a whole bunch of things depending on who you ask.

    I prefer to just call myself an atheist too. I don’t approve of beating around the bush/political weasel speech/excessive political correctness. I like to be unamibigous. not that I go around announcing my stance to people unless the subject comes up :P.

  • Freeyourmind

    WOOT! Sorry but I’m excited. GREAT news.

    This is a HUGE step for freethinkers/atheists everywhere. I’m gonna get a little Cap in me to celebrate….oh wait I already am. But now I have a purpose for it! :)

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    I like freethinker precisely because it’s not “atheist” and people are more apt to listen to you. Also, it has a good history, and looks cool on a t-shirt. But then, I also like apatheist (don’t know if there’s a god and don’t care either, since if there is one it doesn’t care about us so what does it matter?). I use several terms, depending on context.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    So, what’s the term for the belief that if there is a god, s/he most definitely doesn’t believe in you? “Aretrotheist,” maybe?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I’m still interested in hearing if anyone else has any guesses on who the nontheist congressperson might be.

  • lpetrich

    I have a whole list:

    Buddhists:
    Rep. Mazie K. Hirono, D-HI
    Rep. Hank Johnson, D-GA

    Unaffiliated:
    Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-HI
    Rep. Mark Udall, D-CO
    Rep. John Walter Olver, D-MA
    Rep. John F. Tierney, D-MA
    Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-OR
    Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-WI (LGBT)

    Unitarians:
    Rep. Pete Stark, D-CA
    Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-CT
    Sen. Kent Conrad, D-ND

    Others:
    Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-VT (Jewish; Socialist, caucuses with Democrats)
    Rep. Barney Frank, D-MA (Jewish)
    Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-OH (Catholic)
    Rep. Ken Calvert, R-CA (Protestant / Objectivist)
    Rep. Mary Bono, R-CA (Protestant / Scientologist)

    Of these, I’ve seen John Olver, Barney Frank, and Bernie Sanders mentioned as the most likely candidates; clark of IIDB claims that there are several closeted atheists in Congress.

  • ang

    I’ve been predicting Dennis Kucinich. He’s very liberal and he’s from Ohio (my home state). My husband predicts Barney Frank. I’m excited to hear the announcement and to see if it catches in the mainstream media.

  • Michael

    Some thoughts on lpetrich’s list of possibilities:

    I don’t think the person coming out is one of the Buddhists, just doesn’t seem significant enough, though Hirono is an outside shot as some who is non-practicing. I especially don’t think it is Hank Johnson, who represents a Southern (albeit safe Dem) district.

    I doubt it is one of the two Republicans mentioned, especially Bono, whose late husband was both a devout Catholic along with being a Scientologist, I believe.

    It definitely is not Kucinich. I don’t know how anybody familiar with the man could think he is an atheist. He had a very pro-life record until his first presidential run and is known for some very New Agey, ‘spiritual’ type soundbites. One can be a very liberal theist as well.

    Nancy Johnson is no longer a Congresswoman. She lost to Chris Murphy in the last election, so scratch her.

    Kent Conrad represents a conservative state and was one of the few Democratic Senators to vote to confirm Alito. I doubt it is him.

    Mark Udall is running for Senate in a swing state, so I would be surprised if it was him.

    That leaves Abercrombie, Olver, Tierney, Blumenauer, Baldwin, Stark, Sanders, and Frank.

    I think that the most likely candidates are Sanders, Olver, and Frank.

  • Michael

    Oh yes, I one more comment in response to Adam about the distinction between ‘nontheist’ and atheist. It is possible that the Congressperson could identify as an agnostic. I think they count as nontheists who may not specifically identify as atheists.

  • lpetrich

    The author of A Heathen Under the Dome proposes the other Hawaiian Representative, Neil Abercrombie. He’s slammed fundies and theocracy several times, and he’s had a taste for public theatrics that Barney Frank, for example, lacks.

    And more candidates from Not Stated:
    Rep. Doc Hastings, D-WA
    Rep. Barbara Lee, D-CA
    Rep. Doris Matsui, D-CA
    Rep. Hilda Solis, D-CA
    Rep. Chris van Hollen, D-MD

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  • Bill Baker

    I tend to use “non-theist” as a umbrella for all not theistic types; this includes Deists as well.
    I myself am a Non-theist; having spent the last few years as a Deist, Pandeist, and PanenDeist, and at times as an Agnostic Deist; now unsure of whether I’m more convinced by Atheism, Agnosticism, or Deism. Non-theist can also be distiguihsed from Anti-Theist, since one can be non-theist yet not anti-theistic. Personally I am anti-theistic.
    So, that congressman could be an yof those 3 main forms of non-theism, and perhaps like myself…undecided; of course he could be a non-theistic in the sense of Buddhist,Taoist,Modern Satanist, or whatever… but he likely would’ve just said so{except perhaps for coming out as a modern Satanist; good luck holding onto a position in congress as an out and proud Modern Satanist,LoL!!!}.

    I also would say Non-theisms{all} and “free-thought” are very close in spirit.

    In Reason:
    Bill Baker